What is the role of biodegradability in greening the funeral industry?

Very often the first question asked of me at a presentation on greening the funeral industry goes something like this, "Isn't the whole idea of a green burial to completely decompose within a few years?"  There are three ideas hidden in this question worth exploring.  First, notice the assumption that the green in green burial is entirely about a single idea.  Second, the question suggests that biodegradability is this single idea.  And third, I find it interesting that so many people believe that rate of decay has significance in being green--as if returning to our earthly elements should be a race.

Greening the funeral industry is not entirely about a single idea.  There are many perspectives we ought to consider when talking to families.  After many years of conversations, reading countless books and articles, and cognitive discourse with industry professionals, academics, and families on this topic, I have adopted a definition of green burial to include several perspectives such as biodegradability, toxicity, sustainability, local-sourcing, and carbon life cycle assessment.  These perspectives overlap and are interrelated.  I believe that being green is a matter of maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things in the environment as they may be affected by the creation, use, and disposition of a product or service.  This definition of being green applies to any product or service and the cradle-to-grave activities that occur as a result of our choice to use that product or service--whether directly or indirectly.

More importantly, I offer that we must further allow leeway in our definition of being green, especially when it comes to funerals, so that we accommodate the different perspectives of individuals.  People have different core values and various experiences upon which their own attitudes toward the environment and perspectives on green burial will differ.  As professionals in funeral service we must recognize that an individual who values sustainability and local-sourcing over biodegradability would not be satisfied with an imported seagrass or wicker casket though it is marketed as a green casket and is 100% biodegradable.  The more we learn about the core values and experiences of our families, the better we can assist them in making choices consistent with their values.

Why is biodegradability so often the first perspective considered in green burial?  First of all, biodegradability is not a new term and not nearly as complex as sustainability or carbon life cycle assessment.  Moreover, people are familiar with "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and how this centuries-old epitaph suggests that returning to our earthly elements is as natural as it is green.  Then consider the fact that biodegradability is easy to quantify and measure--thus most green, natural burial, and conservation cemeteries have a biodegradability requirement or standard for burial containers and/or monuments.  Biodegradability is a good perspective, but it ought not be the only perspective if our definition of green is to include "maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things."

Let's think on this idea of rapidly returning to the earth somehow being greener than a slower return.  I believe this attitude may originate in individuals who are thinking about preservation through embalming, refrigeration, sealed caskets, and sealed burial vaults.  These practices invoke additional and interrelated perspectives such as toxicity, sustainability, carbon footprint, and land use.  However, the perspective on biodegradability alone is neutral, if not contradictory.  If we consider the pathology of decay for our human remains alone--without attention to the surrounding activities to accelerate decomposition (i.e. cremation, alkali resomation, cryomation) or decelerate decomposition (i.e. embalming, refrigeration) then the argument for biodegradability being green is moot.  Take this one step further and bring in the perspective on carbon footprint.  It would actually be better if our bodies were never to decay--somehow trapping permanently, or sequestering, the carbon that makes up a large part of our body mass.

The same is true if we consider the toxins our bodies accumulate throughout life.  A perspective on toxicity would suggest we contain these toxins or slow decay to give nature time to neutralize these toxins.  Take for example TED talk guest and award winner in designBoom, Jae Rhim Lee, and her Mushroom Death Suit. Her invention is a set of hooded pajamas laced with mushroom spores selected for their ability to cleanse the hundreds of toxins that accumulate in the human body during life.  Yes, that is disposition of human remains by way of feeding the fungi!  

Back to maintaining and preserving the quality of life for all living things in the environment.  Perhaps biodegradability alone should not be our first or most important perspective in greening the funeral industry.  It is an excellent start--easy to observe, easy to explain, and easy to write standards for.  There is precedent for biodegradability requirements in burial practices in many religions around the world including Orthodox and Muslim faiths.  It makes good sense to start with biodegradability, but isn't it time we expand the conversation in funeral service?

Let us advance into this next decade of the green and natural burial movement in North America by adding toxicity, sustainability, local-sourcing, and carbon life cycle assessment to the conversation. We're bound to learn something.