According to environmental activists, traditional funerary activities such as embalming, burial in concrete liners, and cremation are anything but planet friendly. Embalming involves toxic chemicals, and traditional lawn-carpeted cemeteries require ongoing use of petroleum and pesticides. Even cremation, which has grown in popularity over the past generation, consumes huge amounts of fossil fuels.
The alternative may lie in the "green cemeteries" that activists and entrepreneurs have been starting up around the country. Most of these discourage or prohibit destructive mainstream funeral practices — especially the use of embalming fluid — and encourage the use of cloth burial shrouds and simple wooden or cardboard coffins.
The closest such cemeteries to the Boston area are in Limington and Orrington, in Maine, and near Ithaca, New York. But, through the efforts of several members of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts (FCAEM) the Bay State may be inching closer to having a green cemetery of its own.
According to FCAEM board member Judith Lorei, that group is cooperating with a sister organization, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts, to try to launch a green cemetery. "It is a slow process," she explains, "but our main focus is to try to partner with a land trust so that we could combine our project with a focus on maintaining open space and conserving land."
Lorei notes that there is no specific template for creating a natural burial ground; each one is a little different. "While we are working toward the establishment of a new green cemetery," she adds, "we also encourage existing cemeteries to allocate space for natural burial."
Lorei says the process may take years. The combination of local zoning laws and state-mandated burial requirements creates a formidable obstacle. For now FCAE (fcaemass.org) is primarily pursuing its mission of advocating for more affordable burials and even do-it-yourself funerals. "We are trying to overcome people's perception that mainstream funeral and burial practice is the only way and the way it has always been done," says Lorei. "In fact, we are advocating for a return to more traditional ways."
For those interested in digging deeper, the FCAE annual meeting, scheduled for March 21 at 2 pm in the chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, includes a talk by Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. The event is free and open to the public.