“Green burial standards” – critique

12 Dec
2009

The Green Burial Council has set itself up as a watchdog to ensure that burial becomes “more sustainable, economically viable, and meaningful” in North America.  We applaud such an effort – our Mother Earth can only benefit from any help. And burial is no insignificant environmental factor when the earth’s massive population and consequent burial needs are considered.

We reviewed their environmental standards for burials and find them excellent … as far as environmental factors are concerned. However, as a new initiative, we should not expect its aims or ideas to be perfect from Day 1.  In fact, we find that in certain aspects green burial favors environmental aspects at the expense of human ones.  Following their standards will certainly make burial “more sustainable and economically viable” as they hope – but not necessarily more meaningful for human beings.

Burial – human needs vs environmental ones

Human meaning is not at all irrelevent, for burial and death rituals have been a cultural and spiritual cornerstone of humanity, perhaps the most important, ever since Man understood that he was mortal. The environmental factor in burial on the other hand is a modern phenomena – starting with Napoleon’s removal of the Parisian cemeteries to the catacombs under the city. We should remember this relation – for if we disregard what has always been of importance to humanity exclusively to benefit a temporary (albeit acute) environmental factor, we do so at our own cultural, psychological and spiritual risk.

Now I am not suggesting the Green Burial Council excludes the human factor altogether. They certainly understand that a conflict between man and environment, nature and culture is natural and unavoidable. And that nothing is black and white, that compromises are inescapable – one simply cannot have it all. But in their compromise between nature and culture, the Green Burial Council has clearly chosen to err on the side of the environment. That is their perogative – but it necessarily entails compromises for humanity, for the cultural and spiritual aspects of burial.

In fact, the environmental factors in a burial are far easier to understand and change than the cultural and spiritual ones – we must return to what mankind did until very recently. (In fact, even that is no longer so simple – today’s population size does complicate matters. But the green burial movement as a whole does not address this more global issue -  see Green Burial’s Shortcomings ).

The shortcomings in human terms of modern burial practices take more creativity and sensitivity to overcome: creating attractive, meaningful new ways of memorializing; discovering new mechanisms to guarantee grave perpetuity in an overpopulated and ever-changing world; finding acceptable new aesthetics to replace the gloomy old Victorian one we have inherited.

Freedom of expression in memorials

Returning to the Green Burial Council’s Standards, we find nothing specific to take issue with at the lower two levels, which essentially aim to eliminate ground pollutants (concrete, formaldehyde, pesticides etc) and conserve energy. It is at the third level of standards (the second-most stringent) that we cannot agree with them – at this point the nature/culture conflict emerges in the question of memorialization, an archetypal human need with no possible environmental benefits.

Here we see that a “natural burial ground” must:

  • “Develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape and (where appropriate) to landmarks outside its borders.”
  • “Develop a plan for dealing with unauthorized grave decoration and landscaping.”

Certainly enduring monuments and personal grave decorations will interfere with the natural aesthetics of a site – but should we be limiting the last freedom of expression left to human beings, the one that will represent them long after all other reminders of their existence have melted away? I can’t accept this personally and I suspect that a majority of society will feel the same way, if they reflect on it. This will self-limit the popularity of green burial.

In regard to freedom of expression in memorials, I believe the Perpetua’s Garden concept offers a far better compromise between nature’s needs and humanity’s.

Grave perpetuity

In the past, the perpetuity of a grave site, the eternal “Rest-in-Peace”, was considered a sacred right, perhaps the most important consideration of all in a grave. That has long since disappeared in the modern world, with whole cemeteries turned into parking lots, golf courses and shopping centers. And unless a radical new solution is found (Perpetua’s Garden?), the future can only be even darker in this respect.

But instead of addressing this grave cultural deficiency, the Green Burial Council first addresses perpetuity in their last (and least accessible) level, the “conservation burial ground”.  Here their highest goal becomes transparent – the perpetual protection of the land, not the grave sites:

  • Conservation Burial Grounds, in addition to meeting all the requirements for a Natural Burial Ground, must further legitimate land conservation
  • A Conservation Burial Ground must protect in perpetuity an area of land specifically and exclusively designated for conservation.
  • A conservation burial ground must involve an established conservation organization that holds a conservation easement or has in place a deed restriction guaranteeing long-term stewardship.

Perpetuity is nowhere expressed as a benefit to humanity and the dead who can rest in perpetuity, but only in terms of the perpetual stewardship of the land. And the perpetual stewardship of the land does not necessarily imply the perpetuity of the grave sites – indeed, there is no mention anywhere of the perpetuity of the individual graves. According to their phraseology, it is only the “land-as-nature” that will be conserved, not the “land-as-cemetery” and not the individual graves.  One wonders if this last point has even been thought of…? Or does the Green Burial Council anticipate grave recycling in the European model? This would be a very bad compromise – but we don’t know,  this question is not mentioned on their site.

Conclusion

We agree that the elimination of ground pollutants and the conservation of energy in burials are important goals and we wish the Green Burial all the success in the world here.  And though we are skeptical about the long-term effectivness of it, we also love the idea that nature can be conserved because our bodies protect it from redevelopment.  But if the human questions of memorials and grave perpetuity are not better addressed, then we suggest the Green Burial Council stick simply to their pollution-reduction goals and let others address the human questions.

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