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Green Burials: When Everything Old Is New


For many Americans, it's never a good day to die, partly because it's so hard to talk about it. That might be changing as more people explore so-called green burials as a replacement for traditional burials, and embrace conversations that used to be common before being labeled morbid.

Traditional burials can easily cost $12,000 to $15,000, and that does not include the ecological cost, which includes injecting toxic chemicals into the ground due to formaldehyde used in embalming. Then there's the metal used in caskets each year - enough to build another Golden Gate Bridge.

Amber Carvaly owns a progressive funeral service called Undertaking LA. She says we all know we're going to die, but most of us put off exploring how we want to die. "Green funeral is no embalming," she explains. "It's a casket that's biodegradable. The decedent is wearing clothing that is biodegradable, and then a grave that is hand dug." Until the end of the 19th century, most Americans were familiar with the various aspects of death, because many people died at home and were cared for by family members rather than professional undertakers.

Carvaly says many people mistakenly think green burial is something new, when it's really how people were buried for centuries, until modern funerals took over about 100 years ago. "We are so mindful about what we put into our bodies while we're alive, and so really, what we are trying do is just take that a step farther and go, 'Remember, this is actually how we used to die,'" she relates.

In 2010, American journalist Ellen Goodman started The Conversation Project after noting that the only conversation Americans weren't having was about end-of-life planning. According to Goodman, 90 percent of Americans say they want to have such a conversation with their doctor or loved one, but only 30 percent do so.

Joan Gibson is a philosopher and applied ethics consultant who leads The Conversation Project in New Mexico. "It is having the conversation that makes all the difference in the world in increasing the odds that your wishes will indeed be known and respected," she explains.

To date, nearly a million people have downloaded the starter kit for The Conversation Project.

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