Have you thought about your funeral plans and their impact on the environment? It is not a pleasant topic, but it is one the Masked Biologist thinks deserves some extra thought, as he shares in this week’s Wildlife Matters.
There were times in my life when I would worry, I suppose somewhat oddly, about where everyone is supposed to be buried. I even remember thinking at one point, “Where does it end? How much land can we afford to make into cemeteries?” Everything else seems like it can change—forest to grassland, grassland to cropland, farm buildings to forest, but cemeteries stayed cemeteries. I think it started with my childhood on the outskirts of Milwaukee, where occasionally I would ride with my grandpa to deliver funeral flowers and casket sprays to enormous cemeteries as part of his floral business.
As I got older, the reality and permanence of death sank in as we would go around the cemetery at our church and school to see which of us could find the grave marker with the oldest date—some of them pre-dated Wisconsin’s statehood, and were written in German. We always knew when there was going to be a funeral because we saw the backhoe come and dig a hole and lower a large concrete vault into the ground. Apparently, concrete and steel are needed for durability, so that the grave does not collapse when the casket gives way, resulting in a rectangular depression in the lawn. Some of the civil-war-era graves were clearly sunken in because they used wooden coffins and no vaults.
In my experience, deceased loved ones were almost never cremated. Usually they were embalmed, dressed, and displayed at funerals in a steel or heavy wood casket that was then buried in a cemetery plot. As it turns out, just under half of the people who die in the US every year are embalmed and encased in the traditional fashion. As you may guess, an almost equal number are cremated. When my dad died, we preserved him without chemicals, dressed him in a rented outfit, displayed him in a rented coffin, and had his remains cremated after the funeral. This reduces some of the environmental contamination and permanent space concerns, but not much of the logistics. Cremated remains are still remains. If you want to scatter them, you need to get approval from the landowner, which isn’t easy. No matter where they end up, whether you spread or bury them on your property or someone else’s, that land cannot be sold unless the human remains are disclosed or exhumed.
An appealing third option is a green funeral. Enterprising individuals are buying scenic land and setting it aside for people to bury their loved and lost—no chemicals, no concrete, no preservatives—you can bury the body in a shroud or in a simple biodegradable container or coffin. These funerals are a fraction of the cost of a traditional funeral, which can cost ten to fifteen thousand dollars. This is a great idea, and owners can use the fees they collect to invest in caring for the property. If the owners eventually sell the burial grounds, all they have to do is disclose the purpose of the property, and the use can continue. It can provide healthy, sustainable wildlife habitat, and help people feel their loved ones are closer to nature—a great option for hikers, hunters, and bird watchers. I don’t know of any sanctuaries or refuges of this type anywhere around here, but it would be a good business to get into. Like my dad always used to say, cemeteries have fences around them because so many people are dying to get in!
Why would I pick such a morbid topic for Wildlife Matters? Well, because embalming fluid contains chemicals and carcinogens, an array of disinfectants, preservatives, sanitizers and additives to delay or temporarily prevent decomposition. These chemicals, gallons per corpse, end up leaching into the soil, and possibly into the ground water. Also, the cemetery is not great wildlife habitat, except for gophers and badgers. Land has to be sacrificed to bury the dead, and with baby boomers approaching the age of transition, some larger cities are starting to scramble trying to secure additional burial space. We will be sacrificing small green open spaces, areas that were providing valuable urban wildlife refugia, to provide those graveyards. Finally, if we can find a way to combine a beautiful final resting place with natural scenery, we will be using our final time on this earth to provide quality wildlife habitat, like many of our ancestors did.