'Green burial' restores, preserves the land
- This article was originally published in San Francisco Chronicle, Open Forum in 2013.
The impending demise of the Baby Boomers has huge and generally unrecognized environmental consequences: Some 80 million of us Boomers will either add millions of tons of weight onto our global footprint or make things a little better.
The natural burial movement started in England about 20 years ago and is now growing in the United States. What we now call 'green burial' used to just be called 'burial'. It is just a return to nature the way the Pilgrims did it: with a wooden box or a shroud and a tree planted over the grave.
Yet burial was simpler when there were fewer of us. Most cemeteries are already almost full. To accommodate our Boomer demographic bulge, we may need to create many new cemeteries, but I think there is a better way: create new natural burial grounds by working with land trusts. The land trusts could dedicate part of their holdings as burial parks and use the proceeds to purchase more open space.
How big is this concern? Some 30 million of us Baby Boomers probably will choose to be buried. If we choose a typical flat-grass cemetery funeral, then we will be filled with embalming fluids, placed in a brass coffin and put into concrete vaults.
Most concrete is made with coal-fired energy, and it takes about 5 million BTUs to make a ton of concrete. That means 150 trillion BTUs would be used to create those vaults – the equivalent of more than 1 billion gallons of gasoline. It is enough gas to drive my old gas guzzler around the world almost 2 million times.
The rest of the Boomers will choose to be cremated. It takes a lot of energy to heat those furnaces to 3,500 degrees for three hours. It takes about 15 therms to burn a body. That's another 75 trillion BTUs.
I haven't tried to calculate the number of tank cars filled with formaldehyde or other embalming chemicals. But Mark Harris, in his book Grave Matters, estimates that in each 10-acre cemetery, there is enough of it to fill a backyard swimming pool.
Demographers call the aging of the Baby Boomers "the silver tsunami." I didn't coin the phrase, but as a lifelong surfer, I like it.
Some cemeteries are starting to respond to the rising demand for more ecological end-of-life options by dedicating areas for natural burials.
The Fernwood cemetery in Marin was the first in California. Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo has three areas that will be opened for natural burials.
Natural burial is a win for open-space preservation because land trusts find a great new source of funding. In the Bay Area, cemetery plots sell for about $5,000, depending on the views. Land trusts could sell the plots for the same amount, and consumers would still save money because they wouldn't be paying for concrete, embalming or caskets.
The land trust in Placer County is looking at small project to try out the concept. (see video above)
It's a double win for Boomers. We save some money. More important, perhaps, we know that our last act made a small but positive win for the overheated little planet that we will soon be leaving to our grandchildren.
- Robert “Birdlegs” Caughlan is a lifelong surfer and political activist. He helped organize river lovers as a co-founder of Friends of the River. He brought surfers into the environmental movement as the first president of the Surfrider Foundation. Now he is trying to activate a new group – dead people.