Following a death in a family, a funeral director is usually employed to transport and care for the body, plan a service at the funeral home, arrange for the final disposition of the body, and secure and file all required permits and paperwork. Unless the body is to be cremated as soon as possible after death, it will likely be embalmed to temporarily preserve it.
Just as concerns over other aspects of modern life have led to alternative movements such as organic and local food production, holistic health, renewable energy, and home births, concerns over how we care for our dead have given rise to an alterative funeral movement encompassing family-directed funerals, home funerals, and natural or green burial. And like those other movements, the alternative funeral movement embraces values of protecting the environment, working in harmony with nature, and reducing the power that corporations and professions exercise over our lives.
People are choosing home and family-directed funerals as an alternative to traditional funerals for a variety of reasons:
Desire for a Personalized Meaningful Experience
Before the rise of the funeral industry the dead were cared for at home with the help of family and friends and buried according to family traditions. This gave families and friends the opportunity to say their good-byes in their own way, at their own pace, and in the comfort of familiar surroundings. Now funerals are moved out of the home and the care of the dead is delegated to strangers in an industry where large international corporations own an increasing number of funeral homes, often retaining the name of the purchased funeral home to create the illusion of local ownership. No matter how caring or compassionate a funeral director may be, the conventional funeral has left many people wishing there were a more personalized and meaningful way of caring for their own dead.
Many religious or spiritual philosophies believe that the soul of the deceased can be assisted in making his/her transition to the next life by what is done by their family and loved ones immediately following death. These traditions and practices are allowed fuller expression in a home or family-directed funeral. Embalming can be avoided, and the rituals, prayers and round-the-clock vigils can take place under the direction of the family according to their spiritual and/or religious beliefs.
There is an increasing interest in “Green Funerals” and “Conservation Cemeteries.” In discussions of environmental pollution we don’t often hear mention of the funeral industry. However, embalming a body results in 120 gallons of funeral waste, including toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde found in the embalming fluid. Approximately two million bodies are buried or cremated each year in the United States. This results in the burial or incineration of over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (from vaults to keep the ground from sinking when the body and casket decomposes), 90 thousand tons of steel (from vaults and caskets), 2,700 tons of bronze and copper (from caskets), and 30 million board feet of hardwoods (from wood caskets), enough lumber to build more than 3500 homes. There is also hazardous waste generated in the manufacture of the caskets. (Statistics taken from Mark Harris, Grave Matters.)
While not as harmful to the environment as the burial of embalmed bodies, cremation (in spite of the scrubbers and filters used in the furnaces) still releases pollutants including vaporized mercury from dental fillings, estimated between 240 and several thousand pounds a year, into the atmosphere. Then there is the energy used in fueling the crematory (usually natural gas). The cremation chambers maintain a temperature of 1400 – 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for about 2 1/2 hours. About 30% of bodies in the United States are cremated. This figure is increasing and by the year 2030 the number of cremations is expected to outnumber burials. (Statistics taken from Mark Harris Grave Matters.)
In comparison, conservation cemeteries are like nature preserves. No concrete or toxic embalming fluids are allowed. Caskets and other burial products must be biodegradable. Burials are limited in number, using only 10-30 percent of the land, and with a decreased density, all of which means the footprint from such activities is small.
The burial process is also a great opportunity to restore an area by planting trees and native vegetation and establishing hiking trails. State law-required funds for perpetual care of the cemetery can be spent on restoring and protecting nature, rather than mowing the lawn and repairing sidewalks. For all of these reasons, a conservation cemetery can be a place where nature is allowed to thrive.
A home funeral with a simple casket (built and decorated by friends & family) or shroud followed by burial without a vault is desired by those who want to act as environmentally friendly in death as they did in life.
Funerals are expensive, and the prices go up, rather than down, when a large corporation takes over a funeral home. In a survey of funeral homes in southern Wisconsin, the cost of the least expensive funeral option (direct cremation–where there is no viewing of the body, the body is taken directly from place of death to the crematory, a simple cardboard casket is used, and the remains placed in a plain box) ranged between $1,200 and $3,000. Family directed cremation, whereby an immediate family member delivers the body to the crematory (with the proper permits) costs $295. The cost of a funeral with burial, depending on the casket chosen, can reach $10,000 or more. And that does not include the cost of the burial plot.