Dying to Give Back: The Green Burial Movement
I met with Jean shortly after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As I approached her home for the first time, I was greeted by voluminous blue barrels at the bases of the gutters collecting rainwater from a passing storm. An attached hose snaked outwards towards a garden burgeoning into spring. She welcomed me inside with a warm smile that offset the cool air in her minimally-heated home. As a visiting nurse, I actively observe patients’ homes with an eye towards safety and functionality. Jean’s home, outside and in, was a testament to the more than 50 years she spent as an environmental activist.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Displaying a subtle yet undeniable eccentricity so common in activists, she served sparkling cider in champagne glasses while we discussed her end-of-life arrangements. Unsurprisingly, she wanted to die just as she had lived: green. So after a life of environmental stewardship, she was met with the daunting task of choosing how to most sustainably return her body to the earth.
The funeral industry is, by and large, a $20 billion for-profit enterprise, whose environmental impact has been greatly overlooked. This is understandable, given that those making end-of-life arrangements are frequently grappling with loss, which can monopolize one’s attention. Nevertheless, it is estimated that each year 30 million board feet of chemically-treated hardwood, 827,000 gallons of carcinogenic embalming fluid, and thousands of tons of concrete, steel, copper and bronze are buried along with the bodies of the departed. Not only is this a colossal waste of resources—a typical 10-acre cemetery has enough wood in the form of caskets to construct 40 houses—but there are also concerns about the pollution of groundwater near cemeteries. Formaldehyde, a major constituent of embalming fluid, has been proven to increase the cancer risk among those with high levels of exposure. Exacerbating things further is the fact that the use of these types of wood is largely unsustainable, with some caskets being sourced from endangered mahogany.
While cremation would seem to provide an appealing alternative, the carbon footprint and release of vaporized mercury (from the fillings in people’s teeth) still leave much to be desired. It is estimated that each year in the U.S. 600 pounds of mercury, among other pollutants such as dioxin, are released as a result of cremation. Legislative attempts to mandate that all crematoriums install filters that act to reduce emissions have been successfully blocked by industry groups in a number of different states. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate crematoriums.
Fortunately, eco-friendly, or green burials, are on the rise and offer an alternative to the financially expensive and environmentally costly conventional burial. In 2008, there were only a dozen eco-friendly burial providers. That number has since grown to 300 and shows no sign of slowing. A green burial is much like a conventional burial, but without the detrimental impact on the environment. For open-casket funerals, the body can be preserved for display using either dry ice or non-toxic and biodegradable embalming fluids. Rather than a casket made of unsustainable wood treated with chemicals, individuals have the option of either a simple burial shroud, or a casket with non-treated wood.
Standards have been developed to define what constitutes a green burial in order to thwart greenwashing—where the environmental benefits of a product or service are exaggerated to capitalize off of the public’s growing concern for the earth. This acts to empower people to make consumer choices that reflect their ethical and moral values. The standards are set and maintained by the Green Burial Council, which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable death care and the use of burial as a new means of protecting natural areas.”
To ensure continued compliance with these standards, the Green Burial Council continuously assesses the environmental practices of the companies and products that earn eco-certification. Furthermore, since the many ways in which a body can be returned to the earth have varying impacts on the environment, there are a number of designations under the eco-certification umbrella for burial grounds and products that range from having a neutral environmental impact to a positive one.
For Jean, however, simply minimizing her impact on the environment was not enough. Having utilized nonviolent direct action to protect local waterways from contamination, her zeal for protecting the environment led her to look for a way of turning her death into an act that would have a positive impact on the environment.
Jean—like an increasing number of people—was able to choose what the Green Burial Council terms a conservation burial ground. To receive this designation, Green Burial Council standards require that all burial grounds be “owned by, or operated in conjunction with a government agency or a nonprofit conservation organization,” whose goal is conservation. Conservation burial grounds, in effect, intend to transform cemeteries into nature preserves located in environmentally sensitive areas.
Here, one will find no acres of manicured lawns reminiscent of a golf course, but rather vast natural landscapes. At burial sites there are no plastic flowers or roses, but instead plants and flowers indigenous to the surrounding ecosystem. In a nod to sustainability, an additional requirement of the Green Burial Council is that five percent of the cost of the burial plot be allotted for an endowment to ensure the integrity of the land into the indefinite future. This might be thought of as a sort of posthumous occupation with the intent of protecting the most environmentally vulnerable areas from development or destruction.
When Jean died—only a few months after we had met—she left behind not only a legacy of beneficence, but an endowment geared towards educating and inspiring a new generation to continue her work of protecting wetlands. Throughout her life, Jean was a staunch advocate for Mother Nature. And thanks to the growing availability of green burials, Jean’s final act of returning her body to the earth was one that will continue her life’s work of environmental stewardship.
As Jean walked me to the door of her home that afternoon, I asked, “What advice would you give to the next generation of environmental activists?” She responded simply, “When you witness an injustice, do something.”
For Jean, that motto carried through to the very end, where she took a stand against the injustice of an unsustainable industry bent on profiting off her death by choosing instead to contribute to what she believed in most: life.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>