“Just how bad is traditional burial?”

Now, sometimes I can just be plum naive about the world.

For example, it wouldn’t occur to me that the answer to the question: “Just how bad is traditional burial?” would be anything other than, “Well, gosh, you know, factually embalming and traditional burial can be pretty bad, guys.”

Formaldehyde (used to embalm bodies) causes cancer. This is a fact.  We waste a large amount of resources (wood, steel, and concrete) on traditional burial. This is a fact.

As National Geographic says:

“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”

Scientific American & Huffington Post also got in on denouncing modern traditional burial.

There is a funeral industry website called Connecting Directors. If you’re a mortician-type you can sign up and have death industry articles delivered to your email every morning.  This week they posted an article called “Just How Bad is Traditional Burial?” … and then I read the comments and wanted to gouge my eyes out and feed them to sky burial vultures.

Vernon Rams said:

“I have always spoke out about the “FAD” of green burial. It was started by outsiders who like to call our Profession an Industry-rather than a “Profession” (Use your dictionary). If these folks want to be serious and be taken seriously-they need to go to school, like we all did. Hearing so called “Industry Guru’s” use terms like “Grinding up of bones”…And “It is like having a MRI” is an example of how far off-they truly are. One looks into the background of these “Professors of LOOK AT ME”- and finds everything they have claimed-even about themselves-is a lie and un-founded. Then, they scorn you-for looking into their claims-and call you a “Stalker”. Did they really think- after ALGORE’S claims of The Sky Is Falling and Global Warming panic- were all REBUKED by scientists-even the ones hired for the movie-falling on their swords.”

“ALGORE (sic) is LYING about “FAD” green burial!”  He goes on to say that owners of funeral homes aren’t getting requests for green burials.  This strikes me as likely true, because:

1)  If you were getting green burial requests would you tell this guy (risking a global warming-is-a-hoax rant)?

2)  The funeral industry has done a very good job of masking the option.  I get stories all the time of families who were told it’s illegal not to embalm a body or not to have a vault/casket.

Alexandra Mosca said:

“Haven’t heard one person–family or funeral director–express the slightest interest in “green burials.” Just another buzzword for the times.”

BT Hathaway said:

“Funerals and burials have little if anything to do with science! Fundamentally they are a religious/spiritual expression which by definition is separate from scientific measurement. So why in the world is Scientific American butting their nose into religious practice and trying to tell the world that it is wrong?”

This continues comment after comment.  Until one little glimmer of hope at the end.

Gholdsworth (signed in using yahoo):

“There is little point in bickering over what you think is the ‘right’ thing. Isn’t it about what the families want? Since 1986 Natural Burial Grounds have gone from zero to over 220 in the UK. This ‘fad’ seems to be accelerating. As for embalming, countries like Sweden and Japan don’t practice it and the country that invented it, The Netherlands, will no longer permit it. Its about time we had some honesty here – embalming is more for the industry than the families being served. If the chemicals were as friendly as some make out why are most manufacturers bringing out ‘green’ embalming fluids? My final word has to be about vaults. You do realise that the entire world outside the USA (yes, there is one) thinks its bizzare to say the least to have them at all. Its like you are doing everything possible to prevent a body returning to the earth (and wasting millions of tons of concrete each year). This practice is just about making more money. And if the families knew how putrid decomposition is in a sealed container they would want something simpler.”

I swear this last comment wasn’t me on a fake Yahoo account.  But bless this person for speaking up in the shark tank.

If the funeral industry wants to save these particular practices they should be arguing for their value to our society.  Not just blindly attacking those who promote natural or green burial, natural decomposition, and any new methods of body disposal.

While there are many brilliant, forward-thinking morticians, open to new types of body disposal and rituals, many are… well… not.  It is up to the public and culture (that means you, the internet!) to demand change, because these morticians, well intentioned as they may be, aren’t going to just wake up one morning on the innovative side of the bed.

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  • Gah!!! Take my eyes too while you are at it please Caitlyn.

    Though will Gholdsworth still want to marry me if I am eyeless? Perhaps leave them in.

  • Priyaa

    Wow! Awesome. Thank’s for writing this, it was really informative.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I’ve been thinking that I would like a natural burial ever since I was a teenager. I honestly had NO idea that there was such vitriolic opposition to it. I was going to ask why, but then I answered my own question: because, money. Keep speaking out Caitlin!

  • Well done Caitlin, keep doing your thing. Loving your approach to death and funerally stuff even if I don’t always agree with your preferences. But you ALWAYS come back to the fact that it is the family’s choice, not the FDs. Great job of dispelling the myths!

  • Still amazed that people still think that global warming is a myth. No serious scientist believe this.

    • Anonymous

      I know! I really don’t understand WHY they want to believe it’s not happening. I guess because it leads them to actually give a crap about their use of chemicals and might also lead to less profit for them. Plus, turning your brain off is so easy to do!

  • John B

    It seems apparent that more people are now more clued up about the fact that much of what funeral directors do is about money. Although I do think that natural burials are gaining more popularity. I like the idea of a “family-directed” funeral as opposed to using a funeral director.

  • Stella

    Pumping a body full of chemicals and hermetically sealing it away from the earth is one of those supposedly “normal” things about American culture that I find incredibly bizarre and morally shocking.

  • Liz

    Jewish tradition requires that a body go into the earth within 72 hours, and in a way that allows it to decompose as quickly as possible. There’s a Lubavitcher cemetery in upstate NY that has a dispensation (not allowed elsewhere in NY, I believe) to bury bodies simply wrapped in a shroud.

    With that said, my crazy Jewish mother has expressed a desire to be interred “on a hill in a glass coffin, like Lenin”, so take the shroud for what it’s worth.

  • CatchaStar

    As someone that lives in Europe and works in the Florist business, where we constantly deal with Funeral Homes and have to know funeral specifics, BT Hathaway’s ignorant ‘what the world wants’ comment gave me a chuckle. Yes BT, I know, I know. A world outside of the US and one that doesn’t bury their death in concrete and is actually embracing green and personalised funerals at that, just fancy!
    I find the whole extreme-sanitisation, huge metal-beast caskets and concrete vaults of the US funeral industry just… bizarre and excessive personally.

    In our country, people traditionally choose coffins over caskets and they are much smaller and wooden, with small metal handles for carrying. Other popular choices are coffins made of Banana Leaf and Water Hyacinth, or woven Willow. Even cardboard coffins are on the rise in popularity and are offered at most funeral homes.
    Funerals, like weddings are only religious if the family wishes it, if they don’t, they aren’t. We’ve had several Humanist funerals to create designs for this year.

    Living outside of the US, I always have to sigh in frustration at so many Americans’ habit of assuming that the rest of the world functions and feels the same way about everything as they do. Because, in reality, it’s often completely different!

  • Jordan M

    It’s good when industry heads talk about how bad new ideas are. It’s like hearing dinosaurs roar.

  • A

    Caitlin, I really appreciate your blog! Lots to think about, thank you. I´d
    like to add something from a different corner of the world: I ´m living
    in rural Northern Germany. My brother-in-law, in his 50s now, is “kind of
    funeral director” which means: he is a carpenter (building furniture, windows,
    all that stuff) – and when somebody dies – he´s organizing his/hers funeral. As
    did his forefathers since at least 175 years. Probably it seems medieval to
    Americans (it is). Long story cut short: my brother-in-law never buried someone
    or got somebody be cremated who was enbalmed. It´s a “tradition” not
    unheard of – but never/rarely practised. It is simply regarded a not

  • Kaitlyn, I hope you realize that you are helping a whole lot of people with bringing green burial into the light. I had no idea that there was even a remote chance of having a “green” burial ground in Ye Olde Toxic State of New Jersey. It is because of you that I started looking into it & found that it wasn’t just in the state, but within 35 miles of where I reside & 2 funeral homes offering prep & simple shrouding within a stones throw of here. Keep bringing the truth to the masses & help us return to accepting death as being natural & nothing to fear. Those “professionals” who refuse to accept that not everyone wants to be pumped up full of chemicals, have AV plugs shoved up my orifices, be made up like a $2 whore to be put on display so people I never saw in life can come & judge other guests & what I’m wearing, guessing the cost of my coffin, oh wait, “casket,” & judging how well I was loved by how many flower arrangements are there. I know a lot of embalmers & FDs that aren’t bad people, actually, they are quite cool & fun to be around, but almost all of them will upsell to families they know cannot afford it & it’s often for stupid shit that’s not needed. When I die, I’d love to just go back to the planet wearing a white cotton nightgown & going “commando”, be wrapped in a shroud made of natural fiber (silk would totally be tits), laid into the soil & then have a birch tree & flower bulbs & lily of the valley rhizomes planted above me. I am glad that because of your hard work & raging against the machine I CAN have that. Thanks for spreading the word about this “fad,” ya’ know, the one that lasted for millenia…

    • Happy Deathling

      Good to hear this. I may be shopping in your neighborhood some day!

  • So interesting to me that as religious a country that the US is–indeed, we are one of the more religious countries in the Western world–we still are clearly so fucking terrified of death. The embalming and “sanitizing,” the excessive makeup to make the person look sleeping instead of, you know, DEAD, the massive amount of resources that go into BURYING SOMEONE ONE TIME–I think it all really betrays the utter terror that death strikes into us. To truly accept death is to accept how messy and therefore how HUMAN it is, which means not trying to scrub it away as though it’s something less permanent.

    My husband has very strong feelings about death and the treatment of dead bodies; he’s said repeatedly that if I die first, he will not have some person nobody knows pumping my body full of chemicals and loading my face up with makeup I never wore. We’ve agreed that if we aren’t cremated, neither of us will be embalmed or buried in ridiculous non-degradable caskets. I’m so happy to see that despite the negativity of the article and the comments, the US is waking up to different possibilities and ideas.

    Great post as always 🙂

  • i know that when my father passed away, and we went to the local funeral home to make arrangements for him, they were surprised when we asked specifically for him to not be embalmed. i thought they’d try harder to talk us out of it, but i think because he was native american, they let it slide. it’s the one time the whole “native american’s are natural” stereotype worked in his favor!

  • John Cossham

    I run http://www.novaterium.com , a website dedicated to exploring alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. I get regular enquiries about ‘natural burials’, whether Promession is available yet, and a host of other questions. Anybody saying there isn’t a demand for greener ways to deal with this part of our lives is either lying or has vested interests… or both! The demand is low at the moment, compared with the figures opting for ordinary funerals, but it is growing, and I predict will continue to expand.

    John Cossham, York, UK

  • weldemere

    let the power go out on a sealed refrigerator of meat… Sealed casket and vault.

  • Jennifer Ray

    I am currently enrolled in a mortuary school. Even though they mention the cancer risks of the embalming fluid and stress that embalming won’t preserve the body forever, most of my classmates and profs just can’t seem to think of anything different. I seem to be the only one in any of my classes that ever wants to discuss anything different like green burials. And even though they often cite laws and regulations for my state of PA, I can’t ever seem to find them on my own. Thank you for advocating something different. I hope I can someday join the movement with my own funeral home, offering green burials and basically anything the family asks for.

    • Anonymous

      Funeral Consumers Alliance has the downloadable PA law chapter on their webiste.

  • Georgina

    I honestly think that this type of hostility is a mixture of jealousy that someone else got there first and fear of change. A lot of people don’t like change but it always happens and they need to accept that. The funeral trade/profession etc. is an industry of sorts and the sooner directors realise that a “fad” is actually customer demand, the better.

  • funeraltemp.com

    If someone comes to you with a complaint regarding a funeral director or funeral home please have them contact the state board of funeral directors and embalmers.

  • Y R

    “Pumping a body full of chemicals and hermetically sealing it away from
    the earth is one of those supposedly “normal” things about American
    culture that I find incredibly bizarre and morally shocking.” How on earth is it related to the American Culture? Americans are Europeans who brought things over from the Old World to the New and innovated them. Funerals are mostly the same in both parts(or at least used to be until very recent times). No, I don’t care to hear what Japanese did with their corpses, it’s Far East and Far East was influenced by the West very little in 4000(mostly in modern times and mostly in Religion and Business fields). Why would anyone follow something that came from Far East, then? Why would anyone bring Americans or Canadians in this conversation? It’s about how much dirt traditional funerals produce, not about who is right and whose funeral tradition is more traditional, or better.

    • Catchastar

      Actually, I believe the American tradition of burying the dead in vaults and sealing them away from the earth was started after the American Civil war in the mid-1800s, not brought over from Europe with the colonists. And it was in the 1920s companies started to coat them with bitumen (pitch) to keep moisture away from the casket in an effort to slow/stop decomposition.

      But a conversation about how much ‘dirt’ a funeral produces will naturally involve talking about various cultures’ methods of burying their dead and with method is better. As funerals go, American funerals produce a lot of the ‘dirt’ you mentioned and that isn’t good.

  • Any of you people had to say good-bye to a loved one lately?
    Try burying your daughter like I had to and then comment on what you think about funerals and funeral directors.

    • aande

      I’m terribly sorry for your loss Kevin. No parent should have to bury their child, but the sad reality is that it does happen, everyday, all over this world, parents are having to lay their babies to rest. This blog has really opened my eyes to a lot of after-death information, from different views, of course, but nevertheless I hope everyone who reads and researches the subject can be at peace with death, and all of the surrounding features of you or a loved ones final moments on this earth. I do not know of such loss, as that of a child departed too soon, but I do know that we are all human and tend to FEEL before we THINK, SO I URGE ALL OF YOU TO THINK! do what you feel is right.

  • Anna

    I find the practice of making dead people look like they’re just sleeping & sealing their preserved corpses in a “seepage proof” container to be bizarre & creepy. Either cremate me or let me rot, please! I’m dead, I don’t need my corpse to sit putrefying in a box for the next 500 years! Nor do I want all those horrifically toxic chemicals leeching into the environment where my descendants have to breathe, drink, & eat.

    And I will not attend an open casket funeral. I grew up in the southeastern United States where embalming & open caskets are the norm, & I even find it bizarre (sorry to use that word twice but it’s the only one that sufficiently expresses my feelings on the subject). I can only imagine how weird it must seem to the rest of the world!

  • I did not realize there was such opposition to green/natural burials. It make sense that people would put up such opposition to it, as most people believe change is bad, but when looking at the upside to green/natural burials you see a lot of positives. One would think people would lean more towards that option, but as you said, the only way to do so is by pressure from the public. Thanks for bringing this topic to light.

  • Jill

    Hi Caitlin, I love your blog! I’m a mortuary science student, and I can’t help but feel like this attitude is indicative of a bigger issue in the funeral service industry. And it’s one that’s making me scared about my career change.

    I’m a “non-traditional” student. I take my classes online and have about 10 years experience as an Administrative Assistant. Being a Funeral Director is something I’ve wanted for a long time, but I dragged my feet on it out of some weird obligation to do the “right thing” (go to college, take a safe but boring job, etc.)

    Now that I’ve bitten the bullet, I’m confronted with a lot of push back- not from friends and family as I feared, but from within the industry itself. I’m trying to gain experience in the field but volunteering my administrative and bookkeeping expertise, but I can’t even give my time away. I make the effort to go out to funeral homes to introduce myself, since God forbid I email them, but I feel like I’m bugging them and get the brush off. Everything just seems so archaic and closed off in general (much like the sanitation of the deceased and the funeral itself) that it seems like I’ll never get my foot in the door. And I’m in an urban area in the Northeast- it’s not like I’m in Middle of Nowhere, IA. I even get the same from my own teachers and advisers from school.

    I am someone who wants to move this industry into the 21st Century (or at least out of the 19th) and I really do want to help people regardless of their disposal preferences, but I feel like there’s so much resistance that I’m getting discouraged and frustrated. I know the industry is still a bit of a Boys Club (or cranky old dudes club), but I feel like there’s so much more to it than that. I’ve even experienced this with other female directors.

    Sorry if this is a bit off topic from the blog post, but I really do think this is the tip of the iceberg for a bigger problem. Does anyone else out there experience this? Or does anyone have any advice?

  • Anonymous

    Could you one day do a post on HOW to get a green burial? I would like to know more about it.

    • atropos_of_nothing

      First, you need to locate a green cemetery—-luckily, that’s only a Google away. Funeral homes in the surrounding areas are (slowly) beginning to catch up and offer it as a service. These also seem to be the areas where you’re more likely to find people offering home funeral facilitation.
      Other than that—-stick to your guns. I’m afraid that many of my colleagues aren’t big fans, and definitely try to steer families towards the more traditional options.

      • Mark S Layhee

        I know that when I die, I won’t be able to defend myself. My parents aren’t religious in the real sense. But you cannot discuss death in the family. I am 23 and shouldn’t be thinking about death all the time.. But I can die tomorrow or even next year. In that event I need someone I trust to fulfill what I want. There is a natural burial cemetery 2 hours away from my house and luck can’t be anymore sweeter than that.

        I view it as the planet has suffered enough… Mother Earth has every right to my remains for consumption and not these sick scientists who wish to delay the natural process of death.

  • Lucy

    I hope this doesn’t get washed away with all the great comments here!

    My partner and I talk every so often about what would happen if we were to die and what our wishes were. Mine are either to be cremated or a natural burial if at all possible. His is to be buried, embalmed with huge Irish wake and all. In most cemeteries we could not be buried together ( from my understanding). My grandmother and grandfather are running into that as well. Swedish grandma wants to be cremated and grandpa wants the big Irish funeral. They have to pick different sites.

    The reason my partner wants to be embalmed and have a wake is because it’s what’s his family has done since forever. “It’s just what happens” he says. Do people back in the Homeland of Ireland do the whole embalming thing? Do you know? OR any of you know? Was this just “What Happened” when the Irish immigrated to America?

    • kelly

      You can have a wake for your partner without needing to embalm his body. Body decomposition can be retarded 2-3 days by keeping it cold with dry ice or techni ice.

  • I feel that modern traditional burial is morally obscene. It is only my opinion, but draining someone’s blood and replacing it with carcinogens feels like a desecration. The funeral industry typically resists change, I understand that, but green burial–returning our dead to the earth–is not going to go away any time soon.
    As an American, I frequently wonder why it takes so long for us to catch up with the rest of the world.

  • Bodies should be burned.

  • scram415@yahoo.com

    I saw a PBS special on green burial that has made me a convert. I feel like I have left enough of a carbon footprint/trail of trash in my wake, throughout the course of my life. Why not top it off with a healthy dose of chemicals that leach themselves into the ground for eternity?

    While I hope I have another 4 decades to worry about this, I have already made my wishes known about this to my family. I was wondering if it was possible to not be embalmed/vaulted in cement AND be able to have a tombstone too? I am in Northern California.