Grave Concerns: Would You Choose a Green Burial?

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At this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival -- held earlier this month in Durham, N.C. -- the coveted Audience Award went to the documentary feature "A Will for the Woods". A microbudget project from a team of first-time filmmakers, the movie explores the issue of eco-friendly "green burial" practices by way of one man's quest to die a meaningful death.

The success of the low-profile documentary suggests that the film has hit a cultural nerve.

Green burial, sometimes called natural burial, is a method of interment which emphasizes ecologically friendly practices and a return to traditional burial customs. Specifically, green burial eschews the use of toxic embalming fluids and concrete or steel burial vaults. Proponents encourage the use of biodegradable coffins or shrouds, and sustainable land management techniques for cemeteries.

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In a green burial, the funeral may be held at home, and the grave is typically dug by hand. The gravesite -- instead of a perfectly groomed plot -- is often a natural setting. And there is no vault -- a frequently used container for the coffin that can support the weight of heavy equipment and keeps the body from decaying and mixing into the soil.

Joe Sehee is founder of the Green Burial Council, a non-profit organization that issues green burial certifications for cemeteries and funeral providers. Sehee said that conventional burial practices can be wasteful, harmful and sometimes weirdly irrational.

"What most Americans don't understand is that embalming with toxic chemicals was never prevalent in the U.S. before the turn of the last century," Seehee said. "Or that embalming is rarely done outside of about a half dozen countries. Vaults are almost never used outside of North America and were never used here until the 1930s."

It's long been known that embalming fluids such as formaldehyde pose a risk to funeral home workers. An oft-cited 2009 study by the National Cancer Institute found a strong correlation between formaldehyde exposure and mortality from leukemia.

Sehee said that green burial practices can further other ecological imperatives as well, such as reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources and restoring natural habitats. Green burial areas are designed to minimize impact on the natural landscape.

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