This article is from the national Green Burial Council’s October newsletter.
The Silver Tsunami
contributed by: Rob Caughlan
For thirty years, scientists have been predicting that the global temperature increases were going to have significant consequences such as more extreme weather- bigger and more frequent storms, more flooding, longer droughts, more wildfires, rising sea levels and tens of thousands of environmental refugees.
The consequences of climate change are already evident. It doesn’t take another international study by 2000 scholars and scientists to confirm this. In the United States alone, the Maine lobsters are moving to Canada. The armadillos are moving up to Illinois. Wildfires in California have burned more than 800,000 acres of land. Texas has had three (3) five-hundred year floods in the last three (3) years. The frequency and severity of the hurricane season all across the planet isn’t a coincidence.
Predictions about the future are difficult to make accurately. But there is no larger environmental issue that is more foreseeable than the fact that 80 million of us baby boomers are going to need end of life services in the near future. This huge demographic anomaly provides our country (United States) with an important way to help solve several problems. The first is that most cemeteries are already full. The second is that green burial can reduce significant amounts of unnecessary climate changing pollution.
This demographic anomaly has been called The Silver Tsunami.
Here’s the situation. When Americans are buried in a conventional cemetery (one allowing or requiring concrete liners and embalmed bodies), they are interred below the flat green grass that has been watered and probably treated with pesticides. (A cemetery in San Mateo, CA uses $300,000 worth of water every year).
Prior to burial, many bodies in the United States are filled with embalming chemicals. Every year, over four million gallons of embalming fluid containing formaldehyde is placed into the ground. Twenty (20) million board feet of lumber a year is used to make caskets. I don’t have any problem with that if it is not endangered South American hardwood. A good book about all of this, Grave Matters by Mark Harris estimates that the average 10 acre swatch of cemetery ground contains 1000 tons of casket steel. But worst of all, all of this is put inside a cement vault. These concrete boxes keep the lawns flat, and allow the cemetery to pack more caskets closer together.
Unless we can provide people with better alternatives about 40%, or 30 million of us 80 million boomers will probably have to be buried in this manner. Now, mainly because it is less expensive, the other 60% of the baby boomers, about 50 million people will choose to be cremated.
Then of course there is the smoke and particulate matter from 50 million burning bodies. Cremation is correctly viewed as being easier on the planet than full body burial of an embalmed body, and cremation will probably continue to be a bit less expensive than natural burial plots, but taking up less space isn’t necessarily a good argument. In Japan, 95% of the people are cremated because it’s a small country. They don’t have a lot of space. In the United States, we have plenty.
But from an environmental point of view natural burial is by far the best.
There is a growing movement in Europe and the United States for natural burials. The so-called “green burials” are really just a return to the old ways, like the Pilgrims did. Bury the person in a pine box or a shroud and plant a tree over the grave. “What we now call green burial, used to be called burial.”
The United States is lagging behind England. They have more than 250 green cemeteries, or natural burial parks or ancestral groves. We only have a couple dozen of the all natural parks: Although that number is growing. I just saw the plans for a new one in Florida.
Green burials, typically, are not as expensive as a the conventional cemetery with upright and/or flat markers. There are many within the funeral industry, that are, understandably, not big fans of the natural burial movement. They won’t get to sell as much concrete or brass or perform their embalming services.
But more and more of the typical flat lawn cemeteries are starting to respond to the increasing interest in and demand for green burials by dedicating parcels of their properties for green burial. These are now being called hybrid cemeteries.
But hybrid cemeteries will not be enough. Most of our typical tombstone cemeteries are already almost full! We need to start planning and creating a large quantity of new cemeteries to accommodate the millions of Americans who will choose full body burial. We will need to accommodate about eight million people right here in California in the very near future. Like I said, there is no future problem that is more accurately predictable.
It is difficult to set up new cemeteries. The rules in California are tough. But I think we could help solve the shortage of cemeteries and provide people with a green burial option by working with land trust organizations.
The concept is simple. Land trusts dedicate a small portion of their holdings for a natural burial park. The consumers purchase a plot and the burial service. The land trust oversees the planting of trees or native grasses over the graves and uses the proceeds to protect more open space. It’s called a conservation cemetery; it has a higher purpose than just storage.
All the trends are showing that people want more participation in the end of life events. Home funerals, hospice midwives, and innovative burial events are increasingly popular.
Star Trek’s, James Doohan, had a portion of his ashes shot into the Earth’s orbit. Outdoorsman John Grayson Rogers had his ashes put into an eternal reef ball placed near the coral reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
I believe that there are many thousands of people in California and around the country, like Prius buyers and Whole Foods shoppers, who care strongly about environmental issues and climate change who would rather spend their money for a more ecological end of life alternative.
Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”
I believe natural burial can be a win, win-win, idea. It’s a win for open space preservation because it would help fund land trust protection efforts. And, it is a double win for us boomer consumers. We save some money. And we benefit from knowing that our last act made a small yet positive contribution to the overheated little planet that we will soon be leaving to our grandchildren. And that makes it a win for the planet.
The eloquent environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote,
“A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak,
Which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel,
Which feeds an Indian, Who ultimately lays him
down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man
– to grow another oak.”