The push for a sustainable death

  • Anya Nicoll was inspired by a friend to fight for burial rights. Amanda Gokee / NH Bulletin

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 1/26/2022 5:16:38 PM
Modified: 1/26/2022 5:15:21 PM

For an 18-year-old, Anya Nicoll knows a lot about burials.

And like many of her generation, she is concerned about sustainability – her starting point for what’s become two years and counting of advocating for environmentally friendly burials. Natural, or green, burials forgo the concrete vault, metal casket, and embalming fluid involved in a typical burial – eliminating materials that can lead to environmental harm.

The movement around sustainable burials is growing in New Hampshire, but there’s at least one state law on the books that Nicoll and other advocates say could hamper people’s right to choose how they are buried: a 1971 statute on embalming that Nicoll is now working to repeal with the help of her state representative, Jerry Knirk, a Freedom Democrat.

“For embalming, a lot of harmful chemicals can be used in the process, which leach out into the earth eventually. They also can be quite harmful to the workers,” said Nicoll, whose goal is for each person to be able to choose how they are buried. The goal was inspired by a friend of Nicoll’s, a 93-year-old woman who wants a natural burial but was told by the town of Freedom’s cemetery trustees that she would have to be buried in a vault if she wanted to be laid to rest in her hometown.

It’s up to local government to set cemetery rules, while the state weighs in on what happens to a body before interment. The law Nicoll and Knirk are trying to repeal requires embalming for bodies that are going to be publicly viewed 24 hours after death – but critics say the confusing language in the law leaves it open to misinterpretation, creating situations that strip grieving families of their right to choose.

“We’re not asking the state to stop funeral homes from setting their own policies. We are asking the state to remove the confusingly written law that has been misused by a minority of funeral homes to compel a purchase that some families don’t want to make,” Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told lawmakers at a hearing on Monday.

Some funeral directors, such as Michael Pelczar of Kent & Pelczar Funeral Home & Crematory, would like to see the law remain. Pelczar said the law lends authority to difficult conversations he has with families during an emotional time. Pelczar’s funeral home manages Mount Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, which had its first green burial in 2020.

Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education, and Advocacy, said she’s heard countless stories of people who were forced into embalming a loved one against their wishes. Webster thinks that repealing the law would be an improvement at a time when there’s a growing interest in green burial.

Webster tracks green burial cemeteries in the state and across the country. Nationwide, Webster’s count includes nearly 300 green burial cemeteries, tripling since 2015. The state tally is at 11, and she’s working with a handful of other towns that are trying to change their bylaws so they can offer green burial as well.

Lebanon and Lyme are two examples. Judith Bush has been working with the cemetery trustees in Lebanon since 2019 to allow for natural burial in municipal cemeteries, and she’s optimistic that the city will make it available in the future. It’s an option she would like to have for her own burial. And Lyme recently changed the regulations for its cemeteries, allowing for unvaulted burials, according to Michael Whitman, a resident of the town who has worked with the Funeral Consumers Alliance.    

Some interest in natural burial has been driven by broader environmental concerns. Instead of burial practices that can harm the environment, the natural burial movement often aims at restoring the natural landscape. Some efforts are linked with land conservation – burials can generate a source of funding to keep land open. And, Webster said, putting bodies into the ground can even benefit the soil: “We’ve done natural resources inventories, ecological assessments, botanical surveys. So we know what’s on the land. We know how bodies are going to then go in and hopefully benefit the soil, so we’re talking restoration.”

Natural cemeteries aren’t necessarily manicured in the same way as a conventional cemetery. Instead of a short, trimmed lawn with headstones, native grasses may grow tall in a natural or conservation cemetery. Or it may be located in a woodland area. There are also hybrid cemeteries that offer sections for both conventional and natural burials.

Natural burial doesn’t use embalming fluid – which contains formaldehyde and is a danger to embalmers. The fluid contains other chemicals, like methanol, humectants, and surfactants. “We’re talking soap and window-washing fluid and benzene,” Webster said. “Those present some concern around soil.”

And there are other concerns around nonbiodegradable materials used in traditional coffins, caskets, and vaults – all of which is then inserted into the ground, where it remains.

“It’s not just putting them in the ground, but the cost of creating them, and the materials used to build them, especially concrete, which is a really notoriously environmentally unfriendly building material,” said Carlton Basmajian, an associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University who studies the environmental stressors of conventional burials.

Alterations to the landscape are made both above ground – where insecticides and herbicides are often applied – and below ground, where there’s concrete, metal, and toxic chemicals. Basmajian said it’s hard to come up with exact numbers to quantify the impact, “but we have concluded that based on all that we do know, it’s a problem.”

Recently, cremation has been gaining popularity – it now accounts for more than 50 percent of burials in the United States. In some places, it’s as high as 80 percent, but crematoriums aren’t environmentally clean, either. “They are polluting, just differently,” Basmajian said. And they use a lot of energy to do so. While some industries are heavily regulated for their environmental footprint, Basmajian said, that’s not the case for burial.

Embalming started during the Civil War, while Webster dates the arrival of vaults to the United States from Egypt to the 1930s. Green burials started gaining traction in the 1980s, which Basmajian ties to both the era’s countercultural and environmental movements. Then, it was like a form of rebellion: “Woodstock turns to burials … and now I think we’ve reached the point where this has become very mainstream thinking,” he said. 

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter.

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