Ending on a Green Note: Exploring Green Burials

There's a lot of talk about how to live sustainably, but today some people are talking about how to treat the environment well, even after death. The Allegheny Front's Sarah Rutherford looks into green burials.

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The Allegheny Cemetery is one of the nation's first landscaped cemeteries. Tom Roberts, its president, gives a tour of some of the 220 developed acres of the cemetery which he considers to be Pittsburgh's first park.

Roberts: I think when you talk about traditional burials as I've known it and my generation has known it that also is environmentally friendly in that the environment that we create to accommodate that is often woodlands with wildlife, animals, horticulture, a park-like setting.

However some people are moving away from the notion of a casket, a concrete burial vault, and a gravestone and are asking for other options, ones that may be more eco-friendly.

Nat Soundóstart of lawn mower.

Pete McQuillin, the founder of green burial Pittsburgh, listens to the constant hum of a lawnmower in the Homewood Cemetery as he describes his reasons for wanting a more natural burial.

McQuillin: Wasted Much-Had a Green BurialÖso that was my summary of my life in six wordsÖI think about that a lot. I think I have wasted a lot in my life and I'm a product of the suburbs and I'm trying to waste less now. And I think it doesn't matter about cost but I think that burial vaults, steel sealed caskets with gaskets, mowing grass with lawnmowers that use gasoline, fertilizers, all of that is wasteful in my opinion. And I'd rather not do that

McQuillin and Green Burial Pittsburgh are hoping to create Pennsylvania's first certified green burial ground. They won't embalm bodies or use burial vaults, two practices which are merely traditionónot law. And they'll also require eco-friendly burial containers to cut back on the energy it takes to produce and ship steel or exotic wooden caskets.

McQUillin: Eventually we would like to have what's called a conservation burial ground which means the cemetery is on or near a conservation area andÖ you use part of the income from the cemetery to do woodland restoration.

McQuillin's already identified sites in Allegheny County that he thinks would be great for his woodland cemetery.

McQuillin: Get your google maps out and look at Allegheny County. I've identified about 500 different spots that would be really nice. We just have to find somebody who owns one of those who will donate it to us

McQuillin says these burials could be cheaper, although people would pay an overhead cost for the restoration of the burial land.

Nat Sound: bells ringing at Allegheny Cemetery

Back at Allegheny Cemetery, Tom Roberts leads the way through the somber mausoleum to talk about another optionócremation. According to the Cremation Association of North America, nearly half of Americans plan to be cremated. Of them, 13% choose it for environmental reasonsóto conserve land. But as Roberts opens the door to the crematorium, he reveals the most significant environmental downside to cremation.

Nat Sound: roar of retort

Roberts: These are all the temperature controls. You have to be around 1800-1850 degrees for the processing. It takes about 2.5 hours to go through the process.

Although there is some debate about the air emissions associated with cremation, much of the current focus is on the fossil fuel required for each cremation. Roberts says that he usually spends between 80-90 dollars on natural gas for each cremation. But he says this amount is comparable to a full body burial.

Roberts: Well if you think of a traditional burial you have the gas or the diesel fuel to run your equipment. To go up and dig the grave, bring the dirt in and outÖso I would imagine that when you look at the consumption of just fuel you would be comparable

There's a new option on the horizon. It's been used with animal remains for a decade but it will be introduced to funeral services in September. It's called alkaline hydrolysis.

Alkaline hydrolysis relies on water and alkali to break apart the proteins and fats that make up a living organism. The process takes only a few hours and doesn't use natural gas. What's left behind is a sterile coffee-colored liquid as well as some bones.

Perry Habecker's familiar with the process of alkaline hydrolysis. He does necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the large animals from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.

Habecker: The alkaline hydrolysis leaves behind bones. But these bones are substantially altered, they are chemically altered. They have a waxy and crumbly texture to them so I'm sure that its use in humans would result in a similar end product to what incinerated bodies would createócremains.

Not everybody is willing to equate alkaline hydrolysis to cremation.

McGannon: For the Cath. Cemeteries Association, it's really about how the Church would feel about that particular newer form of disposition. And from what I know about it it's basically a chemical means of dissolving the human body into a type of brown sludge, as I would call it.

Anabel McGannon's the executive director of the Catholic Cemetery Association of Pittsburgh. She says that the Church hasn't issued a statement on the process of alkaline hydrolysis. But she predicts that the Church wonít approve it.

McGannon: I'm fairly certain that because of what I know about alkaline hydrolysis that the Church would regard it as undignified and regard it as not suitable for the disposition of human remains.

Although it isn't something people talk about everyday, all of us have to decide what is suitable for our bodies after death. And in this age of environmental awareness, many more people are hoping to end on a greener note.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Sarah Rutherford