“Laudato Si” and Liturgical Life — Example 1: Green Burial Practices

Since the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si” I have been thinking about how best to spell out this beautiful text for liturgical and devotional practices.  Some of this is easily done, since the Pope offers his own examples (especially in the section on “Sacramental Signs and the Celebration of Rest”):  pray before meals; go forward singing; commit to Sunday as a day of rest; appreciate the sacraments as “a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God” (# 235).

But of course there is so much more, and I invite all of us to help spell out “Laudato Si” for the world of liturgy and life.  Here is one first example, related to contemporary burial practices (and no, this is not really far-fetched; even St. Francis’s canticle, which gave the encyclical its title, ponders “Sister Death”). 

Did you know that a typical American cemetery is a veritable ecological disaster zone? It is filled to the brim with toxic embalming chemicals (used post mortem on human bodies) and contains close to 1,000 tons of casket steel as well as 20,000 tons of vault concrete.  Such a cemetery essentially destroys the ecological balance of the land on which it sits.  The Green Burial Movement (more info here: http://greenburialcouncil.org/home/what-is-green-burial/) seeks to change this and return us to older and simpler practices of caring for those who have died and of burying the dead.  I am deeply committed to these green burial practices (I have a simple pine “shelf-coffin” in my office, for example, that will one day easily transform itself from being a shelf to becoming my coffin, lid included).  And I was glad to learn that the Diocese of Albany, NY, for example, has a “Natural Burial Preserve,” that is, undeveloped space, at one of its diocesan cemeteries, for green burials.  Apparently, there are by now numerous other green cemeteries in the U.S. that not only allow for natural burials but also skip pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in the burial ground’s upkeep.  Given that I work hard at keeping my carbon footprint low as I journey through life, I am delighted that I will be able to keep my carbon footprint low once I have died.   

I thus welcome Pope Francis’s “Laudato Si” not least because I hope that we can have sustained conversations about the changes we have to make in our everyday lives as well as our liturgical and devotional practices in order to respond to the ecological emergency we live in.

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13 comments

  1. Amen. This is a topic that has interested me for a long time, but for more selfish reasons. I just can’t imagine what the point of living is if your remains can’t fertilize any plants because they’re encased in concrete. Thank you for the additional perspective regarding environmental impact.

  2. As a newly minted cemetarian (my new parish owns a cemetery, making me the director) I can tell you that the concrete vaults are sometimes government required. The purpose is to protect ground water. I know also that they are working on less toxic embalming methods.

    1. @Bruce Janiga:
      Protecting ground water from human bodies’ processes of decomposition seems to me to be only necessary when these human bodies are “toxic”, i.e. Have been embalmed, or are in a lead coffin, etc. With natural burial practices, the ground water is no more affected than by the natural death of a deer (whom we don’t bury in concrete vaults because of ground water concerns).

  3. How (if) does one combine burial in a biodegradable coffin in a green burial place with the usual Roman Catholic church ceremonies? Thanks for any comments.

    1. @Cathy Wattebot:
      RC Rite of Christian Burial is compatible with green burial as far as I can tell. Some of the Catholic cemeteries in NJ offer “green” areas. If one avoids embalming I think the process would have to happen quicker than the usual 2 or 3 days after death. Vigil service, Mass and Committal do not require a particular type of coffin or burial place.

      1. @Bruce Janiga:
        Embalming is a totally superfluous exercise in terms of the “keeping” of the body before burial; simply cool/freezing storage of the body is all that is necessary. Embalming happens purely for (supposedly) cosmetic reasons — to make a deceased person look “good” — and less “dead”?! I am sorry but I consider it one of the heights of human foolishness, as well as an ecological assault.

        And as Bruce Janiga rightly said, there is absolutely no conflict between Catholic liturgical requirements and green burials. in the contrary, green burials are basically the traditional forms of (Christian) burials up until quite recently.

  4. Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota (FCA of MN), a non-profit, non-sectarian, organization dedicated to helping people make after-death arrangements http://www.fcaofmn.org/ provides a ton of information on:

    – GREEN BURIAL (Includes two slide shows, one on Trappist burial)
    – HOME FUNERALS (Caring for our own dead)
    – ALKALINE HYDROLYSIS (an alternative to cremation)

    Click on the AFTER DEATH OPTIONS tab.

    I contacted them and learned that they’re posting a Green/Natural Burial price survey on their website (for the St. Paul-Minneapolis area) in mid-July. I was told that while none of the Catholic cemeteries in Minnesota offer green burial, FCA of MN is available as a resource to Catholic parishes looking for ways to lessen the environmental impact of the so-called “conventional” funeral. Laws differ from state to state, but in Minnesota, a family may transport an unembalmed body from the home to a church for funeral rites.

    Almost all parishes rely on funeral homes (and licensed funeral directors) for their information about what is and isn’t allowed or possible. Understandably, most funeral directors are NOT advocating green burial practices.

    1. @Damian LaPorte:
      Re funeral directors: they are BY LAW required to let families choose their own coffins, urns, and shrouds, including ecologically sensitive ones! Unfortunately, many families do not know they have that right, nor are they aware of the many ecological burial vessels and practices that are now available.
      (Hence, my initial post — to raise up awareness).

      1. @Teresa Berger:
        I’ve read the FTC Funeral Rule and am aware that funeral directors must accept a casket or urn provided by the family and may not charge an additional fee. What I meant when I said “most funeral directors are NOT advocating green burial practices,” is that during a planning conference with a funeral director, it’s highly unlikely that a family will here: “Are you concerned about the environmental impact your choice of after death products and services will have?”

        I’m grateful to you for shining a light on this topic.

      2. @Damian LaPorte:
        Yes, Damian, I am absolutely with you, and understood what you were pointing out; my response was merely an additional info to yours, in support not in challenge to what you posted.

  5. Actually, in recent years, my parish cemetery (St. Peter’s in Saratoga Springs, NY) became the second cemetery in the Diocese of Albany, NY to open a natural burial section. This has not fully caught on as an option yet, but this is probably just a matter of time and education. I do not think many Catholics are aware that this option is fully compliant with the Rite of Christian Burial, as well as being much gentler to Creation. I know of at least one local funeral home that is on board for this, as well. That being said, people are interested, and seem to be at least asking our cemetery manager about what it is and what it involves, so that is a step. A much holier option, IMHO, than the caskets that come complete with speakers to keep your playlist going six feet under upon your demise… Enough money and you an take it all with you like an ancient Egyptian King!

    The other Burial Preserve mentioned in the original post is aptly known as “Kateri Meadows”, or something to that effect. St. Kateri is a fitting patroness for such a place, especially in this diocese.

  6. Hello everyone. What a fascinating discussion here. I am President of http://www.coeio.com, which provides completely green burial products that don’t need any casket and uses technology to *speed decomposition* and neutralize toxins in your body.

    Just wanted to humbly let this group know that there are a number of startups that share your views and are working to try and tackle the same problem.

    Also, we are making a film of someone going through the same process in using green burial products in a traditional setting. http://kck.st/1LNMdTs

    If we can be of help to this discussion please let me know.

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