By Jennifer Balmos, Esq.
More than anything, the term green burial reflects a spectrum of options that all seek to minimize environmental impact of the body’s disposition.
Opinions and emotions often run strong when discussing what to do with a person’s body after he or she passes away. Some want to pull out all of the stops with a multi-day celebration, others wish to adhere to the tenets of their faith, and still others want minimal time and money spent. A new twist on these preferences is the desire to dispose of remains in a manner that is as environmentally friendly as possible. Enter the green burial movement.
There is no such thing as a standard green burial. Options range from burial of the body in a simple shroud to cremation with ashes placed into a biodegradable urn, which is subsequently buried. More than anything, the term reflects a spectrum of options that all seek to minimize environmental impact of the body’s disposition.
The Green Burial Council (greenburialcouncil.org) defines a green burial as one that involves “caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact, that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.” Accordingly, green burial options tend to land on a spectrum: from those that involve no chemicals or cremation to those that are simply “more green” than traditional methods of embalming and burial. In densely populated places such as Manhattan, some prefer a “greener” option for the simple reason that the space for traditional burial is limited.
Embalming is one of the largest concerns for those intending to minimize environmental impact, as each body typically requires three to four gallons of chemicals, which then leak into the soil, or, potentially, groundwater. To put that in perspective: a small swimming pool could be filled with the chemicals used by a 10-acre cemetery. Among other factors, moving away from traditional embalming techniques has led to an increase in cremation.
According to Virginia Tech Associate Professor Phil Olson, the preference toward cremation in America is changing. He estimates that just under 80 percent of bodies will be cremated in 2035. Some of that increase may be attributed to changing social preferences, or to the lower cost of cremation. Still others view cremation as a “greener” option, but it is not a perfect solution either. Cremation’s carbon footprint is about 10 percent lower than embalming and burial, but it still requires 28 gallons of fuel for the cremation process.
Additionally, disposing of the ashes is not always environmentally friendly. Because ashes are so dense, they may smother plants or foliage when scattered. When ashes are buried on their own, they provide no environmental benefits.
Developments and Recommendations
Of course, state laws may prohibit or restrict options for “greener” burial. In May 2019, Washington became the first state to allow “natural organic reduction,” essentially composting, for its residents. Instead of burial, the body is placed with straw and woodchips. After a few weeks, the result is approximately two wheelbarrow loads of compost, which can be returned to the family.
However, in Texas, statutes prohibit a person’s ashes from being scattered if he or she dies intestate. Section 711.002 of the Texas Health and Safety Code states that the remains of a person who passed away without a will must be interred. The statute further defines interment as “entombment, burial, or placement in a niche” without any further options.
As with nearly every aspect of estate planning and elder law, it is imperative that a client have a plan in place before it is needed. Particularly, for those desiring a green burial, attorneys should make sure that the client’s wishes are recorded in whatever instrument is required by law, such as a will or separate, standalone document.
Attorneys should further advise their clients to discuss their wishes with their family and loved ones. It has been my personal experience that many families have not discussed their wishes prior to meeting me in my office, and then are surprised to hear that they have different choices. As counselors, attorneys should be prepared to help their clients determine what is most important, and to walk him or her through the options.
So often, clients do not know what they don’t know, and this could not be truer with green burials. Learning more about this subject is a great way to help educate your clients as well as add more value to the planning process.
About the Author
Jennifer Balmos, Esq., has an elder law practice in Bartonsville, Texas. She is a member of the NAELA News Editorial Board.