The Shock and Awe of Green Burial Statistics
by Brian Hayden
July 22, 2021

This is the second excerpt we’re reprinting from “Green Burial by the Numbers” – Lee Webster’s 2016 article written for the Green Burial Council. The last section was “Who Buys Green Burial?“. This piece offers context around the environmental impact of green burial and the industry growth rate.

Given that green burial hasn’t seen much light of day in a century or so in the US, it stands to reason that statistical information might be fairly hard to come by. At least, that was the assumption when beginning the monumental task of quantifying the growth of the movement in concrete terms. But as it turns out, not so tough after all. Apparently the same people who tout the practice of going as naturally as possible to the grave are also science and math geeks. Go figure.

The Shock and Awe of Green Burial Statistics

Probably the earliest statistics in the green burial world were developed years ago by a part-time science writer at Cornell University, Mary Woodsen, who came up with them as a little mental gymnastics exercise while writing an article for Outside Magazine that became a quest. Who hasn’t seen these posted on Facebook or quoted, often erroneously, in every major news outlet article in the past few years?

Each year in the U.S., 22,500 traditional cemeteries put roughly the following into our soil:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
  • 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods (much tropical, caskets)
  • 90,272 tons of steel (caskets)
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)

These statistics were later refined to statements and refigured to further fire the imagination:

  • On average, a cemetery buries 1,000 gallons of embalming fluid, 97.5 tons of steel, 2,028 tons of concrete, and 56,250 board feet of high quality tropical hardwood in just one acre of land.
  • Each cremation releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury as bodies are burned. This amounts to between 1,000 and 7,800 pounds of mercury released each year in the U.S. 75% goes into the air and the rest settles into the ground and water.
  • You could drive about 4,800 miles on the energy equivalent of the energy used to cremate someone – and to the moon and back 85 times from all cremations in one year in the U.S.
  • Ten years later, Woodsen discovered that the amount of wood used in any given year had been reduced by a third, from 30 million to 20 million board feet, learning that caskets were simply being made with a thinner shell.

These figures have become part of the eco-conscience of an entire movement, co-opted and borrowed and reported at every opportunity. Whether they are presented to a class of environmental studies college students or a room full of senior at the center after lunch, these statistics are compelling and frightening and utterly persuasive when speaking to funeral neophytes eager for change.

And while these figures have been pivotal in opening the eyes of both the public and the industry itself, they have also focused primarily on the negatives, rather than promoting what benefits green burials present or what environmental and health concerns may be remedied that go beyond land preservation.

Worker safety is paramount to the move away from embalming as well. With embalmers at an 8+ times higher risk of contracting leukemia (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 11.24.09) and a 3 times higher risk of ALS (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 7.13.15), plus various other diseases and conditions, green practices matter in human terms. Maintenance workers in lawn cemeteries experience a higher level of COPD and other respiratory and neurological diseases through exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers than the general public. They matter, too.

The Growing Movement

At the Green Burial Council, we are often asked about growth of the green burial movement itself. How many people are buried in green cemeteries every year? How many people are buried in shrouds? How many families have home funerals prior to taking the body to the cemetery for burial? How many bodies get dug up by corpse-eating animals?

These are all questions that no agency tracks, and are well outside the capability of the GBC to monitor. So how can we prove that green burial is living up to its promise? How can we be assured that the concept is viable when practiced?

For that, we need to rely on anecdotal and historical information that is less quantifiable but equally compelling. With 195 countries in the world, only the US and Canada embalm routinely, and only US cemeteries require vaults. The rest of the world has apparently been burying without embalming or using vaults since time began and has continued to do so for millennia without adverse effects, including ferociously hungry animals without enough live prey to keep them fed above ground.

In 1998, there was one intentional green cemetery in the US. There are now more than 150. [Updated number from 2021: 333] Many more never wrote vault requirements into their bylaws, so those unpublicized green burial grounds are not part of the figure that could conceivably be in the hundreds or even thousands nationwide. This means that in at least 150 cemeteries in the US, vaults are not required. Granted, that’s .01% of all the cemeteries in the US, but it’s a start.

Another way to track growth is through internet search engine activity and social media. In 2012, search criteria for the words green burial triggered a little over a dozen Google alerts for stories world-wide on green burial practices, cemeteries, and related articles in all media outlets during the entire year. Just two years later, 137 showed up during the year, many including multiple stories, representing a sharp increase in interest by the media and the public.

Since the GBC started its Facebook page in January of 2011, over 4,000 people have signed up to follow and receive updates. Followers more than doubled during 2015 alone, and in the first half of 2016, an average of 46 new devotees a week had been Liking the page to learn more about how they can support —and prepare for—a more eco-friendly exit.

Surveys tell a similar story. In 2007, an AARP survey reported that 42% of respondents would consider green burial. The following year, a survey by Kates-Boyleston concurred, with a slight bump to 43%. In 2011, an exit poll of an article in US Catholic Magazine cited 80% of its readers in favor of green burial.

By 2015, 64% agreed in a Harris Poll contracted by FAMIC that green burial is the preferred option. And in May of 2016, in an informal exit poll from the article A Different Way of Death: Why the Alternative Funeral Movement is Taking Hold in the United States by Kristen Warfield, 79% indicated they would elect a green burial over conventional means.

What do cemeterians say about the growth in popularity? Ed Bixby, owner and operator of Steelmantown Natural Preserve in New Jersey and current President of the GBC, says, “Five years ago, someone in the funeral industry might have said, ‘I appreciate what you are doing and do have interest…but I will contact you when I have a family ask for it.’ Five years later, funeral directors are asking for information because of increased public awareness and demand. They want to be prepared for the call that they know will ultimately be coming.”

Copyright © 2016 by Lee Webster. Originally published by Kates-Boylston Publishing.

Photo: Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery