As recently as the 1800s, green burial was arguably the only type of burial one could expect to participate in. Traditionally, North American families would have been in charge of caring for their deceased by preparing, dressing, and displaying their loved ones in their own homes. As formal parlours with the family’s finest furniture and possessions became more and more popular, these rooms, often neat, tidy, and rarely used, became popular locations for funeral visits and wakes. Some of the larger homes of this time period would have featured a ‘death door,’ which went directly from the parlour to the outside, and which was used for transporting caskets in and out of the room. Caskets at this time would have been simple wooden constructions, either made at home or purchased at the General Store.
The funeral industry, as we know it to be now, began to develop with the American Civil War, where large numbers of soldiers died away from home and new methods of allowing soldiers to be shipped over long distances became necessary. This need inspired the development of modern-day embalming, which was initially developed as a way of transporting recently deceased bodies across the country.
Simultaneously, a shift in space use was occurring, as family burials on privately-owned land began to lose favour and be replaced by park-like cemeteries. The civil war also led to the development of the first military cemeteries in the United States. As more and more of the funeral process became consolidated, so too did the roles and definitions of the industry, shaping it into the proscribed and consumerised process it so often is today.
As with many large-scale industries (in the US alone, the deathcare industry is estimated to be valued at nearly 12B annually), there is an environmental impact associated with traditional burial. It is estimated that, in a single year, enough embalming fluid is buried to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. Additionally, enough reinforced concrete is used in caskets to build a two-lane highway between New York and Detroit, and more steel is used than was needed to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
There is conscious change afoot, however, and in 1996 the first green cemetery in the United States, Ramsey Creek, was opened. They have been working to provide ecologically-friendly burial options with the long-term goal of protecting one millions acres of wilderness through their funerary work and are just one example of the type of burial ground gaining popularity in the industry.
Since its (re)inception, Green Burial has gained popularity in North America and Britain, where it is especially popular, as well as other locations around the world. While Green Burial takes many forms and follows many policies depending on the specific site and any overseeing bodies, commonalities include natural spaces, chemical-free preservation methods, simple or non-existent caskets free of endangered woods and chemicals and a commitment to a greener end-of-life event. In many cases, land preservation is also a consideration.