Holy Cross Cemetery. Photo credit: Adam McIntosh / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A Greener Way to Die

Are We Doing Our Worst Environmental Damage From the Grave?


Even the most zealous guardians of the environment don’t realize that they often do their worst environmental damage when they die. Green burial activist Suzanne Kelly talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the current American way of death. It is often presided over by seemingly small, but often corporatized funeral homes, and may in fact be one of the most polluting and environmentally damaging things that we do.

Back in the early ‘60’s Jessica Mitford wrote a shocking book — The American Way of Death — that exposed how the funeral industry took advantage of the aggrieved with expensive and unnecessary burial practices.

Now we are learning that this $15 billion-a-year business is also unsustainable — and highly destructive to the environment.

Consider this: the millions of gallons of toxic embalming fluid used to pretty up and “preserve” corpses eventually find their way into the ground, contaminating soil and water resources. And the iron, lead, copper, zinc, and cobalt used in caskets and vaults also contaminate the soil. Even cremation isn’t nearly as clean as you might think. Crematories release by-products from embalming fluid, dental fillings, surgical devices, etc.

Enter the “Green Burial” movement that advocates burying a body, without embalming, in a biodegradable container that allows direct immersion into the earth — and the body returns to the land and to the cycle of life.

Suzanne Kelly, PhD — author of Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, September 2015) — has been a chief advocate for this practice.

Kelly’s work, which she discusses in this podcast with Jeff Schechtman, is beginning to have an impact. She says that today families are starting to push back on non-sustainable practices.

“Death is understood to be a path to environmental protection,” says Kelly. “The Green burial offers us the possibility of restoring our lost relationship to the land.”



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Related frontpage panorama photo credit: Holy Cross Cemetery (Adam McIntosh / FlickrCC BY 2.0).


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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