Cremation Over Casket? How About Neither.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York. While cremation and traditional burials are still the dominant methodologies of handling the dead, a third option has been gaining traction: green burials.

Yet the ways in which New Yorkers are being laid to rest aren’t recorded.

“States do not, on death certificates, distinguish between a green burial and a traditional burial or flame-based cremation or an alternative process,” Jessica Koth, Public Relations Manager for National Funeral Directors Association, said.

Prior to the Civil War, majority of U.S citizens had green burials, meaning embalming fluid wasn’t used and caskets were biodegradable. Embalming began as a way to preserve dead soldiers so they could come home from war for families to say goodbye too.

“It’s a return to the old way of doing things,” Christina Orbán-La Salle, Director of green burials for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, said.

Established in 1849, lying parallel to the Hudson River, the cemetery is home to Washington Irving, the Gothic author of the tale of the headless horseman.

The cemetery was established as a hybrid in 2009, meaning it both serves traditional and green burials. Here, a little under an acre of the 90-acre cemetery is devoted to green burials.

Green burials look unidentifiable to the naked eye. There are no headstones, rather the graves are marked with natural rocks found from the surrounding area, some engraved with names or initials. In spring, the field blooms into an array of native plants, with a small path through the tall brush to lead you to each gravestone.

New York has six natural burial grounds and three hybrid locations certified by the Green Burial Council. Founded in 2005 by Joe Sehee, the council oversees green burials globally. Its mission is to ensure that the growing trend of environmental responsibility was based on sustainable standards.

A wicker casket at Branch Funeral Home in Smithtown

Preferring a simple pine or wicker casket, this environmentally-friendly option does not use wood, metal, or concrete, with the inside lined with untreated natural fabrics. Some green burials consist of shrouds only, the garment covering those laid to rest, omitting the casket all together.

In the U.S alone, traditional burials use 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million feet of hardwood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 81,500 tons of metal, according to a study by Mary Woodsen of Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve in Newfield, New York. 

Embalming chemicals are used to preserve a corpse from decay. The mixture’s ingredients include glutaraldehyde, methanol, and formaldehyde, which was classified as a human carcinogen in 2011 by the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The risk of burial falls on the embalmers who have a 13 percent higher death rate than the average American, according to Centers for Disease Control. Embalmers also have 8 times higher risk of getting leukemia than the general population according to a Dec. 2009 Journal of National Cancer Institute study.

A single burial produces, on average, 230 pounds of carbon, with green burials only producing 25 pounds.

Cremation’s rise in popularity is attributed to “consumer cost considerations, environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions of the practice and changing consumer preferences,” according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2018 Cremation and Burial report, based on death certificate data collected by state departments of vital statistics.

While cremation has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional burials, it still creates 540 pounds of carbon emissions and uses an average of 28 gallons of fuel to burn a singe body.

“There’s not really a land crisis in availability but there is certainly one with climate change and environmental crises happening,” Carlton Basmajian,  Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University, said.  

“Burials could be one small part of a solution in terms of preserving the kind of ecosystem function of land.”

Cremation accounted for 51.6 percent of all death preparations in the U.S in 2017, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

The green burial section of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is indistinguishable to the naked eye. Yet dozens are laid to rest on this plot.

“The rising popularity of cremation has reduced the volume of materials consumed by full-body burial, but what still ends up in the ground remains substantial,” according to “Natural burial as a land conservation tool in the US,” Oct. 2018, published by Basmajian and Christopher Coutts, Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. 

Here on Long Island, the owners of Branch Funeral Home of Miller Place and Smithtown and Hawkins & Davis Funeral Home in Smithtown have offered green burials for a little over ten years as a way to adapt to new needs, having worked with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for years.

“As you know growing up there are fads. The millennial generation wants to be at the forefront of whatever fad that is and tend to break away from traditional roots,” Paul Vigliante, director of the three funeral parlors, said. 

Despite only a handful of green burials coming his way each year, he still has noticed an increase in prevalence. 

The process begins inside the funeral home, where morticians prepare the bodies and then bring them in hearses to the cemetery. The preparation of a green burials has a tendency to be cheaper than traditional burials or even cremation, due to forgoing the embalming procedure, however transportation to accessible cemeteries can be costly due the far distance from Long Island.

Forty-eight percent of respondents to a 2018 study by the National Funeral Directors Association were interested in “green” funerals.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have inquires about this section,” Orbán-La Salle said.

Traditional burial section at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery