Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Thinking how one would want to be interred after death is probably not a regular pastime of most American people. Recently, though, The Washington Post highlighted a contemporary movement towards “green burials.” According to Ellen McCarthy’s article, a growing number of environmentally conscientious Americans are rethinking traditional burials.

McCarthy leads by conversing with one DC resident who plans on a “Chipotle funeral.”  “They can wrap me up and throw me there and cover me up with some grass and soil,” he says. The idea, says McCarthy, is rejecting the intensive and often costly rituals of embalming, caskets, and headstones. Simply wrap up the remains in a linen—one interviewee suggested that a clean bed sheet would suffice—and place directly in the ground.

Those who opt for green burials do so for various reasons, McCarthy writes, but two motivations clearly stand out: Spirituality and environment. Nearly everyone McCarthy quotes mentions that green burials allow the deceased to “become part of the earth again.” Environmental concern is also prominent. McCarthy mentions that several green burials feature shrouds or coverings which are biodegradable.

From a traditional Christian perspective, two things should be mentioned at the outset. First, the cost of modern, traditional funerals is indeed appalling and unrealistic for many people. Searching for a more efficient, less burdensome method of laying loved ones to rest is understandable and entirely commendable.

Secondly, the propriety of a green burial depends on one’s theology of the body. Several of McCarthy’s interviews include vaguely pantheistic allusions to spiritually “joining the earth.” While it’s true that the physical body returns to the stuff from which it is made, the spiritual person lives on after death. Bodies may return to dust, but people do not.

There are two kinds of mistakes that can be made in thinking about death and burials. The first kind is the kind that completely disregards the body. Though the body returns to dust at death, the Christian tradition teaches that it will be raised one day from the ground, and transformed gloriously. That means that the body is important, not simply a shell for a soul but an actual piece of eternal identity. The second mistake is to worship the body. When we take an excessive amount of interest in preserving our physical selves, we often become selfish, superficial beings. One might suggest that the reason the contemporary funeral ritual is as crushingly expensive as it is is because of cultural worship of the body.

The aim should be to treat the physical body with dignity, while acknowledging that people are much more than bodies and will exist long after their earthly flesh has perished.  To the extent that this worldview can be reflected in a cost-diminishing method, “green burials” can be considered in a responsible, Christian way. We should be clear, though, that people ultimately belong to their Creator, not to other parts of His creation.