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Lesson Plan: The high cost of dying and green burials

Apr 14, 2022
5 min Read
Blake Ursch
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Green Burials

For many Americans, death is something they don’t want to think about until they absolutely have to.

Blame it on anxiety or cultural conditioning or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, avoiding the reality of our own and our loved ones’ mortality is the root cause of widespread problems in the funeral industry that compound the suffering of those grieving, says Victoria Haneman, JD, LLM, the Frank J. Kellegher Professor of Trusts and Estates in the Creighton School of Law.

“The law has been controlled by the (funeral) industry for almost a century,” Haneman says. “And what’s really interesting is, we’ve allowed this to happen. We’ve allowed it to happen because we don’t like thinking about death, and consequently, as consumers, we don’t behave normally with regard to death care expenses.”

The Financial and Environmental Impact

Haneman has become a leading voice in the national discussion about the financial and environmental impact of the funeral industry in the United States. She has published several studies on the legal issues surrounding death, including “Tax Incentives for Green Burial” in the Nevada Law Journal and “Funeral Poverty” in the University of Richmond Law Review. She has also been quoted by several high-profile media outlets, including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired and PBS Newshour.

It’s a topic that’s, sadly, more relevant than ever as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll climbs toward 1 million.

The center of her criticism is this: A funeral and burial for the average American will cost about $9,000. A significant amount, given that at least 40% of Americans say they can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense.

“That $9,000 is more than a lot of people pay for a car. And, yet, nobody is behaving normally with an expense like this,” she says. “When we don’t think about death, we create a norm of distress purchasing. We don’t research anything ahead of time, and when death inevitably happens, the funeral director holds all the cards. We rely on guidance from professionals who always have a profit-seeking objective.”

The traditional open-casket funeral is what drives the cost, Haneman says. Embalming, cosmeticized remains, flowers, the casket itself. All the trappings of a traditional service are opportunities for the funeral home to upsell the bereaved. And about that funeral home: Only 16.8% of consumers ever call more than one, Haneman says.

When we don’t think about death, we create a norm of distress purchasing. We don’t research anything ahead of time, and when death inevitably happens, the funeral director holds all the cards.
— Victoria Haneman, JD, LLM

Cost aside, the traditional methods of laying the dead to rest — casket or cremation — have a serious impact on the environment, Haneman says. In her published research, Haneman reports an estimated 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried along with bodies annually in the U.S. Caskets are made of nonbiodegradable chipboard. Fire-based cremation burns fossil fuels, releasing an estimated 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

But increasingly, Haneman says, people are turning to alternatives.

“There’s a death positive movement that’s started arising over the past 10 or 15 years,” she says. “With the rising age of the baby boomer generation, you see less interest in traditional death care practice.”

New Methods of Burial

Haneman points to several innovative companies piloting new methods of burial with green technology. One, Seattle-based Recompose, uses a process called natural organic reduction to transform human remains into topsoil, which the deceased’s loved ones can then use to grow whatever they want.

Tech companies have also explored other, even more novel methods of burial, Haneman says. One, called promession, involves freeze-drying a body and turning it into nitrogen-rich dust. Another, alkaline hydrolysis, or liquid cremation, involves dissolving a body with environmentally safe chemicals, and was most notably chosen by the Rev. Desmond Tutu at his death in December 2021.

There are still other methods. Actor Luke Perry was buried in a mushroom suit — a cotton suit with mushroom spores sewn into the fabric. Upon burial, mushrooms feed on the body and aid in decomposition.

By sharing the many possibilities, Haneman says she hopes to get her students and the wider public thinking about what they and their loved ones want when they die. Sometimes in an irreverent, light-hearted way.

“I’ve had students email me about death tech. One of them asked me about a service that turns you into a glass ball,” Haneman says. “That’s when I say, ‘Do you want to be sold at a garage sale in 30 years?’”   

The point is to destigmatize thinking and talking about death, to get people comfortable with planning for their own end. Haneman says she hopes to shift the narrative and create a space where students feel comfortable asking questions that they would otherwise find taboo, with the goal of helping others to have more free-flowing conversations about a topic that is an unavoidable part of life.

“We all understand the sensitivities around death,” Haneman says. “What we’re not accustomed to is dealing with the more insouciant side of it. Having fun with it. When we do that, I think we’ll be better equipped to make those important decisions.”