Monday, November 15, 2010

A Green Death Maiden: Esmerelda Kent Advocates Green Burials and Shrouds

Death is a deeply personal thing. Undoubtedly, it is often a heart-wrenching experience. Burial acts are rituals that provide closure to mourners, a final farewell to the deceased. Some cultures also treat burial as a way to help the deceased journey to the afterlife. The sensitive nature of dealing with death may explain why many conventional burial methods have remained largely unchanged for decades, despite growing evidence that these types of burials are environmentally damaging. Yet, as environmental issues grow in importance, more people are demanding eco-friendly funeral options. We found Esmerelda Kent, the founder of Kinkaraco, and spoke with her to learn more about how she provides grieving families a greener and more natural way to lay their loved ones to rest.

Green burials focus on delivering the body back to the earth in a natural state. This allows for the body to rapidly decompose without leaving behind any chemicals or remnants of things like non-biodegradable clothing or jewelry, lessening the burial's overall impact on the environment. In truly green burials, even the soil is carefully hand-shoveled and replaced in the order it came out of the ground so that the surrounding environment will remain undisturbed. These aspects of green burials, as well as personal experience in death, drew Esmerelda to the cause.

"I had always been fascinated by all things funereal and Six Feet Under was where I wanted to live," Esmerelda said in an e-mail, referring to a television series that focuses on the life of a funeral director. However, it was Esmerelda's personal experiences with death and funerals that truly opened her eyes to the idea of working in burials. In the 1980s, several of her friends died due to the AIDS epidemic, the Kinkaraco website stated, and Esmerelda rapidly became exposed to death and everything that came with it. Soon, she began to realize the value of helping others through the grieving process. Her own organic lifestyle and Tibetan Buddhist practice, which emphasized death and bodhichitta the desire to help others, fueled her foray into producing green burial shrouds through Kinkaraco and spreading the word about green burials.

Conventional burials are environmentally taxing. Every year, the 22,500 cemeteries across the nation bury approximately 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and more than 30 million board feet of hardwoods, all from caskets lowered into the ground. In addition, about 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid is put into the ground annually, according to the statistics posted by the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve. There are additional environmental impacts from creating burial vaults as well. Fossil fuels consumed through cremation or by using a backhoe to dig graves also add to the list of negative environmental impacts. Many of these extravagant practices involved with conventional burials come from the idea of "eternal preservation," as well as from funeral corporations looking to make a buck, Esmerelda stated. “In fact, state laws concerning green burials are largely dictated by the funeral industry as opposed to actual legislature.”

"The cemeteries dictate what is and what is not allowed in the cemetery," Esmerelda said, "and funeral homes and cemeteries are heavily wined and dined as well as gobbled up by huge multinational corporations who tell them what is and what is not allowed." The bottom line is profit, she said, which typically comes from the sale of caskets, embalming services, and maintaining the perfectly manicured look of a cemetery. "The grass is even sprayed green and the amount of insecticide is staggering," she added.

On the other hand, burial shrouds and green burials are much less costly in terms of actual finances as well as environmental impact, which is one big reason why Esmerelda began making them. "I make shrouds locally because they are lightweight and easy to ship. They are beautiful, simple, biodegradable, and easy for funeral homes as well as families to wrap and use," she said. The shrouds even come with their own attached biodegradable lowering device, which eliminates the need for mechanical lowering machinery. "It is composting at its finest and most reverant," she said.

Green shrouds are made from natural silks, cotton, linens, and wools and provide an alternative to solid biodegradable coffins as well as conventional hardwood coffins. Families who desire to give their loved one a green burial can carefully prepare the body by washing it, stripping it of clothing and wrapping it either naked inside the burial shroud or clothing it in cotton garments before wrapping it with the shroud. Religious practices, such as prayers and hymns, are encouraged to help families through the process of body preparation. When it comes time to bury the loved one, a hole is carefully dug by hand and the deceased is placed within the hole before the earth is placed back on top of the body. Instead of a headstone, many green burials will plant a memorial tree instead. The emphasis is always on returning the body to the earth as naturally as possible while still allowing for a respectful grieving process.

"A tomato sealed in a metal box will always decompose because that is its nature. The nature of the organic human body is to decompose. Green burial helps it decompose rapidly, which is very 21st century as opposed to the 20th century promise of 'eternal presevervation,'" Esmerelda said. Yet, she admits that green burials may take some time before they catch on as a popular choice. "Lavish funerals, jazz funerals, and expensive, showy funerals are the culture and the tradition, and I believe that it will take at least one or two more generations for a green funeral to not be seen as something cheap, creepy, and disrespectful," she said. But that is something Esmerelda has accepted.

"I am not a fundamentalist," she said. "Green burial is not for everyone, nor is cremation or embalming. I just want natural, green burial to be available as a choice for secular people as well as for specific religions."

This guest post is contributed by Kitty Holman, who writes on the topics of nursing schools. She welcomes your comments at her email Id:


owenmunger said...

I'm all for the green movement, protecting the environment and being sustainable are some of mankind's greatest ideas. When it comes to a funeral, sometimes the costs outweigh the green consciousness. If you're planning a funeral on a tight budget, check out the best priced caskets on the web. They are some of the highest quality caskets available, just for hundreds of dollars cheaper than the Funeral Home prices.

sugarskull said...

I love this! I'm hoping human composting will have become the norm by the time I leave my body.

Anonymous said...
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Clenbuterol said...

Go green should be our priority and we should find a way to increase the forest and number of trees.

Stephanie Thomas said...

Oh how wonderful! I think these are really unique and help beautify death.

There's also another interview of her posted at