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Another Georgia county goes after green burial

In 2008, Bibb County, Georgia, enacted the only local municipal restrictions outlawing green burial that we have seen anywhere in the US. Now another county, Newton, is looking to go down the same misguided path. News coverage suggests that anti-Muslim fears are what’s really behind this new opposition to a planned cemetery that would allow natural burials without embalming, caskets, or concrete outer vaults.

Funeral Consumers Alliance posts this open letter opposing these unnecessary restrictions. Please share this post, or copy this letter, freely.

Open Letter to the Newton County Board of Commissioners

Opposing unnecessary cemetery regulations

To the Honorable Commissioners,

I write to help inform the conversation about proposed changes to Newton County cemetery ordinances. Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nationally recognized nonprofit consumer watchdog, opposes the creation of unnecessary and restrictive conditions on cemetery burials. Commissioner John Douglas has recently told the Newton Citizen that his proposal to require all burials to happen in “closed containers” would further environmental protection:

“There have been those who claim that tightening up these proposals will have the effect of banning green burials,” said Douglas. “That’s not true. They will make them safer while protecting our environment as we continue to grow.”

This is incorrect and contrary to the evidence. This proposal would, in fact, prevent green or natural burials from occurring while offering no “protection” to the watershed. It is a proposal in search of a problem.

Death and burial is a sensitive topic, and many people know little about the details of the process. Misinformation is innocently passed along, with the unfortunate effect of provoking fears about troubles that are not actually real.

Such public policy decisions should be made based on objective evidence. As the co-author of the only state-by-state legal manual of laws and regulations pertaining to buying funerals and arranging burials (Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death. Upper Access Publishers, 2011), I offer my research to help inform this conversation.

Accompanying this open letter is a more detailed analysis of the unfortunate and unnecessary restrictions enacted on green burial in Bibb County, Georgia, in 2008. That local ordinance is the only one of its type within the United States, and it is fundamentally irrational. We urge the Newton Commission not to repeat this mistake.

In summary:

  • “Green burial” is not new. It’s just a modern term for what all Americans called “burial” until the turn of the 20th If you have ancestors from Newton County, this is the traditional American burial of your forefathers. Green burial means simplicity: no unnecessary chemical embalming, no steel casket that won’t degrade, and no extra concrete box to “protect” the casket.
  • Green burial is universally permissible in every US state and always has been since our nation’s founding. No state law or regulation anywhere in the US requires embalming, a concrete vault, or even a casket, as a condition of ground burial.
  • Dead bodies are not a source of pollution to aquifers. Though it seems like they would be, intuition and gut feelings are not reliable when making decisions of this type. This is easy to realize when we remember that farmers routinely bury their dead livestock without embalming, caskets, or vaults. Animals die in the open, and in streams, every day. Decomposition is the natural process of reducing the body back to soil. Human beings are not different. We are not somehow “contagious” when we die.
  • No casket or vault can prevent the escape or entrance of fluids. All of them will crack and degrade over time. Their purpose has nothing to do with water pollution, and never has. Right now, in cemeteries in your own county, there are people buried in caskets and vaults that have long since disintegrated. This has always been the case. Where is the evidence of contamination of aquifers?
  • Jewish people, some sects of the Amish and Mennonites, and Islamic congregations eschew embalming and “durable” caskets. This has been their norm throughout history, and as a reminder, it was the norm for every American family until the 20th century. Including the ancestors of Newton County citizens who are now buried in the charming, traditional family cemeteries on the farm that are important pieces of family history for so many of us.
  • It is modern funeral practices—not green burial—that potentially threaten the environment. Green burial works with nature. Modern commercial burial introduces formaldehyde, steel, and massive amounts of concrete for each burial. It is hard to understand how anyone could argue that requiring such things could lead to “environmental protection.”

Readers may verify these facts through the citations given in the accompanying letter, which we sent to Bibb County officials in 2008. We reference peer-reviewed professional and medical journals. The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that green burial poses no health or environmental risks. Please resist calls to enact costly, burdensome laws that  will deprive families of simpler, less expensive, and less wasteful burial choices.

Joshua L. Slocum
Executive Director

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