Burial vs cremation: WWJBD?

Green burial vs cremation: WWJBD?In burial vs cremation, which is greener? Well, WWJBD?

No, that’s not James Brown. No, not Jimmy Buffet either. Nor Justin Bieber, Johann Sebastian Bach, or Jessica Biel. Not Joan Baez. Not Jennifer Lopez, either. I just like her, that’s why. Not Jason Bourne. Not Jack Bauer or Joe Biden. Not Julie Byrne.

What would James Bond do, burial or cremation? Watch this scene from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) to fire up your thoughts.


What to say? The villains Wint and Kidd would better have been played by Muppets.

I never saw the whole movie — and I’ve read I shouldn’t bother with this stinker of a Bond film — but apparently the plot has diamonds that are first hidden in caskets and then sieved out of cremation ashes. Genius. By the way, this clip earns Bond the prize of “Second Best Green Burial Scene” in the annals of movie-dom. He comes out smelling like roses and he saves all that energy! First prize already went to Clint for Fistful of Dollars.

So is it really a green burial scene, this aborted cremation in Diamonds…? Green, to me, means conserving resources. Or at least recovering those resources from the burial, like the diamonds from the cremains. Or like grave robbers, throughout history, have recovered grave goods which, throughout history, were put into graves to honor the dead and sustain them in the next life. Grave goods are, by definition, valuable resources poured into the ground. And in those cultural contexts, in those societies throughout history, grave goods made sense. My point as a pine coffin builder and green burial activist is that in our society, grave goods may not make sense. The valuable hardwoods, the metal, the concrete, plus all the energy needed to extract and process and deliver those resources to the grave — none of this is necessary in America in the 21st century to honor the dead or sustain them in the next life. Maybe our grave goods these days can be as simple as the love-and-goodbye notes written in crayon on the side of a cardboard (or pine box) coffin.

Grave goods do put expensive funerals in a softer light, though. It makes total sense that we as humans would naturally want to honor the dead, and to honor them with valuable resources. I don’t ever want to make the mistake of telling any family that the way they choose to bury their loved one is deficient: cremation, green burial, expensive casket — whatever.

However, through the power of my words and deeds, I do want to nudge the assemblage point of our collective conversation about burial practice towards sustainability. I want to push it greener. I want to encourage people to consider a green funeral with fewer resources left in the ground. As one person opined at a recent green burial event I attended in Durham, “Don’t judge my love for my dad by how much I spent on his funeral.”

In the contest burial vs cremation, then, there’s a place where cremation gets dinged: energy. It takes a lot of heat to incinerate James Bond — about the energy equivalent of 20 gallons of gasoline. Our society’s current cremation rate is about 40%, so that comes out to 20 million gallons of gas for cremating the dead in 2010. (Figures come from research by the Green Burial Council.) And the cremation rate is expected to rise over the coming decades to 60 or 70 percent.

A final note: Cremation is less green, too, if by green you mean greenbacks. Dollars. A simple cremation can be the cheapest way to die, as far as out-of-pocket costs to the family. That’s the one green where, in burial vs cremation, cremation carries the day. For many families, understandably, that’s the green that really counts.