Do Green Graves Change the Way We Mourn?
Roxane Cohen Silver Answers

People respond to loss in many different ways and sometimes in ways that others find perplexing. The ancient Egyptians preserved their dead by embalming, mummifying, and burying them in elaborate tombs. Many people in North America tend to bury loved ones in caskets placed in concrete vaults in individual graves in the ground—with identifiable headstones and sometimes elaborate monuments. However, that practice is not without its critics. Indeed, cremation, where ashes are stored in urns or mausoleums, scattered at sea, or even worn as jewelry around someone’s neck, has gained in popularity (although certain religions still discourage or ban the practice altogether).

Green burial techniques are a more recent phenomena, one in which a family chooses to return a loved one’s body to the earth in an environmentally sensitive fashion. Do green graves change the way we mourn? That question assumes that mourning takes the same form for everyone. Yet, we now know that there is no single way to mourn. Some funerals are deeply sad events that focus on the loss; others are joyous celebrations of the life of the departed. Research provides little support for the notion that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to respond to significant losses. There are only different ways.

In all cases, the choice of how to deal with the body of the deceased is intricately tied to the religious or philosophical perspective of the bereaved. In fact, burial decisions may assist the survivors in finding meaning in their loss. Undoubtedly, the individual who chooses to bury a loved one in a green grave has selected an option that is consistent with his or her worldview and life philosophy. It is important that outsiders respect this choice and recognize that this option is not for everyone. The family that selects this path may do so because it helps them make sense of their loved one’s death. Ultimately, such a choice is likely to help them adapt to their loss.

Roxane Cohen Silver is a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

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