Black Churches and Green Funerals

How green funeral and burial practices can be part of the Black Church tradition, aesthetics, and sensitivity to ecological justice

By Sequola Collins

Funeral rites and rituals are of great importance to the Black Church, and Black Church funerals, for most spiritual and practical purposes, have been exempt from adaptation and change. Although we might not quite be ready to go back to bathing, dressing, and sheltering the deceased to lie in repose in the front rooms of our homes, many Black Church funeral practices have remained unchallenged as capitalization in the funeral industry has increased.

I would argue that there is a more excellent way for Americans to determine how best to incorporate dying into living, to experience death as a part of life, and to reclaim agency (a directness or closeness) in funeral processing. How best do we infuse human experience back into death in the most life-giving of ways? I propose that the Black Church’s participation in greener funeral options gives us the chance to remedy or reconcile our modern disconnection — whether perceived or actual — with death, and much more.

The Problem with Current Funeral Practices

The care of creation is the responsibility of all Christians, and therefore the Black Church has a role to play and must attend to its responsibilities seriously. Current funeral practices are problematic on two levels: first, they are a source of pollution; and second, they reflect a perversion of our relationship with God because of the way that they seek to deny our “dustiness.”

Lee Webster of the Green Burial Council and author of Changing Landscapes offers this shocking analysis:

“Each year in the U.S., 22,500 traditional cemeteries put roughly the following into our soil: a) 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 97.5 tons of steel, 2,028 tons of concrete, and 56,250 board feet of high-quality tropical hardwood in just one acre of land; b) Each cremation releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury as bodies are burned. This amounts to between 1,000 and 7,800 pounds of mercury released each year in the U.S. 75% goes into the air and the rest settles into the ground and water; c) You could drive about 4,800 miles on the energy equivalent of the energy used to cremate someone — and to the moon and back 85 times from all cremations in one year in the U.S.; and d) With embalmers at an 8+ times higher risk of contracting leukemia (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 11.24.09) and a 3 times higher risk of ALS (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 7.13.15)”[1]

Yet, it is fair to ask whether there is space for the Black Church to participate in greener funeral practices in the midst of the pandemics and interlocking injustices of American greed, capitalism, and gentrification. In the midst of systemic racism and poverty, the denial of health care, police brutality, militarization and the war economy, and the false narrative of religious nationalism, can gains be made in regard to ecological justice in the Black Church and its community? Might a greener funeral be an opportunity to shift the concept of beauty in the Black Church funeral, where funeral aesthetics are tightly coupled with visuals and preservation of the corpse — shiny gold coffins and embalming — sold by the funeral industry?

There is never a wrong time to take a stand in efforts to be faithful stewards of God’s resources in caring for the planet. As Dr. Betty Holley, associate professor of environmental ethics & African American religious studies at Payne Theological Seminary and executive committee member of Creation Justice Ministries, notes: “Our economic woes, social unease, and environmental depletion are being shaken to the core due to our misplaced purposes and values of the whole of God’s creation. Our relationship with wealth and possession has become corrupt and idolatrous. We have been seeking happiness through things rather than through relationships. Too often we, in the church, have mimicked the values of wider society.”

Therefore, I seek to point the Black Church in the direction of ecological sensitivity and justice. The prevailing thought is that as we develop “our relationship with God, our materialistic values will be challenged and transformed.” By making shifts in the view and behaviors inside the Black funeral, the Black Church can be successful toward embodying ecological sensitivity and ecological faith. Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, would call this having wholesome materiality — where you have material, but the materials does not have you at the cost of your holiness and lessening your commitment to the Earth and what God loves.

What Is a Green Funeral?

“A general term sometimes confused with home funerals, green burials, and home burials, but is more commonly used to describe post-death care, from death to disposition, using only natural means. This requires use of nontoxic preservation techniques and organic materials with minimal carbon footprints. A Green burial allows full interment into the ground in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition. The three top defining characteristics of any green burial are: absence of vault, non-toxic preparation of the body, and use of containers made of organic materials. Green burials provide families with a rich, meaningful, and healing experience while furthering legitimate environmental and societal aims such as protecting worker health, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and preserving native habitat.”

This definition lists the top reasons people choose a green burial: “1. minimizing impact on the environment, 2. back to old tradition, 3. cost, 4. spiritual or religious reasons; and finally, 5. having a do-it-yourself ethic.”

But this raises important questions: how might marginalized groups, especially the Black Church, view the idea of a green funeral? How might the green burial community gain buy-in from the Black Church and its community? To put it another way, why should Black consider Green? And does Green really want Black?

Truth-Telling in Greening — A United Front: Might Greening Be the Way?

As green funeral and burial practices gain ground in the United States, it is important to speak truth to power and keep in the forefront the history of land, land rights, and the ownership of land in America. The green burial community must (continuously) name the atrocities of those in power with regards to the possession of land of the marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, and Brown people.

We must tell the truth: at one time, Blacks and whites could not be buried together because white people did not want to be buried in the same cemetery ground with Blacks. Now if that has changed, it is time for the green funeral and burial community to shout out this truth. Be part of advocating and making greening in death available not only for the elite or well-off but for all people. Follow the lead of Ed Bixby, the president of the Green Burial Council Board of Directors and owner of Steelmantown Natural Cemetery in New Jersey, who argues that the green burial is opened to all people: “Ten years ago … the customer base then seemed to lean toward highly educated urbanites. Today, I can proudly say that my customer base has no predictable socio-economic or religious leanings. Black, white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, veterans, grandmothers — you name it, we have had the pleasure to serve. I have buried and sold plots to every type of religious person and non-religious person under the sun. That is what is so exciting and unique about natural burial — it knows absolutely no boundaries.”

If the green funeral community seeks buy-in from the marginalized, which I understand it does, they must not only speak truth to power but also exercise power toward truth by engaging in public efforts and opportunities in the reconciliation of land taken from original owners. Create (more) partnerships with Black Churches to get the message out. Create cross-cultural conservation and environmental certification of burial ground.

After we have looked back, and after we have told the truth, we can go forward.

Why Should the Black Church Consider the Green Funeral?

The importance of tradition and aesthetics in the Black Church funeral is often cited as a reason why green funeral and burial practices will not be adopted. I propose, however, that green funeral and burial practices are in fact more closely aligned with a tradition held dear in the Black Church, and that a strong argument can be made that the green practices provide a richer beauty aesthetic.

Covenant Relationship with the Land

The testimony of Scripture and the idea of being in relationship with God are foundational beliefs of the Black Church. Both of these essential traditions support green funeral and burial practices Not only is God in covenant with people, God is also in a covenantal relationship with the land/’eres/earth. Consider the biblical word: “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:4–5).

A green funeral and burial gives the Black Church ecologically friendly options to pay respect to their dead. “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (1 Corinthian 6:19). A green funeral can be a powerful, sacred way for us to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (BCP 265; Gen 3:19).

Ellen Davis notes that beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, “There is no extensive exploration of the relationship between God and humanity that does not factor the land and its fertility into that relationship.” Even in death and funeral processing, we, the church, must live out faithful stewardship in a covenant relationship with God. According to Davis, adamah represents fertile-soil. If this is so, it is in keeping with the covenant God made with the land. This fertile-soil is potent ground ripe for gestation, preservation, and reproduction. In other words, the soil is healthy — ripe for something to happen, for the move of God. Soil is a complex web of relationships that represents a deeply mysterious bridge, says Norman Wirzba in Thanks for the Dirt. Therefore, Wirzba contends, that soil is sacred and holy. I contend that our relationship to the fertile-soil is sacred, holy and a representation of covenant, as well.

Called to the Ground — A New Aesthetic

I propose that the green funeral can also offer the Black Church a new aesthetic of beauty in five important ways:

1. Strengthen the covenantal relationship between people, land, and God.

2. Reimagine what it means to put money in the ground — a call to re-grounding.

3. Reimagine death infused with life experience and closeness by reclaiming agency in funeral preparation and processing.

4. Be imaginative in the creation of land ownership and partnership.

5. Re-member the church to create a united front of all people in an area that remains segregated. A united Black Church has power to re-member — to work toward their own health and wholeness.

As the Black Church aids the family in “carrying the load of the casket,” the hope is that this work of the church is conducted in the most life-giving of ways. Certainly, there are challenges in green funerals for the Black Church, including the location of conservation or environmental certified burial grounds. But Black Church leaders need to become educated and to get involve early in the education of the Black Church and others. Leverage the partnerships with the funeral home and city planners/officials to answer questions and dispel wrong (bad) thinking or theology relating to death and green funeral practices, not only to understand “where we are?” but to create ideas of “where can we be?” The Black Church can start to take steps into green funeral practices, such as considering biodegradable caskets. At least ask the question of your local funeral home regarding the amount of emissions that go into the air from each cremation. Know where your closest environmental certified cemetery is located. Become knowledgeable about the choices and decisions (death awareness) that are made relating to death and funeral processing.

Greening in death is for all to consider: the dying, the grieving family, the funeral home, and even the Black Church.

Rev. Dr. Sequola Collins

Rev. Dr. Sequola Collins serves as director of bereavement at Russell Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C. She holds doctoral degrees from Payne Theological Seminary and North Carolina A&T State University, and is a D.Min. candidate at Duke Divinity School. For relaxation, she enjoys the theatre with her daughter, Destiny.

Lee Webster, Changing Landscapes: Exploring the growth of ethical, compassionate, and environmentally sustainable green funeral practices. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017; 99–100.

Elder Betty Holley, “Creation in Crisis: What Jesus Offers”. The Christian Recorder August 16, 2019 Accessed June 27, 2020.

Ibid.

Webster, 102.

Ibid.

Ibid., 103, Kindle Edition

Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 8.

Ibid., 16.

“Carrying the load of the casket” is a concept I use in The Glad Funeral to denote the church walking through the funeral practices and process with grieving families. See Sequola Collins, The Glad Funeral: An Ongoing Conversation About Funeral Preparation and Process, Kernersville, North Carolina: Marching Orders Press, 2018.

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