Tax Incentives for Green Burial
42 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2020 Last revised: 4 Apr 2022
Date Written: February 12, 2020
Every living being is doomed to decay and die and decay some more. Death is inevitable, and the disposal of our dead is a fundamental global activity with the potential to have significant environmental impact. In the United States, the environmental toxicity of “traditional” modern burial is stark. A cosmeticized body is pumped with three gallons of embalming fluid (containing chemicals such as formaldehyde) that eventually leaches through metal and wood and into the ground. An estimated 5.3 million gallons of embalming chemicals are buried annually in what are essentially luxury landfill-slash-golf-courses, with landscaping and grass to maintain and mow, in coffins that are typically constructed of nonbiodegradable chipboard. And while cremation is a more environmentally friendly alternative, incineration cremation falls short of being labeled “green.” Fire-based cremation utilizes significant resources and energy, attributable to the substantial quantity of fossil fuel required to burn human remains at 1,562° F (850° C) to reduce a corpse to ash. Pollutants are generated in doing so, including an average of 250,000 tons per year of carbon emissions and an estimated 320 to 6,000 pounds of mercury (from incineration of dental fillings) per year.
This tradition-steeped industry has projected domestic annual revenues of $68 billion (by 2023) and, interestingly, the industry has slowly started to “go green.” Changing the way in which one is buried will not solve the problem of climate change, but it does respect the notion that one’s last act on earth should not be to harm it. Industry norms are on the brink of disruption: the alt-death or death positive movement seeks to infuse the human experience back into death; there is capital investment into new innovative death service technologies, e.g. Funeralocity, WeCroak; and green death care tech startups are dramatically broadening available options for reintegrating human remains back into the environment in an eco-friendly manner. Unfortunately, a myriad of market failures and obstacles are impeding that disruption. This Article explores our modern disconnection from death, the transitioning of human remains in an environmentally friendly manner, the importance of pre-need or pre-death planning and prepayment to protect the grieving consumer, and the way in which tax incentives may be utilized to weave these ideas together in a cohesive plan for a green tax credit. A Pigouvian subsidy is proposed in the form of a refundable tax credit for qualified expenditures related to the nonrefundable prepayment of expenses arising from “sustainable disposition or transition of human remains.”
Keywords: green burial, sustainability, environmental law, estate planning, burial planning, cremation, funeral poverty, pre-death planning, funeral trusts
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