Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment

Arsenic contamination in the ground and water around cemeteries is just one spark of the green burial movement.

  • Grave-Matters
    Follow the green burial movement and learn more natural ways to bury the dead in "Grave Matters" by Mark Harris.
    Cover Courtesy Scribner
  • Graveyard
    The typical 10-acre swath of cemetery ground contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete.
    Photo By Fotolia/Brian Jackson

  • Grave-Matters
  • Graveyard

Grave Matters (Scribner, 2008) takes us through the green burial movement and how the modern funeral industry is negatively impacting our environment. Author Mark Harris tells the stories of the alternative ways people are burying their loved ones. In this excerpt taken from chapter two, “After the Burial,” learn how arsenic contamination is threatening the natural environment that surrounds cemeteries. 

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We call our cemeteries parks and lawns and fields and greens. Yet the American graveyard hardly qualifies as a natural environment. For all their landscaping aboveground, our cemeteries function less as verdant resting grounds of the dead than as landfills for the materials that infuse and encase them. The typical 10-acre swath of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. To that add a volume of embalming fluid sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer to keep the graveyard preternaturally green.

Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body’s toxic cache escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and groundwaters. Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed. In older cemeteries, arsenic may be the longest-enduring contaminant. A highly toxic and powerful preservative, arsenic was a mainstay of early embalming solutions in the pre- and post-Civil War years. Druggists, surgeons and emerging chemical companies of the period mixed anywhere from a few ounces to many pounds of arsenic into the new preservative, but, as they’d soon discover, at great risk to the embalmers’ health. By 1910, so many embalmers had themselves perished from their efforts to preserve the dead with arsenic that the federal government stepped in and banned its use in embalming solutions.

Cemeteries that date back to the turn of the twentieth century may yet show traces of that long-banned preservative. Nearly a quarter of the water samples that John Konefes of the University of Northern Iowa drew from hand-pump wells on the grounds of some dozen Civil War-era cemeteries scattered around the state tested positive for arsenic, an element not common to Iowa groundwaters. Two samples contained arsenic at levels above the then-proposed drinking water standards. Konefes says his limited, 1990 research only suggests the potential for arsenic contamination of older cemeteries, but believes it’s strong enough to warrant further study. The toxic element “will not bio-remediate, it will not break down,” he says. “Exposed to water seeping through the grave, some of the arsenic in an embalmed body will leach out and it has to go somewhere.” Konefes’s work suggests that nearby groundwater, which may supply individual families or communities with their drinking water, is a logical place for arsenic to run.

No one has launched the large-scale study Konefes has proposed. In the mid-1990s, a geology professor and some of his students at New York’s Hamilton College did, however, conduct small-scale research into graveyard contamination. Testing groundwater down-gradient of a tiny, 1820s cemetery on college property, the group found trace amounts of arsenic and other lesser-used ingredients of early embalming compounds, such as zinc, lead and mercury. A sampling of groundwater above the cemetery showed no arsenic contamination. Those upper groundwaters flow beneath the cemetery in the direction of the lower groundwaters, so the appearance of arsenic in the latter suggests the toxic element came from the cemetery and its arsenic-embalmed bodies.

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