Biodegradable Coffins Explained: Costs, Types & How They Work

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If you want a burial with minimal impact on the earth, you might be looking into a “green burial.” And one of the factors of a green burial is usually a biodegradable coffin or casket. 

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A biodegradable casket is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a casket that breaks down naturally, over time, when it’s buried underground. A biodegradable casket provides the benefits of a “traditional” burial, but it’s less taxing on the earth at the same time. 

If you’re interested in biodegradable caskets and want to learn about this green burial alternative, continue reading. 

What’s a Biodegradable Coffin or Casket?

Biodegradable caskets are just like “normal” caskets in many ways. They’re essentially boxes made for burying the dead. But while most caskets are made of materials like hardwood and metal, biodegradable caskets consist of more earth-friendly stuff. 

Part of the green burial movement

Biodegradable caskets are just part of a “green burial” movement that’s growing in popularity. 

Another factor that’s important for a green burial is foregoing chemical preservation (embalming). The chemicals used in embalming are toxic and non-biodegradable. 

Green burials typically also use grave liners, as opposed to a concrete or metal burial vault. And any other aspects of the burial (items buried with the deceased, for example) must pass the biodegradability test. 

A biodegradable option

A biodegradable casket is also just one of your options if you want your burial to have minimal impact on the earth (or even to help nourish the earth). 

If you’re going for a green, earth-friendly burial, you could also choose a burial shroud. Burial shrouds are an ancient method of burial, using a cloth wrapping instead of a casket. Biodegradable burial shrouds are a valuable green burial option, and they’re used by many religions around the world. 

Another option is cremation with a biodegradable urn, which is an alternative to ash-scattering and a greener alternative to traditional inurnment and burial. 

You could even choose a burial within a burial pod: an earth-friendly “pod” that eventually grows into a tree. 

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How Do Biodegradable Coffins Usually Work?

It’s relatively easy to understand how traditional burial works: the casket is lowered into the ground, enclosed in a burial vault, and buried. 

Then, it remains in the ground indefinitely (at least theoretically). But biodegradable caskets and coffins undergo a process of becoming one with the earth after burial. In so doing, they also allow your body to return to the earth.

Here’s how the whole process, from death to burial and beyond, usually works with a biodegradable casket.

1. Finding a cemetery

The first obstacle with natural burial in a biodegradable casket is finding a cemetery near you that offers vault-free burial. 

As mentioned, green burial means no burial vault. The cemetery will also need to be on board with your biodegradable casket. 

Unfortunately, not every cemetery in the world offers these options. Especially in areas where flooding is common, burial without a vault just might not be a possibility. But more and more cemeteries are coming around the idea of greener burials.

2. Placement in the casket

A traditional hardwood or metal casket has a lining, usually silk or cotton blend. For burial in a biodegradable casket, your body will usually be wrapped in a biodegradable burial shroud, instead. 

This helps the casket (and you) decompose more easily once you’re buried in the earth. 

And as mentioned, no preservation using chemical preservatives will take place before your placement in the casket. That means that the funeral may need to take place more quickly, and you may not be able to have an open-casket viewing, depending on the time frame and the condition of your remains.

3. Burial

Next, the cemetery will lower your biodegradable casket into the ground and cover the burial site with dirt. 

As described above, green burials don’t feature burial vaults, so the gravesite won’t be lined with concrete or steel. It may, however, include a natural, biodegradable grave liner, depending on the cemetery’s requirements and policies.

4. Decomposition

Finally, the biodegradation process can begin. The time it takes for an eco-coffin to decompose depends on the materials it’s made of and the condition of the soil in which it’s buried. 

Without any coffin or casket, and without embalming a body buried underground in average soil conditions decomposes to a skeleton in eight to twelve years. A traditional coffin can slow that process down to as long as 80 years. And even then, the coffin still exists intact. 

A biodegradable casket made of materials like wicker or bamboo usually takes between three and four years to decompose. During that time, your body begins the decomposition process. 

All in all, when buried in a biodegradable casket, it takes approximately 10 years for a body to decompose. 

What Are the Different Types of Biodegradable Caskets?

When it comes to biodegradable caskets, you have a few options. There’s a range of basic biodegradable materials that can make your return to the earth faster and more natural. 

1. Woven fiber and wicker caskets 

One of the most popular types of biodegradable casket is the woven or wicker coffin. And that’s for good reason: these caskets are appealing, customizable, and durable, all while retaining full biodegradability. 

Woven and wicker caskets come in a variety of shapes, like oval, hexagonal (like a traditional coffin), or rectangular. And the natural fibers used to make these coffins mean they also come in a natural range of shades, from dark brown with hints of green to sandy tan. 

Materials

Wicker casket-makers use easily-biodegradable materials to create their green coffins. What’s more, the materials they use are renewable and fast-growing, which decreases their footprint on the earth even further. 

You can choose from a range of fibers, including bamboo, seagrass, cotton, rattan, willow, and banana leaf. These fibrous plants are renewable, and they don’t require large machinery to harvest, which helps keep their carbon footprint low. 

Typically, a woven fiber casket also includes an unbleached, natural cotton liner inside. These caskets also usually have handles for easy transportation. 

Cost

A woven fiber or wicker casket is the most expensive biodegradable option because it’s the most intricate and difficult to build. 

Woven fiber and wicker caskets typically cost between $950 and $2,000, but they can also cost more. 

Tips

Most woven and wicker caskets ship from Indonesia, which raises their price and increases their carbon footprint. However, the casket-makers who create these coffins go to great lengths to reduce their carbon footprint as much as they can when shipping. 

When you’re purchasing a wicker or woven fiber casket, pay attention to where it’s made, and try to find a local (within the country or nearby) builder if you can. 

2. Soft wood caskets

You don’t have to give up wood completely to get all of the benefits of a biodegradable casket. While treated hardwood caskets don’t decompose quickly or easily, soft, natural wood caskets do.

A soft-wood casket combines the look of a wooden casket with the benefits of a green casket, and it may be a more comfortable choice for anyone who’s still on the fence about biodegradable caskets. 

Materials

Green wood caskets use materials approved by the Green Burial Council, and they use no (or very few) metal screws and fasteners. They also contain zero toxic stains, glue, or sealants. Most biodegradable wood caskets are also made by hand, as opposed to factory-built, which helps reduce their carbon footprint. 

Pine is the most eco-friendly soft wood, so most biodegradable caskets are made using untreated pine. 

Cost

Soft wood caskets are a lower-cost option than wicker or woven caskets, generally costing between $450 and $1800. You can save even more money by building a biodegradable wood casket yourself. 

Tips

You can support a local woodworker by commissioning them to build an eco-friendly casket to your measurements and specifications. You can also build one yourself out of untreated pine if you’re handy, yourself. 

But, if you build your own coffin or work with a local builder, pay close attention to the materials and processes to make sure everything is biodegradable and has a low carbon footprint. 

3. Cardboard caskets

You might be raising your eyebrows at the idea of a cardboard casket. But cardboard is one of the most biodegradable options available, as well as one of the most customizable. And cardboard caskets have seen a surge in popularity in recent years with the growing green movement. 

Materials

It’s no secret: cardboard caskets are made of cardboard. But you can also customize your cardboard casket with biodegradable paint. Your loved ones can even write messages in biodegradable paint before the coffin goes into the ground. 

Cost

A cardboard casket is the most budget-friendly biodegradable casket option, costing as little as $50. The average cost of a custom-built cardboard casket, with handles and with the stability to carry up to 350 pounds, is $350.

Tips

When you purchase a cardboard casket, make sure you buy from a creator who understands green burial and uses sustainable materials and practices. 

Is a Biodegradable Casket Right for You? 

If the idea of returning to the earth sooner rather than later appeals to you, a biodegradable casket might be the perfect choice. A biodegradable casket lets you leave less of a lasting footprint on the earth and nourish it with your remains. 

And even if price is your main concern, a biodegradable casket is a viable option. Where hardwood and metal caskets cost into the thousands, a simple, biodegradable casket typically costs around $1500. And green caskets made of cardboard or soft wood can cost as little as $50. 

In the end, the decision to go with a green burial and a biodegradable casket depends on what’s right for you, your beliefs, and your family. But one thing is for sure: if you go with a biodegradable casket and a green burial, the earth will thank you. 


Sources

  1. “FAQs: Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council. www.greenburialcouncil.org/green_burial_defined.html
  2. “Biodegradable Wicker Coffins to Aid Your Natural Burial.” Urns Northwest. 28 September 2019. urnsnw.com/articles/biodegradable-wicker-coffins-to-aid-your-natural-burial/#:~:text=How%20long%20does%20it%20take,3%2D4%20years%20to%20decompose
  3. Barrett, Cassie. “Biodegradable Burial Containers for Green Burial: Coffins and Caskets.”  Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. 31 July 2019. carolinamemorialsanctuary.org/biodegradable-burial-containers-for-green-burial-coffins-caskets/
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