What’s a Conservation Burial? And How Does It Work?

Updated

People aren’t just greening up their yards, homes, and cars. They’re also making choices to add sustainable alternatives to their end-of-life planning decisions. And by that, people choose conservation burials to support the health of the planet long after they’ve gone.

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In this article, we’ve aimed to familiarize you with today's green funeral terms and their definitions. We’ll show you why people are making the switch to support natural environments through burial—and you might be surprised why. Plus, you'll even discover how to find and locate conservation cemeteries no matter where you live.

What’s a Conservation Burial?

A conservation burial is a natural burial on specified conservation land that guarantees your remains will contribute as much back to the earth as possible. Like all-natural or green burials, a conservation burial foregoes the waste and pollution of traditional burials. Remains are placed (interred) into the Earth (soil) to decompose naturally. All caskets, shrouds, and other materials used are also biodegradable, contrasting with familiar and established burial customs. 

But a conservation burial goes one step further. Conservation land belongs to a private, nonprofit irrevocable land preservation trust. This provides an alternative burial option to established burial plots like your typical cemetery or graveyard. 

What’s the difference between a natural (green) burial and a conservation burial?

A conservation burial is a natural (green) burial that uses the burial fees for “land acquisition, protection, restoration, and management (Doughty, 2021).” Practically, this means a conservation burial can only take place in a certified conservation cemetery.

In both natural and conservation burials, the body is prepared without the use of preservatives, vaults, or extra containers, each in consideration of the environmental impact on critical habitats, nature conservancies, and wildlife refuges. 

The history of green burials

Natural preservation of the body after death is a fairly trendy topic in modern days, but it’s actually a practice with a long history. 

Before the early 18th century, when embalming fluid became commonplace and widely accepted during the American Civil War, natural preservation and quick burial were common practices. Some of society's wealthy and elite used spices, waxes, honey, and even brandy to preserve their loved ones, but for common folk, preservation wasn’t too much a thought. Neither was the embalming fluid, concrete, metal, or wood that a significant number of people are buried in today—in the Earth potentially for perpetuity.

What's more, conventional lawn cemeteries such as municipal or corporate (public) cemeteries and church graveyards (private) are also subject to general statutory provisions for the interment of bodies above and below ground.

What’s a Conservation Cemetery?

A conservation cemetery is a cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council (GBC). The GBC is a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability and encourages “ecological restoration and landscape conservation” as an alternative to conventional lawn-style municipal or private cemeteries. 

A few notable factors constitute conservation cemeteries, including what makes them such an appealing alternative. For one, GBC standards require the creation of an endowment fund to help sustain the protected area through thick and thin. This means the land will be secure for posterity.

Another factor is that these cemeteries strategically “conserve, preserve, enhance or restore” native flora and fauna, including periodic paying for Ecological Impact Assessments. Think of being buried in your local state park or nature reserve.

Further, and perhaps the most reliable part of their certification, requires the cemeteries to create an irrevocable trust for the burial ground through a deeded restriction or another form of legal binding. This means that the land can't be repurposed or taken by a municipal organization under any eminent domain clause at any time in the future. 

And finally, by partnering with a government or nonprofit agency, that agency assumes the responsibility for overseeing and enforcing easement duties. 

So, not only does the conservation cemetery receive the best care and consideration from nature enthusiasts like you or your loved one, but GBC requires that space will remain a natural habitat in perpetuity, which should bring peace of mind.

Why Do People Choose Conservation Burials?

Looking into a cross-section of polls ranging from Us Catholic Magazine, AARP, NFDA, and various other sources, you’ll find a lot of the same feelings about choosing a conservation burial.

What makes one appealing over and above the conventional burial is that more and more people are beginning to assess our global population: 

  • They see billions of people alive now and imagine what that’ll look like if they’re all interred below ground. 
  • People also consider the tons of concrete, metal, and wood materials used each year for burials.

Here are a few more reasons why people are making a move to more earth-friendly choices:

Environmental impact choices:

  • People want to experience death entwined with nature.
  • The idea of being buried in a meadow versus a graveyard is more appealing.
  • People are seeking natural, simple, and harmonious alternatives.

Religion, spirituality, and tradition:

  • Some feel (even Catholics) that conservation burials support a return to authentic religious practices.
  • Others may have some spiritual or religious reasoning beyond conventional religions.
  • For others, they feel that this type of burial offers a return to old traditions, including some spiritual ones.

A personal sense of control:

  • Some people feel they have greater control over their body and death by choosing a conservation burial. 
  • Some feel that these burial alternatives call to a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic.
  • People have expressed that conservation burials create a place of authenticity and familiarity.

Family involvement:

  • Some family members have said that conservation burials provide greater solace.
  • Conservation burials invite greater familial participation, including shoveling dirt.
  • Because these burials are so hands-on, they can help others feel less alienated by the process.

Cost-related considerations:

  • Burial costs have risen sharply, but wages have not.
  • Not everyone can afford $6,000–$10,000 for a conventional burial.
  • Economic accessibility makes funeral planning a better experience, too.

How Do You Find a Conservation Burial Service or Cemetery in Your Area?

Out of the 300+ cemeteries (and climbing) located in and around the US, the top states for conservation burials include California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. 

You’ll find full and partial lists that are continually updated located below:

Not all of the resource providers listed above offer a conclusive catalog of conservation or green cemeteries. However, you’ll discover a wealth of information complementary to this article in combination. 

When in doubt, ask your funeral director for a location nearby. They stay up-to-date on all the funeral industry goings-on.

Protecting nature with conservation burials

Indeed, a conservation burial does help conserve nature, but it also challenges today’s norms. That, and it forces a conversation about death—a subject primarily taboo in many households. 

Do you need help with resources and planning or some tips on how to share your funeral wishes with your family?

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Sources:
  1. Green Burial Council. (2021). GBC Survey Results. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/gbc_survey_results.html 
  2. Johnson, S. (2013). Dust to Dust: Eco-friendly burials catch on in the US. http://www.nbcnews.com/business/dust-dust-eco-friendly-burials-catch-us-1C9883365
  3. Plenke, M. (2016). Traditional burials are ruining the planet - here's what we should do instead. https://www.businessinsider.com/traditional-burials-are-ruining-the-planet-2016-4
  4. Sehee, J. (2020). Think outside the box: Being green at the end of life. https://uscatholic.org/articles/201110/think-outside-the-box-being-green-at-the-end-of-life 
  5. Treweek, J., et al. (1995) ECOLOGICAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT, Impact Assessment, 13:3, 289-315. https://doi.org/10.1080/07349165.1995.9726099 
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