If you care deeply about your impact on the environment, you may be wondering how your own burial plays a role. The options available for “greener” death care are growing, and today, you have many to consider.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is a Green Funeral?
- Why Would I “Go Green” for My Funeral?
- Benefits of Green Funerals
- Green Burial Options
- Where Can I Have a Green Burial?
- Other Green (Non-burial) Options
- Share Your Green Wishes
Some of these options involve returning to simpler practices that have existed for millennia, such as direct earth burial. Other emerging options involve new products and processes that can green our final footprint in innovative ways.
Let’s begin to explore some ways in which you can stay true to your environmental values even after death.
What is a Green Funeral?
In simple terms, a green funeral is a burial with the lowest environmental impact possible.
Traditional burial practices often involve embalming (preserving) the body prior to an open casket viewing. The embalming process drains bodily fluids and replaces them with chemical solutions that slow the decomposition of tissue.
In a green burial, the body is not embalmed. It can be preserved in a chilled environment until a public or private viewing (if desired), then buried in a biodegradable coffin or shroud. Graves tend to be
Natural materials prevent contamination of the soil from any synthetic, toxic, or non-degradable materials. As far as the earth is concerned, the less contamination, the better.
Why Would I “Go Green” for My Funeral?
Eco-friendly funerals aren’t just another green fad. In fact, from a historical perspective, they’re just coming back in style. Here’s Joe Sehee, founder of the GBC: "Green burial may sound like another trend of the eco-chic, but it’s actually the way most of humanity has cared for its dead for thousands of years."
Each year, U.S. cemeteries bury over 30 million feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in caskets, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults. That’s a lot of single-use material. The traditional practice of embalming also exposes funeral home workers to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. About 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid is used every year in the U.S. 1
However, a generational shift in values and priorities is driving the trend toward greener funerals. Baby Boomers are less compelled to follow the customs of their parents’ generation and more likely to see funeral choices as an opportunity for self-expression. The straightforward method of wrapping the body in a shroud or placing it in a simple pine coffin appeals to those who would like their burial arrangements to be natural and simple.
Benefits of Green Funerals
There are wide-reaching benefits that a green funeral or natural burial can offer. Here are a few:
Financial: Natural burial can be far less expensive (particularly if you are able to reduce funeral home involvement and choose an inexpensive coffin or shroud).
Emotional: The natural setting of green burials is conducive to both traditional and spontaneous celebrations of life and acknowledgment of loss.
Cultural: Green burial allows participants to see death as a natural part of the life cycle and to learn how their culture marks the final passage. Eco-coffins are often made with local resources by local craftspeople. Some people even decorate the coffins as part of the mourning process.
Environmental: Green funerals reduce your carbon footprint and contribute to the natural eco-cycle, help to protect lands with recreational, cultural, and spiritual significance, and can even restore wildlife and native plant habitat.
Green Burial Options
If you’re considering green or natural burial, you have a wide range of options. Not all green burial options may be legal in your area, so be sure to do a little research on what’s available to you.
What can I be buried in?
- Biodegradable casket: An eco-friendly casket can be made of wood (pine is a good choice), wicker, banana leaves, cardboard, or really any other renewable and biodegradable material that can support the body. Craftspeople of all kinds offer caskets and coffins ranging from simple to sensational. Cardboard has the advantage of being easily decorated with art or messages, while also being affordable and readily biodegradable (yet strong enough to hold hundreds of pounds).
- Shroud with a natural fabric: A shroud is a (plain or ornate) piece of fabric (such as cotton, muslin, linen, silk, felted wool, or bamboo) that is used to wrap the body. Shrouds can be purchased from some natural burial providers or online, and there are also patterns available if you wish to make your own. Even a large cotton bed sheet can serve as a simple shroud. Shrouds can be personalized and decorated with flowers by the individual and their family. Shrouded bodies also need a backing board of some kind for lowering.
Coeio'sInfinity Burial Shrouds and Suits: These products are crafted from fabric impregnated with fungi that have been chosen for their potential to utilize the nutrients in human tissue and to remediate industrial toxins in soil. Once you are buried with the suit, mushroom spores will assist in the decomposition and detoxification of your body.
- Capsula Mundi (not yet available in the US): This unique offering proposes to bring you back to life as a tree: Individuals are placed in the fetal position and “buried
asa seed in the earth" within their egg-shaped biodegradable burial pod.
Where Can I Have a Green Burial?
There are a number of options for where a green burial can take place. These include “hybrid” cemeteries, natural burial grounds, and conservation burial grounds. The Green Burial Council (GBC) is an independent, nonprofit organization that has set standards for green cemeteries in the United States, and you can review the standards for each type of cemetery here.
Conventional or “hybrid” cemetery
Some conventional or publicly owned cemeteries will allow natural burial. Check if they will waive the requirement of a concrete vault or grave liner. The Green Burial Council also offers a certification specifically for “hybrid” cemeteries that welcome both green and conventional burials. You can find a directory of these hybrid cemeteries here.
Natural burial ground
GBC-certified Natural Burial Grounds are cemeteries that accept only naturally-prepared bodies in biodegradable containers.
The grounds are planted with only native, beneficial species that are not chemically or mechanically managed, and land and water conservation guidelines are in place.
Conservation burial ground
These cemeteries must meet all requirements for a natural burial ground and also involve an established conservation organization to ensure additional land is permanently preserved. Your burial helps fund the protection of conservation land.
Recomposition facilities are an emerging option for green burials. Recompose.life (currently seeking regulatory approval in Washington state) offers a process called “recomposition.” This natural process “gently converts human remains into
Green (Non-burial) Options
If green burial is not available, there are other ways to lighten one’s final footprint.
- Cremation: Although it consumes energy and releases airborne pollutants, it can be an efficient choice in some cases. Check out How to Make Greener Funeral Choices for advice on making cremation as environmentally friendly as possible.
- “Flameless” or aqua cremation: (formally known as alkaline hydrolysis) is a smoke-free cremation option we explore further in How Cremation Works.
- Seedling urn: There are numerous urns available that will nurture a seedling including the BiosUrn, The Living Urn and EterniTrees. Cremated remains are placed in a biodegradable container that will decompose when buried in the soil. A tree sapling is planted above to be nourished by the cremated remains. However, cremated remains alone are unable to support the growth of plant
material,and may be detrimental, so mixing them well with fertile soil is key.
- Memorial reefs: Eternal Reef and Neptune Memorial Reef will mix cremated remains with concrete and create
artificialreef to support marine life.
- Burial at sea: As long as regulations are followed, full body burial at sea is a viable and sustainable option for ocean-lovers.
- Home funerals: For families that are interested in taking a DIY approach, a home funeral can be a wonderfully participatory and low-impact way to honor a loved one. The non-invasive, eco-friendly methods used to care for the body are a perfect complement to green burial.
- Green ceremonies/receptions: Everything from the choice of flowers (local or imported?) to the location of the gathering (nearby or a long drive?) can include consideration of the environmental costs and benefits. Mementos such as seed packets or donations to environmental charities can be gestures with both symbolic and ecological benefits.
Share Your Green Wishes
With some creativity and forethought, your funeral can honor your life while also honoring the planet. Whatever shade of green you envision for your final sendoff, be sure to make your preferences known to your family.
- Green Burial Council “Cemetery Certification Standards.” March 6, 2015, greenburialcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2015CemStandards.pdf
- Sehee, Joe.“Green Burial: It’s Only Natural” Property and Environment Research Center, December 15, 2007, www.perc.org/articles/green-burial-its-only-natural.
Vatomsky, Sonya “Thinking About Having a ‘Green’ Funeral? Here’s What to Know” The New York Times, 22 March 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/smarter-living/green-funeral-burial-environment.html