Green Cemeteries: How They Work & Where to Find Them

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Nowadays, when you think of a burial, you likely think of a traditional casket lowered into the ground. While this has been a popular choice for hundreds of years, it’s not the only option.

There are many burial alternatives attracting attention and with good reason. Some people might opt for cremation and order a custom urn from a store like Foreverence. But one of the most noteworthy alternatives is green burials. 

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A green burial is a “natural” burial where the body is not cremated or prepared with any embalming fluids before being placed in the earth. There is no traditional casket. Instead, a biodegradable casket or shroud is used to ensure the body returns to nature. This fully embodies the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrase about mortality. 

Because green burials are a low-cost, sustainable choice, they’re a natural choice for those concerned about the impact of their death. It’s never been easier to find a place for your green burial, an option that used to be taboo. Today, more conventional cemeteries are offering green burial as an option. However, there are still things you need to know about how green cemeteries work and how to find them. 

What’s a Green Cemetery? 

Green cemeteries are cemeteries that are approved by the Green Burial Council for green burials. There are around 60 green cemeteries in the United States today, and this offering is quickly growing. However, the definition of these cemeteries is a bit confusing. 

There are several different types:

  • Hybrid Burial Ground: The first and most common option is within an existing, traditional cemetery. Many traditional cemeteries allow people to have green burials either in a specific section or within the existing cemetery. This is a hybrid burial ground because both traditional and green burials are permitted. 
  • Natural Burial Ground: In a natural burial ground cemetery, there are no burial containers or chemicals allowed. The only containers permitted are those made of natural materials. These types of facilities also don’t use pesticides to manage the landscape. 
  • Conservation Burial Ground: Finally, a Conservation Burial Ground must meet the requirements for a Natural Burial Ground, and it must also be run by a government agency or non-profit. In this way, the governing organization has long-term access to the burial grounds. 

These guidelines are set by the Green Burial Council. In order for a cemetery to be considered any of the above, it needs to be approved by these strict guidelines. Having firm regulations in place makes it simple for people to understand the specific type of funeral wishes that meet their needs. 

» MORE: Your loved ones will spend ~500 hours dealing with your death. Reduce their burden by setting things up in advance.

 

What’s the Difference Between a Green Cemetery and a Traditional Cemetery?

It’s easy to get confused about what makes a green cemetery different from a traditional cemetery. A green cemetery focuses on eco-friendly, sustainable practices, but so do many traditional practices. With this in mind, what are the key differences?

The most important thing to know is that green cemeteries have to adhere to strict guidelines. These are outlined by the Green Burial Council. These terms are clearly defined and were evaluated by leaders in the industry. In short, any cemetery that doesn’t meet these standards is a traditional cemetery. While there are different types of green burial cemeteries (defined above), each has its own guidelines.

According to the Green Burial Council, a green cemetery is any burial ground that cares for the dead with minimal environmental impact. This means only non-toxic and biodegradable materials are used in the burial process, like eco-friendly caskets, shrouds, and urns. Only non-toxic preservation techniques may be used (like green embalming fluid). Additionally, green burials need to cause as little harm to the environment as possible. 

What is a traditional cemetery?

With this in mind, a traditional cemetery operates very differently. Most modern and historical cemeteries are traditional cemeteries. While green burial grounds are becoming more common, they’re still far from widespread. Traditional cemeteries are operated by families, private organizations, religious groups, and more. 

A traditional cemetery is any burial ground that uses traditional caskets, preservation chemicals, grave decorations, and vaults. Things like metal caskets, traditional embalming fluid, and grave liners are harmful to the environment. Not only do they use precious resources and cost the family, but these materials do not decompose naturally over time. In some cases, like with embalming fluid, they can even seep into the ground and lead to pollution. 

Traditional cemeteries also have strict practices for maintaining their grounds, like using pesticides. Though not always required, it’s important for these cemeteries to keep their plots clean, secure, and pest-free. Some families like this extra care, while others worry about the environmental cost. Recently, there have been more traditional cemeteries that offer a section for green burials, and this is only likely to become more commonplace. 

Are home burials green burials?

You might hear alternative names for green burials, like “home funerals” or “home burials.” In many cases, a home burial is a green burial. If an eco-friendly, natural casket is used to lay the dead to rest on one’s own land, this is a form of green burial. 

While every state and city has its own rules about home burials, this was traditionally commonplace in many parts of the world. Historically, people were buried at home or in a natural fashion wherever was most convenient. Over time, the funeral industry has changed to commercialize this process, and it’s rare for people to bury loved ones at home. 

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How Do Green Cemeteries Work? 

Green cemeteries work in similar ways to traditional cemeteries, though they believe in making a minimal environmental impact. Most green cemeteries are a specific section within a conventional cemetery, but others can be their own extensive tract of land. 

It’s common for cemeteries like these to focus on natural features instead of traditional landscaping instead of human-made structures. Some are even wild conservation areas that aren’t heavily maintained at all. 

To be buried in this type of cemetery, you’ll need to adhere to the following:

  • Natural container: If you choose to use a container to hold your body, it needs to be a natural material. These are commonly made of clay, wood, and even cardboard. There are a variety of sustainable, low-cost containers that resemble classic caskets but without the harsh materials. Some green cemeteries allow no container to be used. 
  • Chemicals: Traditional embalming releases a lot of chemicals into the ground throughout time, and this isn’t allowed within green cemeteries. Instead, the body is not treated with any chemicals. 
  • Stone or monument: Excessive or traditional headstones aren’t usually permitted within a green cemetery. In most cases, a simple stone is used, which may have the deceased person’s name on it. In conservation areas, there might be no maker at all. 
  • Decorations: Last but not least, most green cemeteries either forbid or limit any personal or memorial decorations. This could include wreaths, flags, balloons, flowers, and so on. 

It’s important to check the specific requirements of the cemetery before making your decision. While the green burial cost is the most common reason people choose this option, make sure these are guidelines you’re comfortable with. In addition, inform your family about requirements so they’re on the same page as you about these important decisions. 

How Much Do Burials in a Green Cemetery Typically Cost?

One of the leading reasons people are choosing green burials is because of the cost. With the average cost of funerals across the country on the rise, people are looking for ways to save money. Because green burials use fewer resources, they’re significantly more affordable. These costs mean the family can focus on honoring their loved one, not raising funds for a funeral or burial service. 

With that in mind, how much do green burials cost? For burial in a green cemetery, you can expect to pay around $2,000. This includes the burial plot, a burial shroud, and any interment fees. Compared to the cost of a traditional funeral ($7,000+), this is quite the savings. While the specific cemetery might charge additional fees, it’s possible to find something within any budget. 

However, it’s important to note that burial in a green cemetery might not be the cheapest option overall. A direct cremation or burial could cost similarly or even less, depending on your location. Direct cremation runs families around $500, making it a very affordable choice.

With no need for a casket, burial plot, or grave marker, this is the cheapest option for most. Still, many families like the idea of returning their loved ones to earth naturally. This is a highly personal decision, and there are no right or wrong answers. 

What States Allow Green Burials and Cemeteries?

With that in mind, what states allow green burial and cemeteries? There are strict laws surrounding funeral practices across the country. This means it’s important to understand the rules in your specific location when making arrangements. The most important thing to understand is that green burials are legal in all 50 states in America. 

However, there are some state-specific rules you’ll need to consider. A body can be buried without a casket in every state, but some states require bodies to be embalmed in specific situations. In Alabama, Alaska, California, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, bodies are required to be embalmed if they’re being transported across state lines.

Still, there are eco-friendly embalming fluids that can be used. As more people push for green burials, the laws around this type of burial will become more clear. 

Ultimately, it’s a good idea to talk to your funeral director about green burial laws near you. These laws often impact your options, and they can lead to fewer resources in some areas. Though green burial is becoming more common, it’s not always easy to locate a qualified green cemetery that meets your needs. 

» MORE: Your loved ones will spend ~500 hours dealing with your death. Reduce their burden by setting things up in advance.

 

How to Find a Green Cemetery 

Green cemeteries are becoming easier to find, but they’re still not as common as conventional cemeteries. Taking the time to seek out this type of facility in advance saves a lot of heartaches and struggles when the time does come. 

The easiest way to find a green burial cemetery is to look for online resources. The New Hampshire Funeral Resources Organization has an extensive list of green burial locations in the United States and Canada that is a great resource. You can also contact local cemeteries near you to ask about their offerings. 

More green cemeteries are popping up in convenient locations, so you might not have to travel far. Because this is a relatively new idea, not all green cemeteries might be listed as such online. Most conventional cemeteries are willing to work with you to meet your needs. 

If You Can’t Find a Green Cemetery Nearby

If you’re unable to find a green cemetery nearby, don’t fret. There are still a number of ways to make your funeral more environmentally friendly. You’ve never had more options when it comes to customizable end-of-life preferences.

Any burial can be made greener by skipping the embalming process, and by using a sustainable casket. Many cemeteries also allow you to omit the vault where the body is preserved within the ground. If not, you can use a concrete grave box with an open bottom. Ultimately, it’s just about returning the body to earth as best as you can under the circumstances. 

Another option is a home burial if you or a loved one owns rural property. This is allowed in many states, but you’ll still want to check with your local zoning laws and ensure you have any necessary permits. This allows you full flexibility over the burial process. 

Return to the Earth Naturally

While the idea of what comes after death is understandably intimidating, many people find comfort in knowing their body returns to the earth naturally. In ancient times, “green burials” were the norm. Prior to the days of complex caskets and embalming, laying a loved one to rest was as simple as this. 

Today, there’s a return to these simpler times as a way to protect the environment and do less harm. When buried within a green cemetery, the body returns to the soil naturally. Now that you understand the ins and outs of these specific types of burial locations, you’re ready to make the right decision about your final resting place. 


Sources:
  1. “Embalming: What You Should Know.” Funeral Consumer Alliance. Funerals.org.
  2. “FAQs: Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council. GreenBurialCouncil.org.
  3. “Green Burial Cemeteries in the US and Canada.” New Hampshire Funeral Resources. NHFuneral.org

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