What is a Natural Burial?

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Guest post by Jasmine Tanguay
Legacy Facilitator and Funeral Celebrant

What is a natural burial?

Natural (also known as “green”) burial returns the body as naturally as possible to the earth. It is really only in the past century or so that we (in the US and Canada) have come to use chemical embalming and a multi-layered casket and vault system for “conventional” burials—and we are still exceptions to the global norm.  Natural burial is a return to the simpler practices by which we have buried the dead for most of human history—and still do in much of the world.

Natural burial avoids using formaldehyde-based embalming to preserve the deceased. The body may be buried in a biodegradable container such as a cloth shroud, pine coffin, or wicker casket. Natural clothing is worn and plastics are avoided. Natural burial often happens at a depth of 3-5 feet, where the biological processes supporting decomposition are more active. The burial site avoids the use of concrete vaults or grave liners. Natural burials can often be done without the involvement of a funeral home (depending on state law), so family members often play a more active role in preparing the deceased for burial.

Why bury naturally?

As awareness grows of the high environmental costs of conventional funeral practices, many are trying to lessen their final footprint. Natural burial avoids the use of toxic embalming chemicals that can harm morticians and the environment. It conserves precious resources such as hardwoods and metals (used in conventional caskets) as well as concrete (for burial vaults). For individuals who want to reduce their carbon footprint after death, a natural burial can be an excellent way to reduce this impact.  Natural burials often take place in locations of great beauty or conservation value, providing both solace and sustainability. Learn more about green burial benefits and options. 

Natural burial can also allow families to become more deeply involved in the care of their loved one after death. Beyond the environmental benefits, the emotional advantages that can be bestowed by directly caring for the body of the deceased can be substantial. Some families choose to keep their loved one at home for several days, which can allow for more time to come to terms with the death, more relaxed visitation, and highly personalized ceremonies, if desired. At the gravesite, natural burials sometimes include hand-digging or filling of the grave and/or manual lowering of the deceased into the grave. These timeless and participatory rituals can be meaningful and cathartic to the family and friends who are able to play an active role in laying their loved one to rest.

And, finally, it can cost much less than standard burial, as you’ll see below. 

Is natural burial cheaper?

It certainly can be. Eliminating the cost of embalming, an elaborate casket, an obligatory grave liner or vault, and a lot of the other bells and whistles of a conventional funeral and burial can cut thousands of dollars off of funeral expenses. The cost of the burial plot will likely be a major component of the overall costs, so read on for tips for finding a cemetery that meets your needs. Some localities will allow burials on one’s own property, which could help reduce costs even further. Supporting the operation of a natural burial ground through the purchase of a cemetery plot can help to fund permanent protection of important natural areas, meaning that the funds spent on a funeral will have a lasting impact—which can appeal to people who aren't interested in spending a lot of money on an opulent casket anyway.

Where can I bury naturally?

Natural burial can occur in “green” cemeteries, in some “conventional” cemeteries, and on family properties (with necessary approvals).  Conservation cemeteries and natural burial cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council (GBC) only allow natural burials. 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. GBC also certifies “hybrid” cemeteries that welcome both green and conventional burials. You can find a directory of these hybrid cemeteries here.

Some conventional or publicly-owned cemeteries will also allow natural burial. Generally, the only concern conventional cemeteries have with natural burial is the grave liner that maintains the integrity of the lawn’s surface for ease of maintenance.  Check if they will waive the liner requirement—some will.

Another option to consider if you wish to return your unembalmed body to nature is a full-body burial at sea. This does not require the purchase of a burial plot but you'll likely need to hire a licensed captain and vessel to reach the appropriate depth and distance from shore. 

Can I be buried on my own land?

Be sure to do thorough legal research in advance. All states have regulations around home burial—and several (CA, WA, IN) prohibit it completely. Municipalities typically have additional requirements and will likely consider details of the site such as its distance from any water supply sources. Permitting must take place in advance and will take patience, knowledge, and persistence.  Property deeds must be updated to permanently record any such burial and markers or fences may be required. 

Taking care of the body at home

The deceased can be lovingly prepared for a natural burial by loved ones using basic skills and supplies. Cleansing the body, setting the features, applying essential oils, and dressing and casketing the deceased are common steps in preparation for natural burial. Keeping the body chilled is necessary to prevent premature decomposition—and there are tools such as high-tech ice packs that can make things easier. The National Home Funeral Alliance maintains a collection of resources and educators to help families care for their own dead. If the family wishes to host a vigil or viewing at home, or even a private farewell, they may wish to embellish the body with beautiful fabrics, flowers, special jewelry, or other accouterments. Funeral celebrants can be called upon to facilitate ceremonies or rituals. Lovely shrouds and caskets made from natural materials are available from many artisans and vendors—and families can even use a simple cardboard coffin as a canvas for artwork, messages, and other personalization.

Bury your fears —take the leap into planning ahead

From mausoleums to mushroom suits and everything in between, there are many ways to be buried and no single approach is right for everyone. No matter what your wishes are for end-of-life care, Cake can help you plan and share them with your loved ones when the time comes. Create your free Cake end-of-life plan.


Author Bio

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Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant

Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is the founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death, and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.