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Green Burial: What You Need to Know

What is a “green” or “natural” burial?

Green burial seeks to return one’s remains to the earth, as directly and simply as possible. It thus avoids embalming (and its toxic chemicals), metal caskets and burial vaults that are standard features of the modern funeral.

In their place green burials favor interring the deceased in either cloth shrouds or in simple coffins made from cardboard or plentiful softwoods, like pine. Bodies are then laid into vault-free graves, often in woodland settings available in the “natural cemeteries” now springing up in this country or on one’s private, rural lands. Headstones, if used at all, are typically fashioned from native fieldstones and set flush to the ground, though shrubs and trees may be used instead.

Such natural return is little more than a return to long tradition. Much of what constitutes green burial was once standard practice in this country, the default, not the exception. The goal then and now is the same: to allow the body at death to rejoin the elements it sprang from, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.


What are some examples of natural burial?

At its greenest, natural burial involves the interment of a shrouded or minimally-coffined body in a green setting, be it a natural cemetery (chapter 9) or on rural land (chapter 8). It also includes cremation (chapter 3) – which consumes significantly fewer resources than the modern funeral – and options that return the resulting ashes (i.e., cremated remains) to the environment.

Among them are scattering ashes at sea (sea burial, chapter 4) and adding ashes to a memorial “reef ball,” a concrete form resembling an igloo which is then dropped into the ocean onto established reef sites, where they serve as aquatic nurseries for fish and other undersea wildlife (chapter 5).

I also write about two options that allow for simple, earth-friendly burial: laying out and waking a loved one at home (i.e., conducting a home funeral, chapter 6) and hiring a cabinetmaker to craft a plain pine coffin (chapter 7)


What is embalming?

Embalming is a three-stage process of preserving a corpse for viewing: setting the deceased’s “features” as they will appear in the casket, draining the body of blood and replacing it with a formaldehyde-based preservative, and then inserting a sharp-pointed “trocar” into the abdomen in order to puncture the body’s inner organs, vacuum up the released bacteria and surrounding visceral fluids, and flood the “cleared” area with more formaldehyde. Chapter 1, The Embalming of Jenny Johnson, provides a step-by-step look at the embalming process.


Isn’t embalming required by law?

No federal law states that a body must be embalmed. States rarely require it, and then sometimes only when a body is being transported across state lines or when the deceased died of a contagious disease. There is no definitive proof that embalming protects the public from disease a cadaver may harbor.


What are the environmental effects of the modern funeral?

For all its verdant landscaping, the typical cemetery functions less like a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill for the materials that infuse and encase them. Over time, the typical ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. Add to that a volume of toxic formalin nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds preternaturally green. See Chapter 2, After the Burial, for details.


What do I need to do to arrange a natural burial?

When possible, plan ahead. Grave Matters offers a picture of more than half a dozen natural alternatives to the modern funeral, and advice on how to pursue them. In most cases, there are organizations and companies that either offer or promote those alternatives – Eternal Reefs for memorial reefs, Crossings for home funerals, etc. They can help you arrange matters in advance or at time of need. Information on these groups is included at the end of each chapter.

Know your laws. Natural burial is almost always a viable option, though you may have to consider legal requirements specific to your state, region and/or municipality. New York, for example, requires that funeral directors be used to transport a body to the cemetery or crematory, and most counties across the country restrict backyard burials to rural areas. Lisa Carlson’s book, Caring for the Dead (1998, Upper Access Books) offers an excellent state-by-state overview of various funerary laws. The supporting organizations I mention above will also know -- and thus know how to navigate your burial through – the pertinent legalities.

Don’t go it alone. A home funeral, for one, may prove an emotionally and physically taxing endeavor. Call on family and friends to help you make arrangements, attend to business matters, and, again, in the case of a home funeral, wash and lay out the body for the wake. If possible, ask your helpers to be on call in advance of the death.

Contact the Green Burial Council. This non-profit organization has established standards for truly green natural cemeteries and maintains a by-state list of green funeral directors and cemetery owners. On the Council’s web page, click on the link for “Approved Providers” to find those that offer such green burial services as refrigeration (in lieu of embalming), vault-free burial, and readily biodegradable caskets. Many will also help you plan home funerals and investigate home burial possibilities.

Finally, consult your local funeral consumers group, also known as a memorial society (for the group nearest you, see the web page of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Click on “Find a Local FCA”). Memorial Societies are volunteer-run, non-profit organizations that work to help families make a range of appropriate and affordable funeral arrangements. Many have negotiated lower-price deals with area funeral homes, mostly for basic funerals, including cremations. Membership, which gains you access to those deals, as well as a range of funeral planning services, runs from $25 to $50.