If nature has always been an important part of your life, you might be wondering how you can help protect it after you’re gone. You can donate money to your favorite environmental causes, of course, but did you know you can also make a difference by choosing a natural burial? Many traditional burial practices can have significant negative effects on the environment, including the release of toxic substances into the soil and water. However, there are end-of-life options like natural burial that can have a lasting positive impact on the environment. 

What is natural burial?

Natural burial is a way to let the deceased return to the earth naturally, like all living things, with little or no impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Today, natural burial and other alternatives to traditional burial are gaining in popularity for reasons that include simplicity, cost, and, most of all, environmental impact.

There is no one type of natural burial. You actually have a number of options, from what your burial wishes are, where you’d like to be buried, and how much you want to spend.

Is natural burial environmentally friendly?

Yes — harmony with nature is the guiding principle in natural burials. There’s nothing about a natural burial that will impede a body’s decomposition. In fact, the goal is to minimize the impact on the environment, which includes leaving the smallest possible carbon footprint.

Most natural burials proceed more or less like this: The body is placed in a biodegradable casket or coffin — meaning it’s designed to decompose, leaving no trace — or sometimes just a simple shroud made of natural material, like cotton. Then the body is laid to rest in a burial site that’s been dug by hand, instead of using gas- or electric-powered digging equipment.

In contrast, a traditional burial can have a significant negative impact on the environment. Embalming fluids used to preserve the body can eventually release formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater, along with harmful substances from the lacquered finish found on most caskets. And that doesn’t include the immense amount of energy and resources used every year to produce non-biodegradable caskets and burial vaults.

Is natural burial legal?

While natural burial is legal throughout the United States, specific requirements vary from state to state. For example, some states restrict natural burial to established cemeteries, while others allow it on private land, so long as the site complies with certain regulations and ordinances. Other states will require you to hire a certified funeral director.

When considering this end-of-life option for yourself or a loved one, you should begin by carefully checking all applicable state and local laws. Generally speaking, natural burial can take place wherever it’s legal. 

Natural burial types

Here are the most common kinds of natural burial sites:

Green burial

You can opt for a green burial, which takes place in a cemetery or burial ground designed exclusively for natural burials. These green cemeteries usually follow eco-friendly practices, like avoiding the use of artificial pesticides. An alternative is to plan your burial in a so-called “hybrid cemetery,” which permits both traditional and natural burial.

Conservation burial

There’s also what’s called a conservation burial. You can plan your burial on land that’s been legally designated for conservation purposes — protecting and restoring the natural environment, including area plants and wildlife.

Home burial

Another possibility is home burial, or choosing a final resting place on residential property. Choosing home burial means you’ll first have to ensure that the site qualifies under local and state law. It could mean legally establishing the site as a family cemetery.

How much does natural burial cost?

The cost of natural burial can vary significantly, depending on a number of factors. Will it be a home burial, or will it take place in a green cemetery or on conservation property? Will there be a funeral or memorial service? Will you need to hire a funeral director, per state law? Are you considering a biodegradable casket or a burial shroud? 

All that said, natural burial can be significantly less expensive than a traditional burial. Burial in a green cemetery, for example, typically costs $1,000–$4,000. Compare that with the many expenses of traditional burial — the casket and burial vault alone can easily top $4,000.

Who offers natural burials?

Along with additional information and resources, the Green Burial Council has a list of certified cemeteries and funeral homes in the U.S. and Canada. You can also contact funeral directors in your area and ask about natural-burial providers.

Natural burial vs. cremation

In recent years, cremation has become more popular than burial in the U.S. Many people choose cremation because they don’t want to participate in the harmful effects of traditional burial, which generally involves embalming chemicals and caskets made of materials that don’t biodegrade. 

If you’re deciding between cremation or natural burial, there are several newer options available that you may want to know about. 

Aquamation

Aquamation is an environmentally friendly kind of cremation that’s also known as water cremation. Because it essentially uses water instead of fire to turn a body into ashes, aquamation has a 75% lower carbon footprint. This is a newer cremation method, so it’s only currently legal in some states.

Human composting

A few states are beginning to legalize human composting, or natural organic reduction, where the body is gently transformed into soil. Microbes and other organic materials are combined with the body to support decomposition. At the end of the process, you are left with rich soil. 

Whatever your reasons for thinking about natural burial or cremation, there’s almost certainly an option to fit your needs. And if you’re planning a funeral or memorial service, you might consider alternatives that forgo the typical expense and formality of traditional services.