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What is a green burial?

As someone who cares for the earth, you strive to live a life that’s good for the planet and you make choices every day that help reinforce your values. From recycling and reducing waste to combining errands in the car to reduce emissions, you’re doing your part to help the planet. But what happens when you die? Is traditional burial harmful to the planet? Are there other alternatives to consider that are more environmentally friendly?

Unfortunately, traditional burials release a host of toxic chemicals and biodegradable material into the ecosystem. Embalming fluids, which are used to preserve the body, typically contain chemicals like formaldehyde, methanol, and other solvents that can be damaging to the environment. However, there are alternatives that allow you to reduce your negative impact on the environment after you’ve passed. Green burials, or eco burials, are a popular alternative to traditional burials. 

The environmental impact of traditional burials

In the United States, traditional burials include practices that are toxic to the earth, such as embalming fluids, lacquered caskets, artificial flowers, and heavily mowed gravesites. 

Every year, about 4 million gallons of toxic embalming fluids are buried in U.S. cemeteries. According to a recent article by the Baltimore Sun, over 30 million feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel and copper are used each year in caskets. Many of the materials used for these caskets, such as metals and concrete, aren't biodegradable. Equally concerning is the spread of mercury and other heavy toxins that leach into the ecosystem, as their long-term impacts aren’t fully understood.

Hoping to reduce their impact on the earth after their death, more people are looking for alternatives to traditional burials. This has led to an increase in green burials and other environmentally friendly alternatives.

What is a green burial?

A green (or natural) burial is a burial that makes sustainability and simplicity a priority, considering your impact on the environment through every step of the burial process. Often, in green burials, the body isn’t embalmed or cremated but instead is placed in a biodegradable coffin that’s free from metal attachments or a concrete vault. In a green burial, the goal is for the body to completely decompose and return to the soil, resulting in a much smaller impact on the environment. 

There is no right way to have a green burial. Each burial is based on the individual’s wishes. Some may choose to have a simple burial to reduce their environmental impact. This could mean having their body wrapped in a simple cotton shroud before it’s lowered into the ground. Others might choose a blend of green and traditional burial services, which could include a traditional memorial service, but no casket. You might also choose a simple, natural marker, such as flowers, in place of a headstone or eco-friendly elements at the funeral, such as local food and fair-trade flowers.

According to an article in Science News, 14% of Americans over 40 say they would choose a green burial, and around 62% are open to exploring the concept. 

What are some of the benefits of a green burial?

Green burials are becoming a preferred end-of-life option for these reasons:

  • Less expensive: Because green burials don’t involve embalming, lacquered caskets, and other pricey extras, they tend to be much more affordable than traditional funerals.
  • Focus on natural space: Green burials often forgo tombstones and other manufactured markers in favor of more natural memorials such as trees or flowers. Others opt for markers that complement the natural area, such as a bench. In many cases, green burial can take place in a more natural space, like a forest cemetery, instead of a traditional cemetery. 
  • Simplicity: For some, the idea of an extravagant casket and formal headstone may seem unnecessary. 
  • Better use of natural resources: The use of slow-growth hardwoods, like walnut or oak, and other non-compostable materials to create luxurious caskets can negatively impact the environment for years. Additionally, traditional burial cemeteries often require huge tracts of land that need constant maintenance and upkeep.
  • Fewer hazardous chemicals: Not only do embalming chemicals, like formaldehyde, pollute the area around cemeteries, but funeral workers are exposed to unsafe amounts of these chemicals during the process.

What is the average cost of a green burial?

Green burials are typically cheaper than traditional burials. Since there is often no casket, or a much simpler one, the cost decreases significantly. And you also won’t need to pay for embalming. A plot in an eco-friendly cemetery can run anywhere from $1000-$4000 and even less if you’re burying cremated remains, as those plots are generally much smaller. 

How does green burial work?

For a green burial, the body is typically wrapped in biodegradable material, such as a cotton shroud, and placed either in a box made of softwood, like pine or in no vessel at all. The body is then lowered into the gravesite and covered with dirt. 

If the process seems simple, that’s because it is. 

Green burials often forgo much of the unnecessary procedures used in traditional burials — like embalming — and use more natural options. Many people that choose a green burial opt to have trees, ornamental plants, shrubs, or flowers as a natural marker for the gravesite.

What are other environmentally friendly options?

Eco or natural burials often take place in more natural spaces for a reason. Often called green cemeteries, these spaces offer low-impact burials. There are several types of green cemeteries around the world. 

  • Hybrid burial grounds are cemeteries with plots for both ecological and conventional burials, meaning that certain parcels of land are set aside to use only biodegradable products.
  • Natural burial grounds take sustainability a step further by restricting the land to allow only green or other environmentally friendly burials. 
  • Conservation burial grounds seek to improve and preserve land while also offering burial spaces. These burial grounds are protected by a conservation land trust entity and uphold strict land management rules.  

In addition to these green burial choices, there are other types of eco-friendly space that have many of the benefits of a natural, green burial without the burial process. 

One such service is a memorial forest. In a memorial forest, people can choose a memorial tree where their ashes are mixed with local soil and spread at the base. When you choose a memorial forest you directly contribute to the conservation of forestland.

The benefits of a natural resting place

Traditional burials negatively impact the environment, using toxic embalming chemicals and vessels that take decades to degrade, if they degrade at all. These chemicals harm the earth and those who work in the funeral industry. 

Choosing a green burial or a memorial forest will positively impact the planet and future generations. Your positive impact on the earth doesn’t have to end when we leave it.