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Natural Burial: A Sustainable End of Life Option

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Better Place Forests creates and maintains conservation memorial forests for people who choose cremation and don’t want their ashes to end up in a traditional cemetery.
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Natural burial is a sustainable end-of-life option that has many benefits, both for the individual and for the environment. 

If you’re considering natural burial for yourself or a loved one, read on to learn more about this beautiful and earth-friendly way to honor a life well lived. This type of burial is growing in popularity across America. 

Learn more about the process of how a natural burial works, alternatives you might want to consider, and some of the pros and cons of this eco-friendly option.

What is natural burial? 

Natural burial is the process of burying a whole human body in the ground in a way that allows the body to decompose naturally. By using biodegradable materials, foregoing embalming fluid and cremation, natural burials reduce our environmental footprint.

Natural burial sites are often referred to as “green burial sites” or “green cemeteries.”

How natural burial works (in detail)

Natural burial begins with digging a shallow grave in a native habitat like a woodland or meadow. The body is not embalmed or chemically preserved. Typically, the body is wrapped in biodegradable materials like cotton or muslin, but sometimes people will use a coffin or casket made of biodegradable material like whicker. The grave does not use a burial vault or outer container (used in traditional graves to prevent the body from coming in contact with soil). The grave should be shallow enough that once the body is placed, microbes and bacteria can begin the decomposition process. You can think of this process as similar to composting you might do in your garden.

The body begins decomposing after death, and it can take anywhere from 2 years to 20 years for the body and bones to completely decompose. The type of soil, natural bacterias present, and moisture content all affect the pace of decomposition.  

Why people choose natural burial

There are three common reasons people choose natural burial: 

  1. Circle of Life: A lot of people like the idea of returning to the earth in a simple, straightforward way. 
  2. Leaving a “green” legacy: Green burial sites are often protected meadows, woodland, or forests. By choosing this method of interment, your choice helps protect these natural spaces for the next generation. 
  3. Minimizing environmental impact: Natural burial does not use chemicals, concrete, or steel caskets. Natural burial is a way to leave a minimal negative environmental footprint.

Tips on how to plan a natural burial

If you’re considering natural burial, it’s important to find out what regulations exist in your area, as they may influence your decision. Natural burial is not legally permitted across all states. The Green Burial Council lists providers across America. 

If you’re struggling to find a green burial option you like in your area, it’s possible to have a body sent to a neighboring state. If that’s not an option for you, you may want to consider cremation or aquamation and scattering the ashes in a natural space.

Once you’ve found a provider that works for you, it’s often possible to prepay for your burial site. Be sure to clearly document what you’ve chosen and what you have/have not paid for. We highly recommend having a conversation with family before your time of need.

Alternatives to natural burial

Typically people considering natural burial are interested in an eco-friendly, non-traditional option. Here’s a few alternatives to consider: 

  1. Human Composting/Natural Organic Reduction/Terramation/Recomposition: Similar to natural burial, the body is placed directly in soil to begin decomposing.The soil is often housed in a stainless steel vessel in a human composting facility. Typically, after 8-12 weeks, the soft tissue of the body is decomposed. Human composting sites will often crush the remaining bones and mix that into the soil.  A typical body yields a cubic ton of soil, which can be a lot for surviving family to manage. 
  2. Tree Pods: Ashes or a full body are placed in a biodegradable urn with soil and tree seeds/a sapling.
  3. Memorial Trees: Ashes or remains are interwoven with soil and placed around a mature tree. Learn more about how memorial trees work.
  4. Water Cremation/Aquamation: Water cremation uses 90% less energy than flame cremation. The body is placed in a vessel with water and alkali salts until it decomposes. Bone fragments are returned to the family as a fine white powder, often still referred to as ashes. You can spread these ashes in a natural location.

The pros and cons of natural burial

Pros of natural burial: 

  1. Natural burial is a sustainable choice for those who want to reconnect with the natural environment when they have reached the end of their life. 
  2. It allows people to connect with nature in an eco-friendly way, without causing any harm to the environment. 
  3. It protects natural habitats. Instead of land being manicured landscapes, natural burial sites are part of the local ecosystem, and support local wildlife.
  4. Natural burial is often more affordable than traditional burial.

Cons of natural burial: 

  1. It may be difficult to find a provider near you. While this option is becoming more popular, it’s not common across America just yet.
  2. It may require additional paperwork and working with a funeral home. 
  3. It may be harder for loved ones to visit the burial site. This varies from site to site, but not all sites use a marker. Your loved ones may want a place they can easily find with a marker. 
  4. Green Burials need to happen quickly. Because no embalming fluids are used, the body needs to be placed in the ground quickly. This can add stress and pressure to loved ones planning a funeral/celebration of life.

In conclusion, natural burial is an accessible, eco-friendly and meaningful form of interment. It provides the opportunity to reduce one’s environmental footprint, honor the dead in a natural way. 

This option is growing in popularity, but still isn’t common in America, so it’s best to plan ahead to help alleviate challenges for surviving family. When you’re ready to begin making end-of-life plans, schedule a free online forest tour with one of our guides to compare memorial trees to natural burial.

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