Green Burial: The Eco-Friendly Alternative to Funerals

Eco-Friendly Coffins for Britain's ''Day for the Dead''
Designer Hazel Selina displays her Ecopod, an environmentally friendly coffin. Sion Touhig / Getty Images

A green burial, sometimes referred to as natural or home burial, is an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional funeral practices. By emphasizing sustainability and simplicity, advocates of green burial hope to educate people about this trend and help society return to traditional burial methods.

Did You Know?

  • A green burial is eco-friendly, cost-effective, and represents a return to the earth.
  • Hybrid, natural, and conservation cemeteries follow sustainable principles and guidelines to help families plan eco-friendly funerals.
  • In the United States, many places allow you to be buried on your own land.

Why Go With a Green Burial?

cardboard bio-degradable eco coffin isolated on white with clipping path
Some coffins are made of biodegradable cardboard. windy55 / Getty Images

In many parts of the world, when a person dies, their body is taken to the local funeral home. Once there, the body is embalmed with up to three gallons of chemicals, designed to prevent decomposition until the body is interred. Burial traditionally occurs in a fancy and expensive casket, usually made of metal, wood, or both. According to the Green Burial Council, a million pounds of concrete, metal and wood are put into American soil each year in the name of burying the dead. In addition, even cremation can use up a significant amount of fuel. The casket is covered with dirt, and grass and flowers mark the spot, along with a headstone or marker, and that's where your loved one remains.

A green burial is an alternative that has begun trending in the past few years. The idea of going eco-friendly and green is appealing to a lot of people because it’s more environmentally sound. Typically, a green or eco-friendly burial or funeral involves caring for the dead in a way that leaves minimal environmental impact and utilizes non-toxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds, and urns. There are options that involve no chemical embalming, or embalming with green-friendly fluids, and if a coffin or casket is used, it’s generally made of a biodegradable material.

For many people, there is indeed a spiritual connection to the idea of a green, eco-friendly burial. There is often a sense that an earth-friendly burial helps to offer reverence for the land as one’s final gesture.

The environment and spirituality aren't the only reasons to go green when it comes to end-of-life planning. Because materials are simple and the body is typically not embalmed, there's a cost savings when families opt for green burials. Even if a plot in a cemetery is involved, the lack of the fancy coffin and expensive embalming chemicals often results in significant financial savings.

Types of Green Burials

Depending on where you live, but more importantly, on your personal preferences, there are several different options for green burials.

Some people choose to not be embalmed at all, or to have regular embalming fluid replaced by essential oils. Advocates of green burials recommend "asking for dry ice or Techni-ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent. You can also keep (or bring) the body home and cool it with fans, cooling blankets, or open windows." Embalming is not required for a funeral; it is done more for cosmetic reasons, because it prevents decomposition prior to a viewing.

a willow casket - contemporary style
Willow and untreated wood caskets are more environmentally friendly. studioportosabbia / Getty Images

Instead of metal and wood caskets, there is a movement towards biodegradable coffins or pods, often made of cardboard or wicker that will decompose along with the body inside it. There are a few places in the US where you can be buried without a coffin at all—the body is essentially wrapped in a cloth or shroud, placed in a hole, and covered with dirt, and nature is allowed to take its course. Although some people have safety concerns about uncoffined bodies contaminating groundwater, studies show that done properly, there is little evidence that natural burial presents a problem. In fact, some researchers say there's more evidence of microbiological contamination from coffin and embalming materials than from putrefaction.

Home burials are becoming more popular, in which a person is buried on their family’s property, much like our ancestors did. This means fewer spaces being taken up in cemeteries. Many states in the U.S. do allow this, but there may be requirements as to minimum acreage. According to Everplan, a funeral-planning website,

Home burial is prohibited in California, Indiana, and Washington, and all other states have regulations around home burial. In order to be buried on your own land, you may need to obtain permits from local government... or follow local regulations on the location of the site, the depth of the grave, and other issues. For the most part, however, as long as you own the land you should have no trouble obtaining the necessary permits. 

What if I Want a Green Burial?

If you’re interested in a green burial, there are a number of factors you’ll need to keep in mind.

Municipal regulations vary from one place to another, and much of that will reflect the needs of the environment. Someone who lives on 150 acres in the country is going to have a different experience than their cousin who lives in a third-floor walkup in a city. Check with your local governing body to see what you need to know about green burials.

Bouquet of red roses in a forest cemetery on a foggy autumn day
In many places, you can be buried on your own property, and you're not required to have a headstone. Gaschwald / Getty Images

Keep in mind that while you are not legally required to purchase a casket or vault in a cemetery, individual cemeteries are allowed to set their own policies. They may require that a family purchase a casket and vault for an internment, and they are allowed to do so.

Also, check with the Green Burial Council. This non-profit organization monitors the green funeral industry. In addition, they offer a rating system for products and services, and can put you in touch with funeral homes in your area that offer green end-of-life solutions. You may also want to look into The Natural End, which works to connect families with funeral home directors who have signed a pledge to offer natural funeral services. According to US Funerals Online,

There are currently approximately 93 registered green burial cemeteries and memorial woodlands in the United States. These are recognized natural burial sites, although some are hybrid cemeteries where both natural and traditional burials take place. A green burial cemetery is also sometimes called an eco-cemetery.

In countries other than the U.S., check with local funeral directors, or companies such as The Green Funeral Company (if you’re in the UK) for more information on planning your own green burial.

Sources

  • “Natural Burial.” The Order of the Good Death, www.orderofthegooddeath.com/resources/natural-burial.
  • “How To Have A Home Burial.” Everplans, www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-have-a-home-burial.
  • Oliver. “Infectious Disease Risks from Dead Bodies Following Natural Disasters.” Revista Panamericana De Salud Pública, Organización Panamericana De La Salud, 1 May 2004, scielosp.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1020-49892004000500004.
  • Vatomsky, Sonya. “Thinking About Having a 'Green' Funeral? Here's What to Know.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/smarter-living/green-funeral-burial-environment.html.