How to Have a Green Burial

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Traditional burials and cremation aren’t exactly kind to the environment. The cremation process produces air pollution (regulated only by local air quality authorities with varying degrees of success), and the embalming process exposes funeral workers to potentially toxic doses of formaldehyde. But these days, more and more funeral homes and cemeteries are offering green burial options—and when they don’t offer, you can ask for them.

Not only is a green burial more eco-friendly, it can also be less expensive, since it eliminates costs for things like embalming, fancy caskets, and concrete burial vaults. Read on to learn what it means to have a green burial, and tips for how to make any burial and memorial plan greener.

What is a green burial?

A green burial can take many forms, but fundamentally, the aim is to minimize the impact burial has on the earth and environment. Some funeral homes specifically advertise green burials. But even if there’s no funeral home near you that offers such an option, you can still make greener choices for individual elements of a funeral and burial.

Green burial features to consider

Skipping embalming

Embalming is not required by law, except in rare cases. (For example, some states require embalming when a body is being transported out of state.) Even if the burial or cremation does not take place right away, refrigeration can usually be used to preserve the body. Avoiding embalming can also subtract hundreds or even thousands of dollars from the total funeral cost. If you would like to have a viewing with only refrigeration, be sure to ask any funeral home you’re considering if they offer that option.

Using a biodegradable casket or shroud for burial

You can choose a casket made of biodegradable, sustainable materials, such as bamboo, wicker, or certain types of wood, such as untreated pine. Some funeral homes offer eco-friendly casket options, but you can also buy your own eco-friendly casket online (and your funeral home is required to accept it).

In some places, it’s also possible to be buried in just a shroud—a length of cloth that covers the body—although many cemeteries do not allow this. If the cemetery you are working with does allow it, your funeral home may provide shroud options. Otherwise, you may find online retailers through the Green Burial Council’s website. A shroud may be $100 and up, depending on material.

Not using an outer burial container

In many cemeteries, the casket is placed inside a concrete grave liner or burial vault, to prevent the earth from settling over the grave over time. Some cemeteries do not allow the omission of a vault, but you may be able to ask for the vault to be inverted, so the open top is at the bottom of the grave, or for holes to be drilled in the bottom of the vault. Although this does not eliminate the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting the vault itself, it does enable the body to return to the earth.

Eliminating a headstone or choosing a “green” headstone

A green headstone is usually a headstone or marker made with natural materials, like rocks, flowers, or a planted tree. Some cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council allow you to select a large rock from the grounds that an engraver can carefully engrave later.

Burial in a green cemetery

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, about 60 official green cemeteries or areas exist in the United States. Some of these areas are hybrids, where a green area is attached to a traditional cemetery, while others are a tract of land attached to a conservation area.

Green cemeteries prohibit the use of toxic chemicals, both in materials found in caskets as well as pesticides and herbicides; preserve native plants and wildlife; and conduct frequent ecological assessments, ensuring that any burials do not take place in areas that may be ecologically sensitive. Burial in these green spaces may not allow you the option of a traditional headstone or any marker beyond rocks, trees, or shrubs and may discourage the use of cut flowers as decoration on the site marker.

Some cemeteries may offer a greener alternative that is not certified. If you’re considering one, ask them for specifics about what makes their process greener than a traditional burial.

How to find greener providers and products

The Green Burial Council (GBC), an organization devoted to encouraging environmentally sustainable death care, provides certification for funeral homes, cemeteries, and makers of products such as caskets. Some of their standards include limiting burial materials only to biodegradable materials, skipping the embalming process, and ensuring that the cemetery conserves and protects the land and plants on it. You can find GBC-certified providers on their website.

That said, you don’t necessarily need to choose GBC-certified products and services to reduce the impact a death has on an environment. But becoming familiar with their standards can help you coordinate a more eco-friendly burial even if there is no GBC-certified provider near you.

Watch out for up charges from funeral homes on green burial options (such as pricey eco-friendly caskets). A standard pegged pine box (common for Jewish funerals) is often less expensive than one made of willow that may have been shipped to the U.S. from China, for example. Ask for a breakdown of costs.

You can also ask the funeral director to delay transfer from place of death so that you can have some family time when death occurs, or have your own custom casket, or even an old-fashioned shrouding ceremony with the help of a hospice nurse or death doula. Death is never an emergency when hospice is supervising. Talk out what you’d like to happen so that your actions at this stressful time can help and not hurt the planet as well as the grieving family left behind.

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