This section of Get Help covers the basics of green burial practices and cemeteries, reducing environmental impact, and two newer green alternatives: alkaline hydrolysis and natural organic composting.
What is green burial?
Green (or natural) burial emphasizes simplicity and environmental sustainability. The body is neither cremated nor prepared with chemicals such as embalming fluids. It is simply placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud and interred without a concrete burial vault. The grave site is allowed to return to nature. The goal is complete decomposition of the body and its natural return to the soil. Only then can a burial truly be “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” a phrase so often used when we bury our dead.
Why choose green burial?
Green burials are not new. Most burials before the mid-19th century were conducted this way, as are many Jewish and Muslim burials today. Green burials are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, for a number of reasons:
- Simplicity. The idea of wrapping the body in a shroud or placing it in a plain, unadorned coffin appeals to those who prefer their burial arrangement to be simple, natural and conducted in a way that is more aligned with their values and wishes.
- Lower cost. Because green burials do not involve embalming, fancy caskets, or concrete vaults, they can be a very cost-effective alternative to conventional burials, lowering the cost by thousands of dollars. If the family supplies their own shroud or coffin, the cost can be further reduced.
- Conserving natural resources. Each year US cemeteries bury over 30 million board feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in caskets, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults. With green burial, fewer resources are used.
- Eliminating hazardous chemicals. For some, forgoing the embalming process is the main attraction, since embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. In the US about 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used every year, and funeral home workers are exposed to it routinely.
- Preserving natural areas. Love of nature and a desire for “eternal rest” in a forever-wild meadow or forest are frequently-cited reasons for choosing green burial. The burial sites restore or preserve a natural landscape populated by native trees, shrubs and wildflowers; the sites offer food and refuge to birds and other wildlife. The most conservation-intensive green cemeteries do not use fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. A green cemetery can be an important component in the acquisition and conservation of native habitats.
How do I choose a cemetery?
The first green cemetery opened in the US in 1998; over 90 operate here today. Some green cemeteries comprise a specially-designated section within a conventional cemetery. Others are expansive tracts of land, often contiguous with an existing park, critical habitat area or forever-wild conservation area. Here is a list of known green burial grounds in the U.S and Canada.
Most green cemeteries exclude embalmed remains and burial vaults; some exclude cremated remains as well. Shrouds or caskets made of natural, biodegradable, non-toxic materials are often specified. Graves are typically marked only by a natural rock, native plant or plaque flush with the ground, with grave locations recorded by GPS. To preserve the pristine natural landscape and protect native plants and wildlife, most green cemeteries forbid or limit personal plantings and many memorial decorations like flowers, wreaths, flags, chimes, balloons, and toys. Be sure to inquire about the cemetery’s special restrictions when buying a plot.
What if there’s no green cemetery nearby?
You can make any burial greener by eliminating embalming, and using a shroud or a biodegradable casket. Omit the vault if the cemetery will allow it. Otherwise, ask to use a concrete grave box with an open bottom, have holes drilled in the bottom of the vault, or invert the vault without its cover, so the body can return to the earth.
If you or your family members own rural property, home burial may be an option. Most states allow burial on private property, but each municipality has its own zoning requirements, so be sure to check and get the required permits. Keep in mind that unless you have established a family cemetery on your property, the land may be sold for other purposes, and the remains disturbed or rendered inaccessible.
How do I choose a funeral director?
As green burial increases in popularity, more and more funeral directors are willing to offer it as an option. Some already include this choice on their General Price Lists. However, the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates many aspects of the funeral industry, has not yet developed guidelines or standards for funeral homes or cemeteries offering green burials.
The Green Burial Council lists certified funeral providers who are required, among other things, to:
- Use only non-toxic, biodegradable chemicals or basic cooling methods to preserve the body
- Offer viewing or home vigils without embalming
- Carry at least three GBC approved containers
However, limited resources make it difficult, at present, for the GBC to monitor their approved providers for continued compliance.
The National Funeral Directors Association offers its members a Green Funeral Practices Certificate, which recognizes that the funeral home has adopted environmentally responsible practices and offers environmentally friendly products and services to consumers. These include offering sustainable, biodegradable caskets and temporary preservation, without toxic embalming, for open casket viewing. But be aware that the certified provider is a member of the organization awarding the certification and has not necessarily been evaluated or approved by any independent organization.
How much does green burial cost?
Prices vary widely by region and the type of green burial site. Burial plots in a green cemetery tend to be larger than those in a conventional cemetery, so may cost more. The cost for a grave site and interment will range from $1,000 to $4,000 for a body, or from $200 to $1,000 for cremated remains.
Considering the simplicity of a green burial, funeral home prices can be surprisingly high—higher than for direct (or immediate) burial, which is also burial without embalming or viewing. Some funeral homes charge $5,000 or more for a green burial using a simple pine casket. A price of about $2,000 is more typical, though still high. To determine a fair price, compare the funeral home’s charges for green burial and direct burial—they should be commensurate. Shop around among several funeral homes to find the most affordable price.
You can save considerable money by providing your own casket, rather than purchasing highly-promoted “earth-friendly caskets” that may cost thousands of dollars. The funeral director is required by law to accept any appropriate container you provide, without charging additional fees. Homemade or store-bought caskets of plain wood, cardboard or wicker would be acceptable at most green cemeteries. Instead of using a casket, you could wrap your loved one in a favorite blanket or quilt, especially one made of natural materials like cotton or wool. If you have time, you could sew a shroud yourself, or find a seamstress to make one for you at a reasonable price.
In short, don’t fall for marketing tactics that appeal to your conscience while making a simple send-off more costly, so you spend more to get less. Choosing green burial gives you the freedom to decline unnecessary services and merchandise. And this type of burial will be environmentally friendly and easier on your budget, whether it’s touted as “green” or not. Don’t forget, our very recent ancestors called these practices simply “burial.”
Newer green options for body disposition:
Alkaline Hydrolysis (other common names: flameless cremation, water cremation)
“During alkaline hydrolysis, a human body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber, while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent sodium hydroxide passes over and around it. In low-temperature alkaline hydrolysis, the solution reaches a temperature just below boiling, the process is performed at atmospheric pressure, and the body is reduced over the course of 14 to 16 hours; in a higher-temperature version of the process where the mixture tops 300 degrees Fahrenheit and creates more pressure, the body is reduced in four to six hours. The process dissolves the bonds in the body’s tissues and eventually yields a sterile, liquid combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars and soaps, which is disposed of down the drain at the alkaline hydrolysis facility. The body’s bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the deceased person’s survivors, just as the bones that remain after flame cremation are returned to families as ash.” (“Could Water Cremation …” Smithsonian 2022)
Natural Organic Reduction (other common names: body composting, recomposition)
General overview (the process varies by the company providing the service): “The deceased body is gently placed into a steel cylinder 8-foot by 4-foot, and wood chips, straw, and alfalfa are added. Oxygen is added to the cylinder to speed the decomposition process by increasing the growth of microbes that perform their role of breaking down the organic matter. The cylinder interior heat is kept at around 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is the optimal temperature range for safe and efficient composting and maximum operation of the microbe organisms feeding on the organic matter of the body. The contents of the cylinder are ‘blended’ regularly throughout the process to help break up remaining bone fragments. When the body is fully composted, the cylinder produces one cubic yard of soil. Any inorganic medical implants are removed from the soil . . . [generally speaking] A family can have the soil remains returned to them for their own personal interment or scattering or donate the soil to a conservation organization.” (“Human Composting…” US Funerals Online 2023)
For More Information (FCA does not endorse any specific organization)
“Alkaline Hydrolysis” (2023) Cremation Association of North America: https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/alkalinehydrolysis
“Could Water Cremation Become the New American Way of Death?” (2022) Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/could-water-cremation-become-the-new-american-way-of-death-180980479/
“Fact Check-Alkaline hydrolysis, or liquid cremation, does not mean human remains are ‘fed to the living’” (2023) Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-dead-fed-living/fact-check-alkaline-hydrolysis-or-liquid-cremation-does-not-mean-human-remains-are-fed-to-the-living-idUSL1N3621X5
Green Burial Council: www.greenburialcouncil.org
Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2008) Mark Harris. NY: Scribner: http://www.gravematters.us/
“Human Composting as a New Death Care Alternative: A Guide to NOR” (2023) US Funerals Online: https://www.us-funerals.com/human-composting-as-a-new-death-care-alternative-a-guide-to-nor/