The basic point of a natural or “green” burial is to tread as lightly on the earth as possible with the way we lay a body to rest.
That means only natural, readily biodegradable materials are placed in the ground — and this includes the body itself.
The idea of a green funeral is gaining a lot of traction these days, not just on the coasts but across the country. But while it seems to be a “next big thing” topic these days, the truth is that natural burial is not really a new trend, it’s the way we buried our dead for most of human history.
Because what we think of as a “traditional” 20th-century American burial has only been happening since the time of the Civil War, traditional burials have only been the standard in the past 100 years or so.
The Body Is Not Embalmed in a Green Burial
When a natural burial is chosen, the first step is that the body won’t be embalmed with the embalming fluid used most commonly by funeral professionals.
That’s because that embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, which is a Class 1 carcinogen and is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the top 10 most environmentally hazardous chemicals. It poses health risks for the funeral professionals who use it and contaminates the earth and groundwater when buried in a body.
There is a common misconception that an unembalmed dead body poses a health hazard. But generally speaking, that is only true in rare cases of certain communicable diseases. For the most part, there’s no danger in being around and handling a recently dead body that has not been embalmed.
The natural decomposition process also is not harmful to the earth. (Think of how many animals’ bodies have decomposed there.) Embalming is an aesthetic choice that some people prefer, but it typically isn’t important in terms of health, cleanliness, or public safety.
One alternative to chemical embalming is a natural embalming fluid — for example, one based on natural and nontoxic essential oils. Another option is to forego embalming altogether. If a visitation and/or funeral with the body present is desired, it can be preserved via ice and refrigeration for several days.
While you may find that a given funeral home doesn’t allow services in their facility without embalming, it’s nonetheless true that embalming is not required by law in any U.S. state. If you choose to decline embalming in order to have a natural burial, you’ll want to look for a funeral home that will help you carry out your wishes, whether at their facility, in a home funeral or at their burial sites.
Caskets for Green Burials
If you don’t plan to have any services with the body present, you can opt for “direct burial,” which is a service that all U.S. funeral homes are required by law to provide. This typically includes a modest wood or cardboard casket, no embalming, and a quick burial in a cemetery. You should choose a fully biodegradable casket if you’re planning on this option and wish for the burial to be truly natural and environmentally friendly.
That’s because a key requirement for a green burial, according to the Green Burial Council, which oversees green cemeteries in the U.S., is that any container in which the body is buried must be natural and readily biodegradable. There are several options for this. Many people prefer to bury their loved ones in some sort of shroud or casket, but this isn’t a requirement, and you can choose simply to place the body in the earth with no container.
If you prefer a container, you can opt for a casket that’s made entirely of nontoxic and biodegradable materials — for example, unfinished pine. All components must be nontoxic and biodegradable, so any liner fabric or rope handles should be made of organic cotton or another natural material. The casket might be assembled with nontoxic adhesive or using a tongue in groove technique. The materials are preferably sustainably harvested and may include options like pine shavings used as batting within the fabric liner.
Another container commonly used in natural burial is a fabric shroud. Made from natural fabrics such as silk, linen, or organic cotton, a shroud is the most readily biodegradable burial container you can use. Some are simple, while others are decorated with embroidery and natural dyes. Both shrouds and biodegradable caskets are made by a number of U.S. companies and are readily available for you to buy.
Cemetery Options for Green Burials
There are several types of natural burial grounds you can choose from if you’re opting for a natural burial. One is a hybrid cemetery: This is a standard cemetery that includes some spaces for traditional 20th-century U.S. burial and some for natural burial. Another is a natural cemetery, which allows only natural burial.
A third is a conservation cemetery, which not only allows only natural burial but also specifically works to further land conservation on its grounds. Depending on where you live, there may or may not be a cemetery offering green burials, so be sure to do your research on locations if you’re planning on a natural burial.
Some natural cemeteries allow headstones, while others are strictly park-like or forested settings with no such markers allowed. A tree or other plant may serve as the grave marker in the latter. In cases where headstones are allowed, the cemetery might specify that the headstone must be crafted in keeping with the natural mission and style of the facility.
Green cemeteries typically use eco-friendly practices in maintaining their grounds. Weed and pest control are done with the most natural methods possible. Native plants are used in landscaping and rare species are protected. Excavation of gravesites is done with as minimal impact on soil and plants as possible.