Natural Life Magazine

Natural Burial:
The Ultimate in Recycling

by Wendy Priesnitz

natural burial are green, simple and affordableWhen a loved one dies, environmental issues may not be top of mind for grieving family and friends. However, the average funeral and burial are very un-green. 

Embalming fluid is made with formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen. Most traditional caskets are made from formaldehyde-glued chipboard covered in a thin veneer. Handles are usually plastic, designed to look like brass. Those substances pollute during manufacture and after burial. More expensive caskets are manufactured using exotic or endangered species of wood. Many cemeteries have few or no trees and often experience drainage and ground water pollution problems. In others, the grounds have been destroyed through the use of herbicides. 

Most cemeteries require caskets to be buried in concrete vaults. Originally developed in the 18th century to deter grave robbers, vaults are sold today to keep the ground from sinking and markers from moving. In the U.S. alone, these vaults cause 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete to be buried annually. 

Cremation was long considered more environmentally friendly than burial, but its use of fossil fuels is problematic. The average cremation produces about 50kg of carbon dioxide and emits dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide and mercury from dental fillings. Cremations are responsible for 16 percent of mercury released into the air in the U.K.

Fortunately, there is a simple, affordable and environmentally-friendly alternative. A green or natural burial takes place in a protected green space. No embalming fluid is used (nor is it necessary – the Green Burial Council says there is no evidence that embalming provides public health benefits and that, if necessary, a body can be preserved for a few days in a cooler or by using dry ice). Interment is done in a biodegradable casket made from cardboard or wicker, or directly in the ground wrapped in a simple cotton shroud or a favorite blanket, and no concrete vaults are used.

A natural burial site may be planted with native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Water is not wasted, nor are herbicides used. To encourage land preservation, most green cemeteries grant conservation easements to preserve the area in perpetuity. Some green cemeteries keep track of graves using GPS and mark them with simple rocks and plantings; other prefer a centralized memorial.

Home funerals are another way by which environmentally conscious families can avoid compromising their values. A simple service at home provides an opportunity for cost savings and allows family members to more easily personalize end-of-life rituals. Just as the birthing process has evolved away from something that was entirely controlled by the medical profession, home funeral providers are much like midwives, assisting people in taking matters into their own hands and having simple services that are appropriate for their own particular needs. If you don’t want a funeral provider involved, you can always organize a memorial service sometime after the burial.

Since we first reported on the “natural death” phenomenon in 1994, green burials have become more popular. A recent poll conducted by the seniors’ organization AARP asked: “Which type of burial is most appealing?” Only eight percent wanted a traditional cemetery burial; 18 percent chose cremation and 70 percent chose a green burial. There are now over 200 natural burial grounds in the U.K. and experts say they’re starting to catch on in the U.S., with cemeteries hosting natural burials in California, Florida, New York, South Carolina and Texas. The Green Burial Council is working on certification programs to verify the quality of providers who are going natural. There are few natural burial sites in Canada, with the first one opening last year in Victoria. On Earth Day 2006, the Natural Burial Co-operative was formed in Canada, by which members will be able to purchase environmentally safe burial products, pick a plot in a natural burial cemetery and select the tree or other plants that will commemorate the grave.

(In case you’re wondering, it might be legal in your area to bypass the cemetery altogether...or not. While some jurisdictions prohibit disposal of human remains anywhere other than in a cemetery, many other don’t and, in fact, allow family cemetery plots. Check with your state/province and municipal government.)

For those who still prefer the idea of cremation, it is also becoming greener. The newer cremation burners incinerate many pollutants and crematoriums are being encouraged to reduce their carbon footprints by participating in carbon offset programs. Those who want to bury cremated remains can purchase biodegradable urns. Some people also opt to add ashes to balls that are dropped onto memorial ocean reef sites.

Learn More

Green Burial Council

Natural Burial Association of Canada

Natural Death Centre UK

Grave Matters by Mark Harris (Scribner, 2007)

The Natural Death Handbook by Josefine Speyer (Rider & Co, 2003)

Dealing Creatively with Death, a Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Earnest Morgan (Upper Access, 2001)

Coming to Rest: A Guide to Caring for Our Own Dead, an Alternative to the Commerical Funeral by Julie Wiskind (Dovetail, 1998)

Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson (Upper Access, 1997)

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with more than 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books.

This article was published in 2008.


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