Green Alternatives to Traditional Burial

It might seem an odd choice to talk about burials when Spring, with its promise of new life and abundance, is just around the corner. But death is a part of the cycle of life in Nature. Fallen trees form both food and habitat for other organisms in the forest. Even in our gardens, nutrient-rich compost—formed from decomposing leaves, food scraps, and other organic matter—is used to nourish growth. And there is a strong correlation between traditional burials and environmental concerns. Let’s take a look.

Traditional burials usually involve embalming fluids, wooden or metal caskets, and concrete. Caskets are buried in a manicured, grassy cemetery, where the formaldehyde-based fluids (labeled carcinogens by the European Union and the World Health Organization, according to Milton Fields),  leach into the surrounding environment. The woods used for these caskets are usually not from recycled sources, but from virgin wood, meaning trees were harvested to build that box. Metal caskets aren’t any better for the ecosystem, since the metals used in their construction may corrode or degrade into harmful toxins (National Library of Medicine). Linings in the caskets are usually not biodegradable.

According to the Green Burial Council, burials in the U.S. use approximately 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids (including formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene), 20 million board feet of hardwoods including rainforest woods, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, 64,500 tons of steel, and caskets/vaults leaching iron, copper, lead, zinc, and cobalt. Not only are traditional burials bad for the environment; they can also be incredibly expensive. In 2022, the average cost of a U.S. funeral ranged from $7,000 to $10,000 (Policy Genius), covering viewing, burial, transport, coffin/casket, embalming, and many other details. Natural burials are less expensive, though they can still average about $5,000.

On the other hand, there are a number of green burial options that are not only better for the environment, but easier on the family’s credit card, too.

The first thing that usually comes to mind as a “green” alternative to traditional burials is cremation, which has a number of positive points to recommend it. First, embalming is not required for a cremation service. Instead, families can request the body be preserved until the service using dry ice or Techni-ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent. Second, there is no need for a casket or vault. I must admit that before I began writing this article, this was my choice. Now, I may have changed my mind. Here’s why. 

While it is often seen as an eco-friendly option, cremation carries a hefty carbon footprint, equivalent to a 500-mile car journey (New York Times). In addition, scattering even small amounts of cremains can be harmful in delicate environments. Alkaline hydrolysis, or liquid cremation, is better for the environment, but can still produce hazardous materials. Still, for some families, cremation may still be the best option, and there are other ways to utilize the cremains in useful ways. Let Your Love Grow offers a way to neutralize the hazards in ashes and turn them into rich, fertile soil that can be used in your garden, or anywhere. Eternal Reefs combine the cremains with damp concrete in castings used to make reef balls for constructing artificial reefs, where they can serve as a foundation for new oceanic life.

If you still want to be buried, you can opt for a simple wooden casket, sans glue, metal, or varnish. Linings are made from unbleached fabric with natural materials for bedding, like wool, cotton, or straw. Even better? Ensure the wood is from recycled sources and forego the embalming. Other casket options include cardboard, woven bamboo/willow/wicker/etc., even mycelium fibers—that’s mushrooms. You can also forego the casket altogether in favor of a shroud made from unbleached, natural fibers, like organic cotton. The idea is to let Nature take her course, and return you to the elements in a simple, natural process, and without all the toxins and hazardous materials of traditional funerals. 

You can also choose to turn your body into compost. Recompose offers this option, which uses 1/8 the energy of conventional burial or cremation. Recompose breaks the body down into its natural components, creating one cubic yard of soil amendment. Your composted remains can then be used to enrich the soil in forests and gardens. (Do note that human composting is not yet legal in all U.S. states.)

So there are alternatives to traditional funeral and burials, ones that are better for your wallet and better for the environment. Just be sure to check whether the law in your area allows green burials and find the green cemetery nearest you. With so many options from which to choose, it’s hard to know which is best. Also, do-it-yourself funerals are apparently a thing! The more loved ones can do themselves, the more money they’ll save. Before you decide, do your research and talk to your family, since they’ll likely be the ones to carry out your wishes. Prior planning and preparation for this inevitability can help you to make the choice that’s right for you and for the environment, while keeping your costs down.

Here are a few links to help you find green/natural cemeteries in the U.S.:

US Funerals Online

Green Burial Council

Natural End – here’s an interactive map that details which sites meet which criteria!

The Good Funeral Guide – Based in the UK, with lots of good information

Thanks, Niely, for your help with this article!

Photo credits:

Green cemetery from Pexels — photo courtesy of Pixabay

 Shroud image by  The Good Funeral Guide, courtesy of Unsplash 

Beautyberry photo by Yamasa-n, courtesy of Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *