End of Life Planning

6/9/2023 | By Kari Smith

Green burial options are rising in popularity. Seniors Guide outlines the benefits and a few of the most common choices.

More than 20,000 registered cemeteries are scattered across the U.S., in addition to backyard and other unregistered graveyards. As cemetery space becomes more limited and burial costs rise, many are looking for alternatives. In addition to space and financial concerns, environmental concerns rise as traditional burials have placed staggering amounts of steel, concrete, wood, and carcinogenic embalming fluid into the earth. Nearly 60 of people have chosen cremation, with a forecast of 80% by 2035. But cremation is also environmentally unfriendly, using significant amounts of gas and electricity and emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, there are other, more Earth-friendly options, dubbed “green burials.” The Green Burial Council says that green burials provide a means of “caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.” The Green Burial Council reports that the following states have the greatest number of funeral homes certified for this purpose: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, California, and New York.

Green burial options

Several options identified as environmentally friendly seem a bit off-putting (the terms could benefit from a euphemistic re-naming!) but don’t let the names dissuade you.

Natural burial

A natural burial involves placing a deceased human body directly into the earth without the use of chemicals such as embalming fluid or a casket. In this way, the body is returned to the earth with minimal impact. In some cases, bodies are buried in a biodegradable coffin (such as woven materials, bamboo, seagrass, or wicker) or a natural fiber cloth shroud. Natural burials do not use the typical vault in which caskets are traditionally laid to slow decomposition, and the body must be buried in a shallow enough grave that microbial activity can occur.

Why no embalming fluid? The fluid, which typically includes the highly toxic ingredient formaldehyde, eventually breaks down and its chemicals are released into the ground. Not only does this expose mortuary workers to the cancerous chemical, but it also kills natural microbes that allow the body to break down in the soil.

Natural burial sites often double as protected wildlife conservation areas. Ohio, South Carolina, California, Florida, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina have the most of these protected areas, and New York, Virginia, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Hawaii have the fewest.

Human composting

Human composting is another environmentally friendly option. The body is transformed into soil in a vessel with wood chips and other organic material. The material is heated to accelerate the process and kill any harmful pathogens, and soil is tested before being returned to the environment. In this case, the deceased’s family can choose how much soil they would like to have returned (for scattering or planting), and the remainder of the soil is used in land restoration projects. This process is currently legal in California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, and New York.

Burial at sea

Red and white roses by the seashore, symbolizing a burial at sea

Full-body burial at sea is available to anyone, and may be less expensive than a traditional funeral. It must be completed in approved federal waters, at least three miles from shore, at a depth of at least 600 feet. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must be notified within 30 days of any sea burial. Specific directions on how a casket should be prepared are listed on the EPA website. No non-biodegradable materials or plastic materials may be used in the casket or placed in the water, including artificial flowers, lanterns, etc. There are charter boat companies that offer sea burial services for those that not have their own boat.

Aquamation and resomation

For people who still prefer cremation to burial, aquamation (also known as resomation) is a contemporary form of cremation that uses alkaline hydrolysis to break down the body. It uses 10% of the energy that a traditional cremation uses, emits no carbon dioxide, has no risk of organic discharge from the cremation chimney, and has a 75% lower carbon footprint. This process is most popular in Colorado and Illinois, and is currently only legal in 28 states, though pending in six more.

Options more similar to common methods

Death and burial are difficult topics, and these options may seem macabre to some. If traditional burial is still your choice, you can still reduce your environmental impact by asking your local cemetery if they biodegradable coffins and permit vault-free burials without a concrete vault or liner.

The challenges of green burials

For people who care deeply about environmental impact or conservation, green burial is a perfect choice. However, there are still a few challenges to keep in mind when considering natural options.

  • Those with natural burials may not be buried near others, such as in a family plot, since some cemeteries do not allow green burials.
  • Burial will need to take place immediately, since embalming fluids will not be used to preserve the body.
  • Headstones and markers may not be allowed in natural burial plots.

Death and burial are difficult topics to think about. However, researching these options and chatting openly with your loved ones about your preferences may make the process easier when the time comes.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith