Many of us are making choices about how we live that are more environmentally sound and kinder to the Earth. These decisions can include the end of our lives too. There are many options for making your final journey a green one. While green practices might seem at odds with traditional ones, perceptions and perspectives on green funerals and burials are evolving, and more people are embracing green funerals as part of their final wishes.
Tons of steel
Let’s get some numbers on the table before we delve into definitions, methods, and options. In 2019, the median cost of a traditional adult funeral with burial was $7,640, but costs escalate quickly with upgrades and enhancements. It’s not unheard of to pay upwards of $12,000 for a funeral. Depending on how green you go, alternative after-death options can substantially reduce this figure.
The Green Burial Council estimates that each year in the US, burials use 20 million feet of wood products, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel.
They also cite that while a typical burial produces 250 pounds of carbon, a green burial, with no maintenance of the gravesite, will sequester 25 pounds.
Green burial defined
Green burials represent many choices that keep the earth and environmental sustainability in mind. These burials include holding the funeral service in a natural setting, use of organic, local, and biodegradable products for floral and catering decisions, eschewing embalming or using formaldehyde-free embalming products, using biodegradable clothes for burial, selecting a biodegradable burial shroud and a casket made of sustainable and biodegradable materials such as wood, bamboo, or cardboard, and instead of a headstone, marking the gravesite with a stone or GPS coordinates.
A green burial might be easier than you think. You don’t have to give up all the trappings and customs of a traditional funeral and burial or cremation. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule doesn’t require you to purchase a casket from the funeral home. You don’t even need to use a casket in most situations.
The Funeral Rule also allows you to BYOC or bring-your-own casket to your funeral home. Who knew? This choice means you can skip the bells and whistles of brass trim and lacquered precious woods and choose a biodegradable version. Funerals homes are increasingly offering green burial options. The Green Burial Council website has a list of green funeral homes that can accommodate your wishes.
There’s also a DIY or family-directed funeral. US Funerals Online has a helpful tip sheet on what’s legal in your state and how to create a dignified and respectful home experience. The National Home Funeral Alliance is a thorough resource for planning and carrying out a traditional home funeral, incorporating green funeral principles.
Embalming, which is preserving human remains through chemicals for public display, is not earth-friendly. The body doesn’t store these chemicals. Instead, the process eliminates most chemicals as they flush through the body and down the drain.
This process is also optional unless there is a more extended period between death and burial. Under normal circumstances, refrigeration and cooling are sufficient. You need to check the laws in your state to be sure.
Cremation leaving burials in the dust
Data from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) on the burial and cremation rates in 2020 projected nearly 38 percent of funerals involve burial, while 56 percent would choose cremation. In 2025, those figures are estimated to be 31 percent for burial and 63 percent for cremation, and in 2030 they project 25 percent opting for burial and 70 percent for cremation.
Cremation doesn’t urn green credit
While cremation is on the rise, it’s not the most earth-friendly choice. The NFDA estimates that cremation releases 800 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) during the process. Also, toxins such as mercury vapor from tooth fillings are released. Some regulations require a crematorium to filter and neutralize these toxins, so they are not emitted.
The energy involved in the cremation process is that of a 500-mile car trip. Although it’s not legal in every state and frowned upon by the Catholic Church, there is another option for disposing of our earthly shell, called aquamation.
The universal solvent
Alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation, is a water-based method to dispose of human remains. The NFDA estimates it uses one-tenth of the natural gas, one-third of electricity, and reduces CO2 emissions by 90 percent. Any metal from fillings or knee or hip replacements can be recovered intact.
In this process, the body is submerged in water in a stainless steel chamber. Heat, pressure, potassium hydroxide, and time do the rest. A brown, slightly viscous liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap is flushed down the drain several hours later. This cocktail of remains is said to be beneficial to wastewater.
In some of the 20 states where aquamation is legal, the nutrient-rich liquid is taken away and used as a fertilizer. The remaining bones can be crushed and returned to the family, much like they are in cremation.
Green burial grounds
Green cemeteries don’t permit vaults, non-biodegradable caskets, or embalming fluids. Gravesites are maintained without herbicides, pesticides, or watering. There are cemeteries in the US that are entirely green or hybrid, meaning you can opt for a traditional or green burial.
You can find a hybrid cemetery in Rhinebeck, NY, nestled in ten acres of hardwood forest in a dedicated section of the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery. Founded in 2014, the Natural Burial Ground is certified by the Green Burial Council.
The Green Burial Council’s website includes listings of burial grounds, funeral homes, and products that have earned certification through their process to create consistency and transparency in green burials. The New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education, and Advocacy website contains an up-to-date list of all green cemeteries nationally.
The Connecticut Green Burial Grounds organization, founded in 2017, dedicates itself to creating exclusively green cemeteries in the state through the purchase or donation of land suited for that purpose.
Rest in ease(ment)
Conservation burials are different from hybrid or green cemeteries. The Conservation Burial Alliance helps landowners with the process of protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing conservation land to create a natural burial cemetery.
An easement agreement between the landowner and a land trust or government agency creates a conservation burial ground. It permanently restricts and outlines the use of that land for a stated purpose, with conservation in mind.
Conservation cemeteries have a burial density recommended to be no greater than 300 gravesites per acre. A traditional cemetery’s density is roughly 1,000 to 1,200 per acre. If you’re worried about animals carrying away your loved one, fear not. Burials are generally 3.5 feet underground, and the “smell zone” for animals is substantially less at 12 to 18 inches.
Family tree from the roots up
Better Place Forests wants to help you rest in trees. It has six burial forests in the US, including two in the northeast. They have purchased 130 acres in Falls Village, CT, and 200 acres of land near Williamstown, MA, to create burial forests. According to their website, the Litchfield Hills forest is currently taking tours, and the Berkshires Forest will be coming soon.
In purchasing the forests, Better Place aims to maintain, restore, and conserve the land while providing a meaningful natural memorial for you or your loved ones. Individuals select their family tree. When the time comes, their ashes are mixed with soil at the tree’s root, and a circular disc marks the spot.
Returning to the Earth
In Washington state, Recompose transforms you to soil when you pass. Using ten state-of-the-art honeycombed chambers, they can reduce your remains to rich organic material that can be spread in a local forest or returned to your family to enrich the soil where you live.
Their website explains the process of natural organic reduction (NOR), which begins when your remains are placed on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. The addition of oxygen and periodic rotation NOR transforms you to one cubic foot of soil amendment in 30 days.
They assert that up to 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide won’t enter the atmosphere for every person who undergoes NOR. It will sequester that carbon in the nutrient-rich soil that you become. Recompose states that NOR also uses fewer fossil fuels than traditional burial or cremation.
Circle of life
Thinking about and planning for our limited time on earth can make us more reflective. While alive, we’re busy thinking about getting our needs met in the current moment, and we focus our planning on future earthly requirements.
When considering what comes next, incorporating green burial practices allows us to profoundly shift our perspective from our earthly needs to what the earth needs. We can focus our legacy and intergenerational impact in a way that’s life-creating.
Making a powerful environmental affirmation through green burial practices will honor the earth that sustained us. At the same time, it gives credence to the earth’s limited capacity and helps ensure a livable planet for future generations.