Thinking outside the box: Eco-friendly burial options

Some families are choosing ‘green burials’, which are actually a return to the ways things used to be

By Bonnie Evans & Robin Weber 
Posted 5/31/23

Simply put, eco-friendly burials, also known as “green” burials, refer to burying a body in a biodegradable coffin without embalming or a vault. The Green Burial Council (GBC) describes …

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Thinking outside the box: Eco-friendly burial options

Some families are choosing ‘green burials’, which are actually a return to the ways things used to be

Posted

Simply put, eco-friendly burials, also known as “green” burials, refer to burying a body in a biodegradable coffin without embalming or a vault. The Green Burial Council (GBC) describes this as “a way 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.”

Rethinking ways to adapt the standard process of burial in the U.S. is slowly gathering momentum, and with the current focus on climate change and environmental stewardship, it is likely to continue. How can we best handle our bodies after death that maintains the honor and dignity of the individual who died, as well as Mother Nature?

Religious and cultural traditions play a significant role in our death rituals, and this needs to be appreciated and respected when discussing alternatives that emphasize the environmental implications.

A history of burial practices

Prior to the Civil War, all burials were green, with bodies being prepared for burial at home by family and community members. As the Civil War’s death toll mounted, a new technique of embalming was able to provide short-term preservation and became the most practical method available to send bodies of northern soldiers home for burial. President Lincoln himself was embalmed before being transported back to his home state of Illinois. As embalming became more common place, the funeral industry expanded to meet this new demand.

The use of caskets goes back to the early Egyptians and was often a privilege for the wealthy. In early U.S. history, coffins were produced locally. However, periods of war required mass production. Interestingly, burial vaults were introduced in the 1800s to prevent grave robbing. Today most vaults are concrete and offered to protect the coffin and prevent the ground from settling, allowing for easier cemetery maintenance.

In the late 19th-century, cremation was introduced. It was seen as less expensive, offered a simplified funeral process, and reduced cemetery space. It took time to be accepted by Protestant and Catholic religions, but it gained momentum, and cremation surpassed burial in the U.S. for the first time in 2015. https://www.us-funerals.com/2023-us-cremation-rate

The environmental impact of burials

Each year in the U.S., approximately 20 million feet of hardwood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 64,500 tons of steel are buried in cemeteries. Some of these substances can also leach into the soil, impacting the local environment. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/  Cemetery maintenance necessitates additional resources and varying amounts of herbicides and pesticides. 

The process of cremation requires two to three hours of high temperatures (over 1700 degrees Fahrenheit) with fossil fuel usage comparable to a 500-mile car trip. Airborne emissions contribute to acid rain, which can inhibit plant growth. Overall, although not considered green, a funeral including cremation is considered to use less resources than conventional forms of disposition. In contrast, green burials can return nutrient rich material to the soil, have lower energy requirements, and support environmental stewardship and land conservation.

Types of green burial cemeteries

The Green Burial Council was established in 2005 and sets the standards for cemeteries participating in green burials. There are three types of green cemeteries. First, a Hybrid Burial Ground is a conventional cemetery that offers the option of a green burial. Second, a Natural Burial Ground permits only green burials, and must be designed, operated, and maintained to produce a naturalistic appearance, with native materials and plants. The third type of green cemetery is a Conservation Burial Ground that must be established in partnership with a conservation organization to meet all the requirements of a natural burial ground plus operate on lands designated for conservation only.

Since 1998, when the first green cemetery in the U.S. was established, following a movement started in Great Britain, there are now more than 350 green cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada. This growth has primarily been established in conventional hybrid cemeteries and represents a significant shift in thinking about how we manage not only death but our land and resources.

Local options and resources

There are two hybrid burial grounds in Rhode Island, Swan Point in Providence, and Arnold Mills in Cumberland. Swan Point is certified by the GBC, and a green burial option is provided in an area (the ‘Ellipse’) set aside for that purpose, with a second green burial area being planned. Arnold Mills is not certified by the GBC but allows green burial options throughout the cemetery on request. 

Prudence Memorial Park is GBC-certified and the only natural burial ground in the state. Located on Prudence Island, it is maintained as a natural area with walking trails. Grave sites are allowed to revegetate naturally, and memorial plantings of native species are welcome. In both natural and conservation burial grounds, burials can be customized and offer a range of opportunities for family and friends to participate if desired throughout the process.

Next steps

Awareness of the increasing need for more environmentally sustainable options is growing in the funeral industry. The National Funeral Directors Association offers a Green Funeral Practice Certificate Program and a national award for funeral homes that have adopted sustainable green funeral practices. They have advice and resources available on their website: nfda.org.

Individuals who have made their choice for cremation or burial in a conventional cemetery can minimize the environmental impact by infusing greener practices into their final disposition. If burial is the choice, select a biodegradable container, ideally locally sourced, (e.g., bamboo, unfinished pine box) or a shroud and decline embalming or request a non-formaldehyde solution. If cremation is selected, ask the crematorium how they manage their emissions and any medical implants.

There is an increasing number of choices and “shades of green” for environmentally responsible burials. To find the right funeral and burial option for yourself or a loved one, discuss your preferences with staff at the funeral home and cemetery of your choice, and together select a rich and meaningful, environmentally sustainable, and dignified burial.

Bonnie Evans, RN, MS, GNP-BC, lives in Bristol and is a geriatric nurse practitioner and End of Life Doula. She can be reached at bonnie@bonnieevansdoula.com.

Robin Weber is president of Prudence Memorial Park on Prudence Island and can be reached at prudencememorialpark@gmail.com.

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