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What Are Green Burials?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 31, 2021

A green burial is a simple, more environmentally friendly form of burial that doesn’t involve chemicals or concrete.

Facts About Green Burials

A green burial generally means:

  • The body isn’t cremated or embalmed.
  • Biodegradable caskets, shrouds, and urns are used.
  • The body also isn’t interred in a concrete vault.
  • It may support land conservation and sustainable practices.

Green burials aren’t a new trend. Burials used to be carried out this way before the mid-19th century. Many Jewish and Muslim burials can be considered green burials.

Human composting. In Washington state, human remains can be composted. The remains are placed in a tank with wood chips, straw, and other organic materials for about 4 to 6 weeks. The composting process breaks the remains and other materials into soil.

This process of human composting is said to use one-eighth of the energy of cremation services. Human composting, also known as natural organic reduction, is cheaper than conventional burials. It costs between $2,500 and $5,500.

Green Cemeteries

There are several different types of green cemeteries in the U.S.

Hybrid cemeteries. These are conventional cemeteries that offer green burial services. This may be in a sectioned-off area or throughout the cemetery.

Natural burial grounds. This type of cemetery is dedicated to natural or green burials. 

Conservation burial grounds. This type of natural burial takes place in an area that’s protected by a conservation land trust. Part of the burial fee usually goes toward preserving and managing the land.

Why Choose Green Burials?

There is increasing interest in environmentally friendly burials. A survey found that 53.8% of respondents were interested in green funeral services.

There are different reasons you may choose a green burial. 

Reduces wastage of natural resources. Every year, cemeteries in the U.S. bury:

  • Over 30 million board feet of hardwood 
  • Over 90,000 tons of steel for caskets
  • Over 17,000 tons of steel and copper for vaults
  • 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete

Removes the need for harmful chemicals. Embalming fluid contains formaldehyde. This is a known carcinogen, which means it’s known to cause cancer.  In the U.S., some 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used every year. Funeral home workers have high-intensity exposure to formaldehyde.

Reduces pollution. In recent years, cremations have been replacing traditional burials. In the U.S. in 2010, 40.4% of funerals were cremations. In 2015, this went up to 47.9% and is expected to rise to 57.5% in 2021.

But experts say that cremations aren’t eco-friendly. The process releases air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals.

Cremation involves heating a furnace between 1,600- and 1,800-degrees Fahrenheit for up to 2 hours. On average, one cremation uses enough fuel to power a 2,000 square foot home for 7 days.

Price. The median cost of conventional funerals with burial in 2019 was $7,640. Add a vault, and that goes up to $9,135. Cremations are cheaper, with the median cost about $5,150.

A casket is often the most expensive item in funeral costs. The average cost of a casket is about $2,000. But caskets made of bronze, copper, or mahogany can sell for as much as $10,000.

Green burials may be less expensive. The price varies by region and type of green burial site. Green cemetery plots may cost more because they tend to be larger than those in a conventional cemetery. The cost ranges from $1,000 to $4,000.

If you provide your own shroud or coffin, the funeral costs will be even lower.

Problems With Green Burials

Laws in some states in the U.S. make it difficult for green burials to take place, such as:

  • Burial plots need paved roads.
  • Cemeteries must be fenced.
  • A licensed funeral director has to handle transportation.
  • Once a person has been dead for more than 24 hours, refrigeration or embalming is needed.

What if There’s No Green Cemetery Nearby?

Not all cities have areas for natural burials. But you can make a burial more environmentally friendly using the following methods:

  • Don’t have the body embalmed. It’s not required by state law. 
  • Use a biodegradable casket or shroud.
  • If the cemetery allows, don’t use a vault.
  • If a vault is needed, ask to have holes drilled in the vault’s bottom, or use a concrete grave box with an open bottom so the body can return to the earth.
  • If you have rural property, you may be able to have a home burial. Check if your state and county allow it, and get any necessary permits. 
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cremation Association of North America: “Environmental Impact of Cremation.”

Federal Trade Commission: “Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist.”

Funeral Consumers Alliance: “Green Burial,” “Green Burial, An Environmentally Friendly Choice.”

Green Burial Council: “Green Burial Defined,” “Hybrid Cemeteries FAQ.”

Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington: “Natural Composting of Human Remains - A First for Washington State.”

National Funeral Directors Association: “Green Funerals,” “Statistics.”

Pew Stateline: “More People Want a Green Burial, but Cemetery Law Hasn’t Caught Up.”

PLoS One: “Emission characteristics of harmful air pollutants from cremators in Beijing, China.”

Sierra Club: “Now You Can Compost Human Bodies Too.”

‌University of Florida IFAS Extension: “THE ART OF GOODBYE: A CLOSER LOOK AT EMERGING TRENDS IN END-OF-LIFE RITUALS.”

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