An Ecopod and an acorn urn are displayed at a natural burial event. Both reflect the growing demand for environmentally sound funerals.

Sion Touhig/Newsmakers/­Getty Images

­Birds do it. Bees do it. And unless someone discovers a method of prevention, you're going to do it, too -- die, that is. Death is big business. Our conventional, Western-centric idea of a traditional burial usually means funeral directors, embalming, caskets, cemetery plots, vaults, headstones, flowers or maybe even being shot into space. In the United States, the funeral home industry generates about $11 billion in annual revenue and is growing [source: CNN]. But it hasn't always been so complicated.

What we now think of as traditional burial didn't become the trad­ition until the Civil War when bodies were embalmed for preservation while transported home. Embalming gives the dead a lifelike appearance -- a sort of morbid Madame Tussauds look -- and that appearance remains de rigueur in today's funeral industry. Before the Civil War, burial often took place in simple graves in tall grasses. That simplicity is beginning to make a comeback. In a poll by AARP, more than 70 percent of those asked chose green burial as the most appealing burial option [source: Green Burials].

­But what is a green burial? Green burials, also called natural burials, are thought to have started in the late 1980s in the United Kingdom as a backlash against crowding limited land resources with cemeteries. While definitions of what makes a burial green vary, the idea is to eschew unnatural practices -- no formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets or concrete burial vaults. You may be thinking this sounds a bit hippie; after all, if you're dead, what difference does it make if your death care is green? Think of your legacy -- every year 22,500 cemeteries in the United States bury:

  • 827,060 gallons (3,130,762 liters) of embalming fluid
  • 90,272 tons (81,893 metric tons) of steel in caskets
  • 1,636,000 tons (1,484,154 metric tons) of reinforced concrete in vaults
  • More than 30 million board feet (70,792 meters­) of hardwoods (some tropical woods) for caskets

[source: Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve].

We'll take a look at traditional funeral practices, green burials and some unconventional alternatives.