How Natural Burial Works

By: Maria Trimarchi

Green Burial

The designer of an eco-friendly bamboo coffin shows off his wares at the Natural Death Centre in North London.
The designer of an eco-friendly bamboo coffin shows off his wares at the Natural Death Centre in North London.
Sion Touhig/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our fill of fruit, our swelter of heat, we said that we have had our day." We have plenty of anxiety about death already; do we really need to add eco-anxiety into the mix? But green funerals aren't really any more difficult to arrange than the traditional kind.

Green funeral practices are as varied as traditional methods, but all the details of the process feature biodegradable materials. Embalming fluid is replaced with refrigeration or dry ice, both nontoxic. Caskets and urns are sourced from sustainable woods; shrouds are woven from natural fabrics such as cotton, silk or linen. For those more adventurous souls, wooden caskets can be replaced with cardboard or wicker versions, or with an Ecopod. Ecopods are 100 percent biodegradable kayak-shaped caskets made from recycled newspapers. They come in two sizes and a variety of colors. Indian red with an Aztec sun design? For a few thousand dollars, it's yours.


The benefits of a green burial come not only from the elimination of embalming fluids, metal, tropical wood and concrete, but also from the development of green cemeteries. The United States now has about a dozen green cemeteries, while Great Britain has about 200 [source: Corley].

Green cemeteries offer low impact burials and some also conserve and restore land. Fresh graves appear mounded but flatten with time. Flat stones or native trees are often used as grave markers -- and some natural cemeteries even offer plots marked with GPS.

The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization, promotes sustainable, meaningful funeral practices. The council is working to eliminate greenwashing in the green funeral industry by creating certification programs and standards for cemeteries, burial products and funeral providers.

­The council has also established categories of green cemeteries, as well as standards for traditional cemeteries wishing to accommodate green burials. Hybrid burial grounds are cemeteries that practice both green and conventional burials. Such cemeteries must designate an area of land for green burials, and in that area, use only biodegradable products, no vaults and no toxic chemicals. Natural burial grounds practice land stewardship and restoration planning -- they use sustainable burial methods and are restricted to using the grounds exclusively as a green cemetery. Conservation burial grounds take natural burial grounds to the next level. They are green cemeteries that have joined with a conservation partner and adopted the principles of restoration ecology. Here the council brings cemetery owners and conservation organizations together to establish a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement that limits the type and/or amount of development a landowner allows on a piece of property. Conservation burial grounds must practice sustainable and ethical burials in addition to protecting the open space, wildlife and habitat of the grounds.

­Not sure whether a conventional or green burial ground is for you? Some states allow home burials -- with a check on local zoning laws, you could rest eternally on your own property. You could also avoid burial altogether and try converting your ashes into a diamond or a reef.