“Natural” or “green” burial, according to Lilipoh magazine, has as its goal to return the remains to the Earth in as direct and simple a manner as possible. It avoids the toxic chemicals associated with embalming, the metal caskets and burial vaults that are usually part of the contemporary funeral.
In place of all this, green burial involves interring the body either in cloth shrouds or in simple coffins made either of cardboard or soft woods which are plentiful, such as pine. The remains are then laid directly into the ground, either in forested areas available in the “natural cemeteries” which are becoming more common in America, or on people’s private rural land. If headstones are used at all, they are generally made from fieldstone and are set flush to the ground, or shrubs or trees are used.
This type of burial is seen as a return to a long tradition. Once upon a time, green burial was the standard procedure. The goal at that time was the same as now: to allow the body to return to the Earth it sprang from, in other words, dust to dust.
Some Examples of Natural Burial
The greenest of natural burials does involve this interment in a natural setting, but cremation can also be considered more natural, as it consumes significantly fewer resources than the modern funeral — especially when the cremated remains are returned to the environment.
Two examples of returning the ashes to the environment are scattering them at sea, and creating a memorial “reef ball,” which is a concrete form that looks like an igloo, which is dropped into the ocean at established reef sites, making underwater nurseries for fish and other aquatic life.
In the process of preparing a body for natural burial, the body may be laid out and waked at home, and a cabinetmaker may be hired to build a simple pine coffin.
About Avoiding Embalming
The three stages of embalming are setting the features of the deceased as they will appear at the viewing, draining the blood from the body and replacing it with a preservative (formaldehyde-based), and placing a sharp-pointed “trocar” in the abdomen to puncture the organs, vacuum up the bacteria that are released along with the visceral fluids, and fill the area with more formaldehyde. A complete step-by-step appears in Mark Harris’s book Grave Matters.
Apparently, there is no federal law that says the body must be embalmed, and it is not required by most states (except perhaps when the deceased died of a contagious disease). According to Harris, there is no definitive proof, anyway, that embalming protects people from disease.
Environmental Effects of the Modern Funeral
It is Harris’s opinion that the modern cemetery functions less as a “bucolic resting ground for the dead” than as a landfill for the materials used in the burials. An average ten-acre cemetery contains enough wood from coffins to build 40 homes, close to 1000 tons of steel from coffins, and another 20,000 tons of concrete in the form of vaults. On top of that is enough toxic formalin to fill a backyard swimming pool, and then there’s all the weed killer and pesticides used to keep the cemetery nice and green.
How to Arrange a Natural Burial
It’s important to plan ahead, if you can. If you’re interested in memorial reefs, you can go to www.eternalreefs.com, if you want to plan a home funeral, a good resource is Crossings. You can arrange these things in advance or at time of need.
It’s important to know your laws. There may be legal requirements specific to your state, for example New York requires that a funeral director be used to transport the body to the cemetery or crematory, and most counties do not allow backyard burials except in rural areas. Caring for the Dead, by Lisa Carlson, gives a state-by state overview of funerary laws.
You don’t want to do it alone. A natural burial and home funeral that might go with it can be emotionally and physically taxing. Call on your family and friends to help you make arrangements, take care of business, and help with washing and laying out of the body if you’re doing that at home.
Get in touch with the Green Burial Council. This is a nonprofit organization which has set up standards for truly green natural cemeteries and has a list of green funeral directors and cemetery owners. They may also help with green burial services such as refrigeration, instead of embalming, vault-free burial, and biodegradable caskets.
Finally, look on the webpage of the Funeral Consumers Alliance to find a local alliance. These Memorial Societies are volunteer-run nonprofits that help families make affordable arrangements. There is a small cost for membership.