Green Burial Options

Dust to Dust: Green Burial Options Explained
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We live with a heightened ecological consciousness, compared to previous generations. There are more hybrid cars on the road, more full recycle bins on the curbsides, and more groceries and drugstores offering organic produce and "natural" toothpaste, shampoo, and moisturizers.

Living this way, it makes sense that more people are also choosing to mark the end of life with environmentally friendly decisions. Common -- and easily available -- choices include:

  • Green cemeteries for green burial

  • Funeral homes that offer non-formaldehyde embalming or other natural preservation methods

  • Crematories that are taking steps to lower environmental emissions

Green Cemeteries and Green Burial

Twenty-three states now have green cemeteries or "hybrid" cemeteries that offer sections for green burials. To find one near you, visit or

Green cemeteries require the following for burial:

"¢ No arterial embalming, or arterial embalming with non-formaldehyde fluids

"¢ A biodegradable casket (most don't require any casket)

"¢ A shroud or blanket made of natural fibers to dress the body

"¢ A natural gravestone, if one is desired

"¢ A biodegradable urn for cremated remains (although an urn is not required in most cases)

Some hybrid cemeteries allow a burial vault, with one eco-friendly variation: The vault is placed over the body, but it has no bottom, so the body can biodegrade. Be careful about this choice, however, as some sections of cemeteries are damp. When people think of the body returning to the earth naturally, they think of dry ground, not a water-filled grave. Be sure to ask about the land in the cemetery you plan to use.

Green Cremation

If you're planning on cremation, note that most crematories require that the body be placed in some type of rigid container for the process. This may be a biodegradable casket or a plain wooden or corrugated box. If you use a wooden casket or box, choose one that's not made from plywood or particleboard, which include toxic glues in their manufacture.

After the body is cremated, it can be placed into a biodegradable urn. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of choices available these days. Some are made from natural paper-like materials, some from gel-based substances; some are even made from a salt found in the Himalayas.

When a cremated body is buried, it takes less space. Or it can be scattered or kept in an urn at home, which eliminates using land at all. Some people choose scattering "gardens," while others scatter ashes in a favorite water spot -- though check with local authorities first, because most states prohibit scattering ashes in public waterways. Numerous companies will scatter ashes for you and then give you a map with the coordinates of the location. The same is true for companies that scatter ashes from an airplane over forested areas.

Flameless Cremation

A new process is described as being even more eco-friendly than traditional cremation: Known as alkaline hydrolysis, or "flameless cremation," it involves placing the body in a stainless steel cylinder with a mixture of lye (potassium hydroxide) and water. This dissolves everything but the bones (the liquid is drained away). The bones are then brittle enough to be powdered, much the way they are after cremation. The "eco" part of this is that no incinerated particles are emitted into the air, nor are large amounts of natural gas and electricity used. Currently, this process is legal in only eight states.

The Green Burial Council offers a free preplanning form on its website. Print several copies: one for your own records, one for the person who will be responsible for the arrangements upon your death, and one for your funeral home.

We mark birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant events by taking special and meaningful action. It makes sense that we would include, in our last event, those steps that are meaningful to us and will bring comfort to those we love.

Photo by permission of Passages International, a company offering environmentally responsible caskets, urns, and other end-of-life products.

Rebekah Peoples

Rebekah Peoples, CFSP, CPC, is a licensed funeral director and embalmer at a funeral home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. See full bio

about 2 years, said...

Lost my dear husband, Mike, 16 months ago. He was 66. His health had declined over 4 years so death was not a surprise. However I miss him terribly and have been grieving normally ever since. Often I still can't believe he's gone. I have been receiving individual grief therapy for about 14 months which has helped, but I'll never be over this. We had no children and a small family, but I have some good friends and am active. Something has been haunting me during Mike's final 2 days. Mike was having hospice care and a 24/7 caregiver in our home. Two days before he passed,, the caregiver was cleaning him as I lay next to him holding both his hands. He utter these disturbing words to me, "Am I dying?" The only words I could say were"Do you think you are?"he did not answer. I was baffled by his question as we had not discussed death. I had been told he didn't have long, but I didn't want to share that with him. I wonder what made him say those sad words to me. I wonder what he was feeling. I wonder if I made him feel better or worse with my comment. I was very afraid to acknowledge his imminent death. I didn't want him to feel scared. He just went to sleep after he asked me that devastating question. The next day he woke up at sometime as I lay next to him holding his hand. I guess he didn't realize I was there, so he asked his caregiver, "Go get my wife, Kathy. I have to say goodby." This broke my heart, and I wondered how he knew and how he was feeling. I hugged him and said,"I'm right here". Several hours later he took his last breath as I told him it was ok for him to go, and that I'd be alright. His last words haunt me as I long to know what he was thinking and how he felt. He didn't seem agitated. I'd appreciate any feedback and thoughts. Thank you.