What Is a "Green Funeral?"

A fellow caregiver asked...

What is a "green funeral"?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

A green funeral involves conducting final arrangements and disposing of a body in ways that restore and conserve the environment, without using the harmful chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials commonly used by the funeral industry.

There are a few specific practices targeted for change in green funerals:

  • Embalming. Embalming fluids typically contain formaldehyde, a chemical now known to be a health risk for funeral workers and others exposed to it for prolonged periods. With the exception of some instances when a body must be transported interstate or when there's a week or more between death and burial or cremation, embalming is rarely required by law (contrary to popular belief). Funeral practitioners and consumers intent on green funerals opt for refrigeration or dry ice as a means of preserving a body rather than embalming. When embalming is performed (which may be the case when there's a public viewing of the body, for example), they choose nontoxic chemicals that are now available.

  • Burial vaults. Many cemeteries require that bodies be encased in vaults made of concrete and metal before being buried in the ground. No state or federal law requires this. But some cemetery operators defend the practice, which originated in the 19th century to deter grave robbers, as a necessary modern business practice to keep the ground from sinking and to keep grave markers in place. Manufacturing and transporting these cumbersome vaults uses an immense amount of energy and results in an estimated 1.6 tons of reinforced concrete being produced and buried each year. A growing number of cemetery operators concerned with green burials now offer the option of a vaultless burial, although some add an additional charge for maintaining the gravesites. Others offer the possibility of body burial in a simple shroud or in a container made of wood or another biodegradable material.

  • Cremation. While cremation uses far fewer natural resources than traditional methods of preparing and disposing of a body, it still burns fossil fuel and emits potentially harmful pollutants. And it's now known that mercury, another harmful pollutant, is released into the air when a person with dental fillings is cremated. Those who have environmental concerns should choose more modern cremation facilities, or those that have been technologically engineered to lessen the carbon footprint. Ecologically-minded consumers can also direct that their fillings be removed before cremation.

  • Burial grounds. In keeping with the green funeral movement, some cemeteries adhere to burial practices that restore or conserve plants, landscapes, and native materials, and that use no pesticides in maintaining the grounds. In addition, they limit the types, sizes, and visibility of grave markers to preserve natural vistas.

The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2005 to support and publicize green funeral options -- and, importantly, to certify cemetery owners and operators who agree to abide by specific ecofriendly burial and funeral standards. The council also maintains a list of approved funeral providers, cemeteries, disposition programs, and products.