Green Burial 101

What is green (or natural) burial?

For most of human history, what we now call green or natural burial was just called “burial.” A simple, shallow hole dug into the earth, and the shrouded dead body placed into the hole.

In the last 100 years, the definition of burial has shifted in many modernized areas of the world. Cemeteries often require that the body be placed in a metal or wooden casket and then placed inside a concrete or metal vault. The body is likely to have been chemically preserved at the funeral home. The body is not decomposing into the soil. In fact, the dead body isn’t coming anywhere near the earth.

First, the environmental impact of this new style of burial should be considered:

American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid.

via Just How Bad is Traditional Burial?

Second, we should consider what this new, industrialized style of burial does to our relationship to decay and our sense of ourselves as organic material. In this article, “Natural Burial and Embracing Decay,” we discuss the reasons it can be existentially valuable for our society to accept decomposition when we die.

If we work towards accepting, not denying, our decomposition, we can begin to see it as something beautiful. More than beautiful—ecstatic. The ecstasy of decay begins as disgust and revulsion, the way we feel when we imagine ourself as a corpse. But disgust and revulsion turn to pleasure as we use that feeling to realize we are alive now. We will someday be dead, but today blood pumps through our veins and breath fills our lungs and we walk the earth.

Finally, we must recognize that the connection with the earth through simple burials is an integral part of religious and cultural practice for many whose history and culture has historically been marginalized.

If you enjoy documentaries, watch Steelmantown—a short documentary on a green burial ground and A Will for the Woods—where musician and psychiatrist Clark Wang prepares for his own green burial.

Photo of a natural burial plot in a green wooded area. There are flowers placed at either end of the plot as well as flower petals scattered around the dirt.

What is conservation burial?

So you like the idea of green burial?  What if we told you that conservation burial is green burial… plus!

Here’s a definition of conservation burial from one of our favorite cemeteries in the world, Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery:

Green burial is a safe and legal burial practice that uses biodegradable containers and avoids embalming fluids and vaults. Conservation burial goes a step further to commit burial fees to pay for land acquisition, protection, restoration, and management.

Not only does conservation burial help protect land, but the burial area becomes hallowed ground, restored to its natural condition and protected forever with a conservation easement. Native plants beautify the burial sites. Citizens who support conservation are offered a more meaningful burial option with the certainty that protected land is the ultimate legacy to leave for future generations. Families and friends are brought closer to nature in the commemoration of their loved one’s life.

Conservation burial can be considered as “chaining yourself to a tree post mortem,” not allowing development on the land where your corpse rests. In addition, land can be restored with native plants and a community is built around the cemetery,

For more information or to locate a conservation burial ground in your area, visit the Conservation Burial Alliance.

Is it safe to have uncoffined bodies near a water source?

If done responsibly, absolutely.

In studies done on groundwater outside a conventional cemetery, they found more evidence of water contamination from casket and embalming materials than from human decay.

Here is an excellent review of the science and studies done on the subject, where we learn:

Although there is some evidence of microbiological contamination in the immediate vicinity of cemeteries, the rapid  [reduction] of the microorganisms suggests that they pose little risk to the public.

There is little evidence of microbiological contamination of groundwater from burial.

Microorganisms involved in the decay process (putrefaction) are not pathogenic.

How deep are the bodies buried in green burials?

Green burials tend to be shallower than most conventional burials— the body is placed nearer to the surface is where all the good, nutrient rich soil is. The perfect soil to decompose your body and put it to use.

Burial at 3-4 feet rather than 5-6 feet places the body at a depth that allows greater oxygen flow, which in turn feeds bacteria, resulting in more rapid, efficient decomposition. In addition, at a depth of 3-4 feet, beneficial carrion beetles burrow in to aid the process.

via The Green Burial Council

We know what you’re thinking—burial at a 2 foot depth does provide an adequate smell barrier. Animals won’t be digging up and dragging away your body.

Photo of a man wearing a cowboy hat placing flower petals around the edge of a natural burial plot.

Are green burials legal?

Yes!

Then why doesn’t my local cemetery allow them? Cemeteries are allowed to set their individual policies. So, if a cemetery wants to require that a family purchase a casket and a vault for the dead body (so it is easier for them to keep the ground level and landscape) they are within their rights to do so.

It’s important though, that you don’t let anyone tell you that buying a casket or vault is the law. It is not the law. It is the cemetery’s policy.

How do I start a green burial ground?

Do you own a piece of land you think might make a good natural burial ground? Starting a dedicated cemetery is more complicated than you might think, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit for those wanting to be a part of the green death movement.

Here is a primer on starting a green cemetery.

Finding Green Burial Grounds

Where can I find a green burial ground near me?

If you are a resident of the United States, this map of green burial grounds and this frequently updated master list of Green Burial Cemeteries in the US and Canada are excellent places to start searching for a green burial ground in your area. Don’t be afraid to Google around as new green burial grounds are opening all the time!

Map Key

  • Light Green: Green Burial

  • Dark Green: Conservation Burial Ground

  • Yellow: Hybrid

For conservation burial grounds, check out conservationburialalliance.org. Good luck on your journey to find just the right place for your future corpse.

So You Want to Be a Tree When You Die?

We get it. For the environmentally focused future corpse, becoming a tree is, simply put, afterlife goals.

Trees are an invaluable part of the carbon cycle. While planting a bunch of trees alone won’t slow climate change (at least not without a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) trees increase biodiversity and do their part to capture carbon.

Perhaps even more important is the societal shift that comes with asking, “how can I become a tree?” With no intervention, the human body decomposes after death. Yet for over a century, modern funeral practices have attempted to slow decomposition and lock the nutrients a body can provide into metal and concrete boxes below ground. Choosing to forego the expensive interventions of the funeral industry is humanity’s attempt to re-identify with the natural world and view our bodies as biomass and organic material.

As a final bonus, there is emerging evidence that trees possess a form of cooperation and communication, connecting underground through fungal networks (colloquially known as the wood-wide web.)  For those of us without strong religious beliefs, becoming part of a plant that will continue to thrive and communicate for years after we die is a kind of immortality we may never have dreamed possible.

Whatever your reason for seeking ‘treedom’, the following are several methods to achieve your post mortem dreams.

Method: I want to be buried and have a tree planted over me.

The Facts

You are a purist! Put you straight into the soil and plant a tree over you. Seems simple enough, right? Not always.

Your local cemetery may require a vault to be placed around your body, cutting you off from the dirt (and any potential aid to a nearby tree). Using a vault is not the law – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but part of the individual cemetery’s policy to help them maintain a level ground and make landscaping easier. Yes… really.

In seeking your cemetery it is best to look for the labels: green, natural, or conservation. These cemeteries are most likely to let you be buried naked in a simple shroud directly into the earth. As a note, some conventional cemeteries will have a small section that allow natural burials, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Even if you find a green cemetery, ask questions!  Some cemeteries like to re-wild the land with native species and trees, but not all will be able to accommodate your specific request for a tree. (How do you feel about a shrub?) You may be required to select and pay for a specific location within the burial ground where a tree could successfully grow, so be sure to plan ahead.

A final option would be a home burial, which is technically legal in most states. We say technically because if you don’t have a cemetery already legally established on your property, you may need to invest a good deal of research, time, and expense. A good place to start is by checking in with your local zoning board.

Method: I want to be composted.

The Facts

Welcome to the exciting new world of human composting! Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), or human composting, became a legal option in the state of Washington in 2020. Since then, NOR has been legalized in Colorado and Oregon, with bills in process in several other states. NOR turns the body into nutrient rich soil, absolutely ideal for growing trees, flowers, whatever flora your heart desires.

If Recompose, a pioneer in the NOR field, is handling your NOR they can also arrange for you to become part of a forest by having your soil donated to Bells Mountain, a nonprofit land trust in southern Washington. The NOR there is used to nurture native trees and heal land destroyed by “years of abuse and extraction.”

Alternative

At this time, most of you will not reside in a state where NOR is an option. If you live in a neighboring state, you still might be able to fulfill your Future Tree goals if transport of remains across state lines does not require embalming. You can also help the Order in our continued quest to see this option legalized all over the world, hopefully available when you need it.

Method: I want to be put in one of those tree burial pods.

The Facts

Though this is a popular viral concept, it’s important to understand that this product, billed as a cozy death egg, nestling you in a fetal position into the earth, is conceptual and not actually available.

Capsula Mundi burial pods were designed in response to Italian laws that have made make un-casketed burial difficult.

Alternative

Most places don’t have laws requiring caskets for burial, so any sort of eco-casket would be unnecessary, as well as create an additional expense. The best option would be to return to the first option on this list: burial in a simple shroud, straight in the earth.

Method: I plan on using one of those cremated remains urns that will turn me into a tree.

The Facts

One of the most popular corpse to tree products is the Bios Urn, or similar urns, that promise to transform your loved one’s ashes into a tree, plant, flower, etc. But, can plants actually grow in ashes?

No.

While it can be a lovely idea to scatter your loved one’s ashes at the base of a tree or in the garden, this is more of a symbolic gesture, since cremated remains are inorganic and contain no trace of human DNA. You aren’t really “becoming a tree” post-cremation.

In addition, ashes aren’t really compatible with the micronutrients and environment necessary to facilitate healthy soil or plant growth. Some companies claim to have specially prepared the soil to counteract the harmful properties of the ashes, while others include a protective container or filter, which keeps the ashes separate from the soil and plant growth. But please do your own research before purchasing this type of urn.

Alternative

There are several makers of beautiful wooden urns, like Boyce Studio, that have an isolated space for ashes in the bottom section of the urn, while the top serves as a small “pot” for smaller plants like succulents, herbs, or cactus.

If cremation is the best option for you (financially it is often the least expensive choice, as well as being available almost everywhere) consider planting trees as a carbon offset to the cremation process and then scattering the ashes somewhere meaningful. Yes, even the base of a tree.