Green Burials (Put Your Body Where Your Mouth Is)

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Cemetery in Transylvania
Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

You’re all gonna die. You, specifically, are definitely going to die. I’m willing to bet money on it. It’s like the song says, “You want to live forever, but soon, very soon, on a geological time scale, the meat bag you inhabit will cease to function”. I don’t know what song that is, but I choose to believe it’s a very real one.

“Cool, whatever, I’ll deal with it later,” you think. Well, NO! If you’re an environmentalist, or even just someone who thinks maybe we shouldn’t throw so much shit away every year, you actually should start thinking about your own death right now. Because it turns out, dead people typically get a funeral. Not always, some people are chopped up by British gangsters and consumed by starving pigs, but most of us are going to leave a body behind that somebody else will have to deal with. And it turns out, the funeral industry in America is surprisingly wasteful and polluting. Even in death, we just make a mess of things. The good news is, there’s several options for a green burial that are available to us, but you need to plan ahead.

Death becomes us

First though, let’s look at how we handle death in America. Because it turns out… we don’t. I mean, obviously we technically do, but we sure don’t deal with it very well, psychologically. We’re terrified of death as a society, and so when we aren’t desperately ignoring the fact of our mortality, we are doing whatever we can to make death less deathy. Here’s how it traditionally has gone down in modern times:

1: To prevent decay (sometimes for transport but very often so we can avoid facing the fact that they are super dead), the body is drained of blood and other fluids, which are replaced with preservative chemicals collectively known as embalming fluids.
2: The body is fussed over in various ways to try to give the impression that they are still alive, because that’s a totally healthy way to cope.
3: The body is put into a sealed casket made of hardwood and/or metal to protect the body because we’re still sort of pretending they’re alive because, again, totally healthy.
4: The casket is put in to a concrete burial vault, which isn’t really even to protect the casket, but rather to make sure the grass lawn on top stays nice and flat, because lumpy ground is… disrespectful? Or something?

So, okay, I obviously have an opinion on the psychological effects of all this and how it affects our grieving process. However, that’s not the point here, and I’ll try to lay off it from now on. The main point is that the process involves intentionally polluting the ground and consuming resources for no real practical reason. Preserving the corpse these days can be done pretty well with refrigeration alone in most cases. No appreciable decay will occur for the couple hours a body is on display during a funeral, especially in an air conditioned funeral parlor. Therefore, embalming really is only necessary if you can’t accept what’s happened and want to keep pretending that the body still looks exactly the same as it did in life even weeks later SORRY, I’m sorry, I said I wouldn’t do that, sorry, sorry.

An embalmed mummy
Embalming doesn’t really live up to the hype. Photo by C Watts, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

They’re just dying to work there

The point, which I can’t seem to quite get to, is that the embalming fluid is nasty stuff. The main chemical is formaldehyde, which is, you know, a known carcinogen. I really wish I had understood that in college when I routinely stuck my bare hands into big jars of preserved fish specimens, but whatever. Tumor-hands are going to come in to fashion one day, you’ll see. But for the embalmers doing the work of preparing the body, this is a very serious problem. They have to wear a full set of protective gear to minimize exposure to the formaldehyde, and they still suffer major health issues as a result. Embalmers are 8 times more likely to get leukemia than the average American, and 3 times more likely to get ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. Other shit too, but those are the big ones.

That’s bad enough. But then consider what happens to that carcinogen-soaked body. It goes right in to the dirt. Sure, they may have a burial vault, but those vaults aren’t air tight… in fact they can’t be. Sooner or later, that embalmed body still decomposes, just slowly. Decomposing bodies produce gas. Gas takes up more volume than liquid or solids. More volume means more pressure pushing out on the vault. You see where this is going? A sealed burial vault is a low-grade corpse grenade just waiting to go off. So even if you wanted to seal these things, they would eventually fail due to the decomposition of the body itself. Either way, even with an all metal casket, sooner or later that embalming fluid is going to seep out of the vault and in to the soil, where it can contaminate a surprisingly large area. Cancer for everyone! Yay!

The real Flat Earth Society works at the local cemetery

Then there’s the concrete burial vault. While that may seem relatively benign, concrete production has a huge carbon footprint. Meaning it’s a huge source of carbon dioxide gas. Carbon dioxide, in case you haven’t been playing along at home, is a primary driver of climate change. Plus, you’re spending more energy and resources for something you’re just going to bury and forget about. Just so the ground stays flat if the casket eventually caves in. The caskets, of course, are themselves inherently wasteful. You’re just burying valuable hardwood, which… was it harvested using sustainable methods? Is there even a way to find out? Or else you’re using metal, often steel, which is pretty energy and labor intensive to produce and has a significant carbon footprint of its own. Maybe the nation of single-use plastic food containers should try to not just deliberately waste even more resources?

An unusually fancy coffin
Lot of effort to go to for something you’re just going to burn or bury… Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Just to drive that last point home, we actually have a pretty good idea of exactly what we’re dumping in to the ground via traditional funerals. Every year, conventional burials in the U.S. consume:

1. 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde
2. 20 million board feet of hardwoods
3. 1.6 million tons of concrete
4. 64,500 tons of steel
5. 17,000 tons of copper and bronze

“Okay, asshole,” you are now saying, quietly, on the toilet, which is where you always seem to read this sort of thing, “I get it, you want me to feel bad about grandma’s funeral, thanks a lot. What else are we supposed to do?” Well, I’m really glad you asked. Funny that I could hear you from your toilet, but I’m sure that’s just the thin walls, not hidden spy cams! Anyway, there’s actually a lot of ways to green up your future corpse disposal. While there are small options to make a conventional burial a bit greener, what I really want you to do is to consider not even having a conventional burial. There are a couple of good options available to you, though they may take a bit more planning and effort.

You could always, like, have a totally organic hemp coffin, man

The most common alternative, of course, is cremation. Modern cremation involves burning the remains at a high temperature and then recovering the ashes for the family to handle as they see fit. Cremation isn’t really green, but it’s arguably better than a conventional burial, and is available pretty much everywhere. The first benefit is, you do not need to be embalmed for a cremation. That takes care of the cancer bullshit. They do sometimes embalm a body before cremation, but you really shouldn’t. You’d just be putting carcinogens in to the air instead of in the ground. In fact, it turns out, you don’t legally have to be embalmed at all, even for a conventional burial. There are laws about storing bodies until the funeral, but refrigeration generally fulfills those requirements. So… fuck embalming!

The second benefit to cremation is the casket. You don’t need to use a fancy, pretty casket for a cremation. A simple, plain pine one will do, or even cardboard. Yes, cardboard caskets are not uncommon for a cremation. So, less waste there. Side note about caskets: you can provide your own casket! You do not have to buy one from the funeral home. They are legally required to accept any casket you give them. So if they don’t have a green casket option, you can find another source. The funeral home may not like it, but tough shit.

The downside to cremation, obviously, is the fact that you’re burning the body, using a lot of energy and producing a bunch of pollution. The energy required to incinerate one body is equivalent to about 20 gallons of gasoline. As for the pollution generated, it’s not great, but not horrible. Estimates vary widely depending on who you talk to, but the general thinking is that the total CO2 generated by a cremation is still less than that produced by a conventional burial. Consider the production and transport of a steel coffin, concrete vault, headstone, etc. for a conventional burial, and the carbon cost adds up.

On the other hand, a cremation doesn’t just pump carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere. Cremations also generate carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, and fucking mercury vapor from older dental fillings. You did not expect that shit, did you? Overall, however, cremation is still usually considered to be the less-bad option between the two most common methods of handling the dead.

Cue that song from that popular animated movie with all the animals in it

Now on to the fun stuff. Yes, planning your own green funeral is fun! I like it, shut up, it’s fine, I’m fine, whatever. Anyway, the other main option is a flavor of green burial or natural burial, which causes less waste and pollution and allows your body to quickly go back to nature. The way a green burial goes is, you put your raw, un-embalmed corpse in a modest, biodegradable casket or shroud. Yes, you don’t even need a casket, you can do a shroud! Again, an individual cemetery business might require a casket to use their private facilities, but they’re not legally required to. The casket or shrouded body then goes directly into the ground, with no vault or liner. Just like everyone in the world used to do, from forever ago until the mid 1800’s.

Green Cemetery in the UK
Native trees marking green burials at the Ham Down Woodland Burial Ground, U.K. Photo by Bob Ford / CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes this will still involve a partial burial vault that keeps the ground oh-so-flat up above but that is open below to let the body return naturally to the soil. Sometimes you can get away without a vault at all. It depends on the cemetery. There are cemeteries exclusively for natural, green burials, but there are also “hybrid” cemeteries, where they allow both conventional and green burials or some flavor of greened-up conventional burial. No cancer juice, no pointlessly buried steel, no carbon-belching concrete production. Which is great and all, but honestly, that shit’s for noobs. Conservation burial is where it’s really at. That’s the primo shit.

Conservation burial is the boss of green burials. You’ve got your standard green features. No formaldehyde in your body or the soil. No concrete. A simple, environmentally friendly and biodegradable casket or shroud made from sustainably harvested materials. Or maybe you go in the ground stark raving nude. It’s possible! There’s no laws that say otherwise. Might be a good option if you don’t like your family much. Anyway, the coolest part, the part that makes your enviro-peen stand straight up, is that with a conservation burial, the rotting, ugly bag of mostly water that used to be you will keep doing good work for years!

To boldly go where literally everyone else has gone before

And I’m not just talking about feeding the trees or whatever. The land that conservation cemeteries are on are under conservation easements. These are legal agreements between the landowner and a land trust organization or government agency. This agreement restricts what activities can be conducted on the land. Conservation easements can restrict logging, protect a scenic area, or require any agriculture done to use sustainable methods. They can also just restrict all use and require the land to be left completely untouched. Much of the time, conservation easements are used to set up nature preserves that allow for hiking trails and habitat restoration projects while mostly leaving the land untouched.

Conservation cemeteries, therefore, are under easements that restrict the use of the land to only allow natural, green burials. No building or development, no logging, nothing but wilderness and dead folks in the dirt, free of carcinogens and concrete. It’s basically a wilderness preserve that you get to visit for eternity. Your funeral fees go towards maintaining the preserve and any conservation projects that take place on it, like invasive species removal or wildfire management. And the best part is, that easement becomes legally part of the property. It stays with the land, no matter who it’s transferred to. The cemetery business can fold, the land can be sold off to whoever, and they are still legally bound to keep the cemetery as it was intended to be. Theoretically forever. Your body, and your money, will help conserve a bit of wilderness long after you’ve merged with the trees and beetles. Conservation cemeteries are the bomb-diggity-bomb.

That was a totally natural thing to say

Just one problem though… there’s hardly any of them out there, currently. Thing is, all the cemetery laws on the books were written with conventional burials and cemeteries in mind. They’re designed to prevent cemetery businesses from taking your money and then just abandoning the property, for example. To accomplish this, they require cemeteries to keep a large sum of money in a trust. These funds are to ensure the maintenance of the land even if the business falters. This financial requirement is a big hurdle for conservation cemeteries to overcome. Conservation cemeteries don’t really need to worry about the maintenance of the land, because the whole idea is to be hands-off. The easement keeps the burial ground safe, and the wild state of the property is the entire point. A trust fund isn’t really needed. Other laws can cause headaches too, such as requiring paved roads, fencing, and other infrastructure that are not only expensive but actually goes against the whole concept of the place.

boring conventional cemetery
Seriously, is this what you want? Bo-ring. Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Which is a damned shame, because the potential is huge. It’s been estimated that, theoretically, all the land needed to preserve every endangered species in the entire United States (even the entire world) could be provided for if all conventional burials from now on instead became conservation burials. Obviously there are practical reasons why this can’t be a solution for all species everywhere, but it sure could do a hell of a lot of good nonetheless. And just think about green spaces in urban areas. Take every conventional cemetery, and envision it as a wooded park instead. And every park could also be a cemetery. Not an old fashioned spooky place with headstones and mylar balloons, but a pretty area with maybe some dips or mounds and a natural stone or two as the only indicators that there were dead folks in the dirt. Natural spaces have been proven to be incredibly valuable in various ways to urban areas. This could be a way to both establish new areas, as well as ensure they stick around forever. Good for humans, good for wilderness, and good for you.

You’re a GOOD future corpse!

So, what do you do when you look at the map of conservation cemeteries and green burial sites, and discover that there’s nothing near you? Well, you could always consider having your body transported to one anyway. Just take in to account the carbon dioxide you’ll be generating from that, though. If the closest place that will accommodate your green burial plans is the next town over, maybe you’ll decide that’s okay. If it’s 500 miles away, though, then maybe it’s better to just get cremated.

Alternately, you could decide to become a green burial activist. Talk to your state legislators about introducing bills that change laws to be more friendly for green burials. Contact your local cemeteries and discuss with them the possibility of converting to a hybrid cemetery that allows green burials. Or if you want to be a superhero, talk to your local land trust organization about starting a fucking conservation cemetery like a boss. It will require a lot of research, time, effort, and awkward conversations with people who think you’re super weird for not wanting to have your blood replaced with poison and then to be encased in concrete. But conservation cemeteries are never going to become common unless we start pushing for more of them.

Green also means money, yo

Shit, I told you it was cheaper, too, right? Green burial is cheaper. And it’s not hard to see why. Embalming costs money. A burial vault costs money. Right there, boom, costs reduced. A green casket or shroud is generally cheaper than a conventional casket. Burial plots cost about the same no matter what style you go for. So, in the end, it works out this way: Conventional burial in the U.S. costs up to $10,000 and can go even higher. A cremation can be more like $2000-$3000 if you do the bare minimum. Conservation burial, on the other hand, can cost in the $3000-$4000 range.

The main cost of a conservation burial or other green burial is the plot itself. The next biggest cost is the casket, which can be quite inexpensive if you’re willing to do cardboard or a cloth shroud. Depending on state and local laws, you may be able to get away without any other services. Some areas may require you to have a licensed funeral director handle body transport and interment, which will have its own fees associated with it. Just depends on where you live. Regardless, a green burial can easily be cheaper than a conventional burial, and only a little more expensive than a cremation.

Ossuary in Czech Republic
Some burial alternatives are less desirable (or legal) than others. Photo by Jan Kameníček,, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

So there you go. Even in death, our choices can make an impact on the world around us. We could create a bunch of carbon dioxide and dump carcinogens in to the landscape in a futile effort to protect our lifeless bodies from harm. Or, we can just do it the old fashioned way. It’s one last way to make a difference. Take a little time to do your research and planning, and hell, while you’re at it, talk to your loved ones about it, too. Maybe they’ll like the idea and make their own plans. Because we’re all gonna die some day. For some of us it will be in our 90’s, quietly in bed, surrounded by our loved ones. For one of us… and I’m not saying it’s you… it’s gonna be next Tuesday afternoon during a pretty embarrassing attempt to replicate something a 14-year-old girl did on TikTok. Look, all I’m saying is, check out green burials before you decide to do the “air compressor challenge,” okay? Thanks.

MORE READING:
Green Burial Council
Conservation from the Grave
More People Want a Green Burial
The Order of the Good Death

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