Natural Burial – An Option for Those Concerned with Environmental Impacts

The end of our life is not a topic about which we want to think. We can sometimes feel that thinking about it might actually jinx it into coming sooner — even though we know that’s not really true.

There is a circle of life that will be fulfilled when the time is right, one of which we are not in control. Many feel that end-of-life rituals, including burial, are meant to honor the person who died while being an important part of the healing process for those left behind.

Making plans for our own burial that ensure the principles we hold dear will be honored will help our loved ones through what will definitely be a difficult time.

Recently we heard about a new movement that we would like to share with you, as it is an interesting option for burial and pre-need preparations. One that is growing quickly in parts of the world, including the United States. Some might think this topic morbid or one that should not be discussed, but we feel that the more information we can gather to help us make decisions to meet our seniors’ needs all the better.

Natural Burial Option

A natural burial is one that allows for circumstances that will not interfere with decomposition of the body but instead encourages the body to recycle naturally following internment. It is an alternative to other contemporary Western burial methods, where practices do not encourage natural decomposition and earth friendly preparations.

This movement began in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1993 but is spreading with the limited amount of cemetery land available and the desire for sustainability and environmentally safe practices. In the UK there are over 300 natural burial grounds dedicated to this type of internment.

In the United States, South Carolina opened the first green cemetery in 1998 but they have now spread across the nation. In the US, the Green Burial Council (GBC) is an independent, nonprofit organization to encourage sustainability in the interment industry and to use burial as a means of ecological restoration and landscape conservation.

Natural Caskets Materials

In Western cultures, the deceased person is buried in a variety of caskets (also called coffins) materials which do not allow for natural decomposition and are not biodegradable. In 2006, 80–85% of the caskets sold for burial in North America were of stamped steel. Solid wood and particle board coffins with hardwood veneers accounted for 10–15% of sales. Fiberglass and alternative materials such as woven fiber make up the rest. Many coffins also use exotic or endangered woods because they resist decay. Caskets also use metal or plastic hardware and handles, glues and also resins that can be harmful to the soil over time.

Because these manufactured caskets are not easily biodegradable, they will interfere with natural decomposition of the body and can actually release toxins into the soil.

A casket used in a natural burial would be made from cardboard — yes we said cardboard — or wicker, though some may use only a cotton shroud.  In the Jewish religion, these practices have been used throughout history.

Other Considerations in a Natural Burial

There are important considerations in natural burial besides the choice of casket material.

  • Refrain from use of vaults or mausoleums that would keep the body away from the soil and thereby interfere with natural decomposition. The goal is to have the body touch the soil.
  • Refrain from tombstones or grave markers but, instead, have a living memorial to the deceased by using a shrub, flower, tree, rock, wildflowers or plant as a marker.
  • A cemetery would use non-toxic pesticides or fertilizer for land management.
  • Non-toxic, natural embalming methods would be used in place of formaldehyde. Also, the body could be preserved for viewing using a mechanical refrigeration system or dry ice instead of embalming fluids and may also use essential oils topically or via injection.
  • Urns can be used if the container is biodegradable, such as sea grass.
  • Costs substantially lower than the typical burial. A green burial costs $800-3,500 and a standard Western burial currently runs from $7,000-10,000.

Here’s something that surprised us about current practices — you could drive about 4,800 miles on the energy used to cremate one person.

Books on Natural Burial

Here are a few books on natural burial if you want to learn more about the concept behind it and what is involved.

Personal Preferences & Decisions

It is a personal decision how we and our senior loved ones foresee our own burial and funeral. Be sure to learn the preferences of loved ones and state your own. Even better, put them all in writing so they are clear to all.

Traditions about the service, the visitation and the graveside may dictate how your senior loved one wishes their own burial to proceed when the time comes. This information is intended to offer an alternative to the traditional burial that may align with religious, social or environmental beliefs.