11 Eco-Friendly Burial Options

This is part two in our four part series on green burial. 

As we discussed in part one of our green burial series, the options for a greener death are growing. Cemeteries are opening up allocated natural burial sections, funeral homes are offering eco-friendly products, and disposition methods are becoming greener. If you've decided that green burial is for you, what options do you have? 

From willow caskets and shrouds, to tree pod burial containers, we break down today's eco friendly burial options to make your choice easier. If you are making arrangements with a funeral home or cemetery, not all of these options may be presented to you. Your funeral provider should generally be able to order any of these options for you, or, depending on the company, you can often order directly from the manufacturer. Remember, the more requests funeral homes and cemeteries receive for green burial options, the faster this movement will become more widespread! 

Your 11 Eco-Friendly Burial Options

When considering a container for green burial, its useful to consider the potential overall carbon footprint of its manufacture. For example, even though a woven willow casket is biodegradable, you may want to consider where the material was harvested, how far away was it made, by what process, and how it is being shipped or transported. A simple pine box, with no glue, metal or varnish, made by you with wood harvested nearby or manufactured in your area will most likely have a lower overall carbon footprint.  

If you decide to make your own container, be certain to consult with your local funeral home, cemetery or crematorium to ensure the type of casket, container or shroud will be accepted. Most importantly - be certain it will fit in the grave or cremation unit. Many containers or caskets can be personalized or decorated in some way – with paint, drawings or even collage or papier-mâché. For a green burial, it can be helpful to choose ink, paint or other decorations that are biodegradable.

1. Simple Wooden Casket

A simple coffin or casket needs to be made of solid wood, with no glue, metal or varnish in order to be considered green, and to be accepted in most designated green burial grounds. Plain wood caskets are easily decorated and personalized. A lining or interior should be made of unbleached fabric, with natural materials for bedding such as wool or cotton fiber, or even straw.

2. Cardboard Containers

 Coming together to decorate a casket of any kind can be a deeply meaningful and comforting activity for those involved. 

Cardboard is an acceptable a green container or casket, especially if being used for cremation. It is advisable to check what the weight guidelines are for the cardboard casket you are considering as some may not be suitable for people over a certain weight. Some cemeteries, burial grounds or crematoriums will not accept a cardboard casket, or may require the use of a rigid board to be placed under or inside. Some type of strapping or ropes may be needed as cardboard caskets do not have sturdy handles.  

Some people may choose to purchase a cardboard container ahead of time to so it can be personalized. Coming together to decorate a casket of any kind can be a deeply meaningful and comforting activity for those involved.   

3. Woven Caskets

These containers are typically made of willow, bamboo, wicker or combinations of those. Some may incorporate seagrass or other natural materials to enhance the design or as decorative components. They can also be made of sugar cane or banana leaves. These caskets are particularly beautiful, and are generally well made with sturdy handles, making transport of the body safe and easy. They would be considered biodegradable for burial and can also be used for cremation. 

4. Shrouds

 A king-sized cotton sheet can serve as a very simple shroud. 

A shroud is a large piece of fabric that is used to wrap the body. Shrouds can be made of unbleached cotton fabric, muslin, linen, silk, felted wool, bamboo or hemp, and can be very plain or colourfully and elaborately decorated. Pockets or slots for mementos or herbal sachets are a common feature. Some green cemeteries and some funeral homes offer burial shrouds to purchase. They can also be sourced online, and there are patterns available should you wish to make your own – a king-sized cotton bed sheet can even serve as a very simple shroud. Any shroud can be personalized and decorated by the individual and/or their family. 

There are some things to keep in mind when using a shroud however. Changes in the body that occur after death can cause liquid or fluids to leak and/or accumulate. Some shrouds are designed to prevent or control this. Biodegradable absorbent disposable cloths, or wood or cotton fiber combined with biodegradable plastic (like the bags used in your kitchen compost bin) can be used as well. Also, since many green cemeteries will use a device to lower the body into the grave, a shrouded body will need to have a backing board of some kind. A backing board is a single plank of unpainted, unvarnished solid wood that will stay in the grave. Some shrouds will come with a backing board, or there will be an option to purchase one along with the shroud.

Finally, for an interesting take on burial shrouds, take a look at Coeio's conceptual Infinity Burial Suit. This shroud is a full body costume that is embroidered with thread infused with mushroom spores. Once you are buried with the suit, mushroom spores will begin to grow, slowly. Soon enough, your body will decompose and feed the mushroom and everything blends together as you begin your return to nature. 

5. Tree Pods

This is a concept where a dead human body is placed in an egg or oval shaped container made of a biodegradable bio-polymer, and then buried either at the foot of a tree or has a tree planted above it. The body is placed in the egg in the fetal position, and the idea is that the pod would nourish the tree. There is however no prototype of this concept available. One major challenge for this concept in North America would be the size of plot required to accommodate the growth of a large tree for each person. Tree roots normally take up a large space, and traditional burial plots, in North America as an example, are 4’ x 10’. 

The company working on the concept/product – Capsula Mundi - acknowledges that its use will require a re-design of traditional cemeteries. Depending on the jurisdiction, there could be many legislative changes required to allow for their use, and based on the current cost of a traditional cemetery plot, there could be quite a difference in cost. Other considerations could include the type of specialized equipment that may need to be developed or used to transport, store, and bury this type of container. 

6. Biodegradable Urns

While cremation itself may not be the “greenest” choice, there are many biodegradable cremation urns available.  It is important to note that, in North America, it is generally illegal to bury cremated remains anywhere outside of a cemetery. However, cremated remains can be scattered in several places. Scattering and burying (interring) are treated differently. It is best to check with a local funeral home, cemetery or government body to be certain of the laws regarding scattering or burying cremated remains in your area.

7. Urns Designed to be Buried with Seeds or Tree Saplings

There are a number of these types of urns available including the BiosUrn, The Living Urn and EterniTrees. The idea is that cremated remains, or ashes, are placed in a biodegradable container (usually tube or egg shaped) which is designed to decompose when buried in the earth. Next, a tree seed or sapling is planted above to be nourished by the cremated remains. A concern with this type of urn is that while the container will readily biodegrade, cremated remains (the ashes) are too “salty” with a PH that is too high to support the growth of plant material. The ashes will remain in a salty clump below the soil for some time. Some products will come with organic material or soil that may help to minimize the effects of the cremated remains. 

It has been suggested that scattering the remains over a larger area and turning them well into the soil is less likely to be harmful to plants. Another issue is that most cemetery by-laws will not allow the seed or sapling that comes with the urn to be planted. In both traditional and green cemeteries, trees planted on each individual grave would be a maintenance issue. There are now two companies that helping to change this. Memory Forests have partnered with nearly 30 cemeteries in the US where you can plant a Living Urn on their property. Catholic Cemeteries of Granby and Les Sentiers, are two cemeteries in Quebec, Canada that have sections specifically for the use of the BiosUrn and other urns like it.

BiosUrn also makes a product called the Bios InCube, which is a planter you would take home. The cremated remains are buried in the planter, and a seed, sapling or house plant is grown above it. 

8. Paper and Fiber Urns

Paper and other types of fiber urns come in many different shapes including small boxes, tubes, hearts, circles, flowers, shells, fish, turtles or a simple envelope style. They can be made of recycled paper, natural recycled fabric, hemp, sand and gelatin, or even cornstarch. They may have seeds or other types of plants or flowers embedded in them. In most cases, they will come with a biodegradable bag to assist with placing the ashes into the urn. They may also have a slot or opening that allows messages or mementos to be placed with the ashes inside the container.  Many of these types of urns are multi-purpose – they can be put on display, buried in the ground, used for scattering or placed in or floated on water. Many will have a keepsake option – a smaller version that allows for several people to have a portion of the ashes. 

9. Urns Designed to Float & Dissolve in Water

Urns designed to float and be used in water are also available in many shapes and be made of many different types of materials. Many are quite large, spanning up to 3’ across, enabling the urn to float prior to sinking, giving time for a ceremony to take place. Urns like this can also be shaped like open bowls made of clay, or carved from unvarnished wood. 

10. Rock Salt Urns

These urns are both beautiful and are biodegradable. They can be used for earth burial and for use in water. They will not float, but will dissolve over time when placed under water. These urns are not suitable for long-term display as over time they will attract moisture from the air which will dissolve some of the salt, forming a crusted appearance. 

11. Plain Wooden Urns

Plain wooden urns, made with no metal, glue or varnish would also be considered a biodegradable and green choice. These could be buried or used for display. Always ensure that the type of wood you are purchasing is not an exotic wood and has been sustainably sourced. 

Ellen Newman

Ellen Newman is Co-instigator of the Good Green Death Project and a licensed funeral director specializing in green, natural and family-led funeral, burial and end of life care options. She is a graduate (2014) of the Contemplative End of Life Care program at the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Toronto and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Green Burial Society of Canada. Her other work includes hosting/facilitating the Halton Hills Death Café, serving as a member/trainer for the Infant and Pregnancy Loss Doula program of the Home Hospice Association and on the the National Lay Chaplaincy Steering Committee of the Canadian Unitarian Council. She firmly believes that if people do not know what options are available to them, they do not have any. Ellen is committed to working toward change that allows for a more participatory, empowered experience at the end of life.

Posted by Ellen Newman

Ellen Newman is Co-instigator of the Good Green Death Project and a licensed funeral director specializing in green, natural and family-led funeral, burial and end of life care options. She is a graduate (2014) of the Contemplative End of Life Care program at the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Toronto and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Green Burial Society of Canada. Her other work includes hosting/facilitating the Halton Hills Death Café, serving as a member/trainer for the Infant and Pregnancy Loss Doula program of the Home Hospice Association and on the the National Lay Chaplaincy Steering Committee of the Canadian Unitarian Council. She firmly believes that if people do not know what options are available to them, they do not have any. Ellen is committed to working toward change that allows for a more participatory, empowered experience at the end of life.

  1. Here’s a urn from Scandinavia’s leading casket and urn supplier. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI2d-gJh46k

    They are working on a brand new casket which has never been seen before on this green burial theme. The product is planned to be released during March.

    Reply

  2. […] on a 'don't ask don't tell' basis. You can take a boat out on the water to scatter ashes, or buy a biodegradable urn that will sink to the bottom of the sea. Another option are Eternal Reefs. This company […]

    Reply

  3. […] *This is part three of our four part series on Green Burial. Read part one, and part two. […]

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  4. Hi Ellen, I appreciate you helping me learn more about these eco-friendly burial options. Among the provided list, I may consider the one with seeds. When my time comes, I prefer to remain in this world together with a tree. At least, my loved ones can still see me! Cheers and have a great day!

    Reply

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