This is part one of a four part series on green burial.
Changes are coming to the funeral profession, and green burial may be the catalyst. As we've discussed before, common burial in the West is an environmentally costly endeavour, with over 6 billion tons of concrete, 800,000 gallons of Formaldehyde, and enough wood in one year to build 4.6 million single family homes. Cremation also releases harmful emissions into the air, and uses a large amount of energy per body. Green burials on the other hand do not use embalming fluids, eschew burial vaults, and put into place sustainable land management systems.
Green burials are also the site of many other funerary changes. Green burial advocates not only encourage greater land stewardship, but many try to get families involved in the process of death to a greater degree. From washing your loved one, dressing them, or holding a funeral in the home, these practices often go hand-in-hand with natural disposition.
Ellen Newman is a licensed funeral director, specializing in green, natural and family-led funeral, burial and end of life care options. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Green Burial Society and is the co-instigator of the Good Green Death Project. Read as Newman breaks down some of the common questions surrounding green burial. Have other questions? Ask them in the comments section below.
Common Questions About Green Burial
What designates a burial as green?
Very generally, green burial utilizes methods and materials that decrease the impact on the environment. At a minimum, this means a burial where the body is not embalmed and is buried directly into the earth in a biodegradable container with no concrete vault or grave liner. Green burial plots are often unmarked, or marked with a simple stone or natural marker like a tree. More often there is central space or object such as an obelisk, garden, boulder or fence, where communal memorialization is offered. Green burial often has an additional ecological aspect where the grounds/graves are planted with only native, beneficial species that are not chemically or mechanically managed, and where optimum land and water use guidelines are in place.
How is a green cemetery maintained? Will it be cared for in perpetuity?
Green cemeteries are maintained differently than lawn type cemeteries. While there is less “fine” maintenance like lawn cutting, trimming, or cleaning of monuments, there are maintenance aspects to establishing, restoring and/or conserving an ecological biosphere of native species – a concept which is a hallmark of many green burial grounds. These costs can be higher than those of a lawn type cemetery, particularly in the early stages of cemetery development.
In terms of perpetuity, each jurisdiction has its own laws for the care and maintenance of cemeteries, and generally, each includes provisions that require a fund to be set aside to care for the grounds forever. There are also provisions in the laws for cemeteries that are very old, or even ancient – for example, in Ontario, Canada, the local municipality would assume responsibility for a cemetery designated as abandoned and these same laws apply whether a cemetery is green or not.
Is cremation considered green?
Perhaps in comparison to a traditional funeral with an embalmed body in a steel or exotic hardwood casket. Cremation consumes a large amount of fossil fuel, a non-renewable resource. Effective cremation requires temperatures above 1100 degrees Celsius for 2 – 3 hours. Modern cremation units – called retorts – often have minimal CO2 emissions due to extremely efficient “scrubbers”, but the impact of other emissions such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and others, is less well known. Cremation now accounts for 70% of disposition in Canada and 50.1% in America and is increasing. Over time these effects may be more significant.
Cremation does not take up as much land, but some may feel it takes away an opportunity to give back to the Earth in the way green burial with a naturally decomposing body does. The choice of final resting place can also a be a factor. Scattering cremated remains or using a biodegradable urn will have less of an environmental impact than interment in a niche or in-ground cremation plot with a metal urn and a marker. It is important to note that provinces and states may have varying laws regarding the spreading of ashes. In Quebec for example, it is illegal to inter an urn (even a biodegradable one) anywhere other than designated cemetery spaces.
Are there current laws that prevent green burials?
Considering that green burial is a continuum with no law defining exactly what it is, no. Jewish and Muslim burials (that do not permit embalming, grave liners or vaults) would be considered on the green continuum, and they are generally legal everywhere. However, cemeteries are able to set their own by-laws that need to be adhered to when purchasing interment rights. Cemeteries can require vaults or grave liners for example, or disallow direct earth burial in a shroud, stipulating the use of a casket and even specifying a type of casket. Watch for a future article focusing on Green Burial in Canada which will outline each province’s laws and requirements.
What is the cost of a green burial plot as compared to a regular cemetery plot?
Many people believe that a green burial plot will be more expensive in much the same way green cars are more expensive, but that is not necessarily the case. Generally, if a green burial grave is in a designated green section that is part of a larger, traditional lawn type cemetery, the cost of a plot will be the same or comparable to what is referred to as a “flat marker plot” (see this article for a breakdown of cemetery types). If a green plot is in a stand alone green cemetery, the plot may cost more in comparison to plots in traditional lawn type cemeteries in the same area. In a smaller churchyard or rural cemetery, costs of plots in general can be quite reasonable, so even if the cost of a green burial in this instance might be slightly higher, it may still be substantially lower than larger, more urban options.
It can be helpful to factor in the cost savings/lower impact of foregoing embalming, a "traditional" casket and a headstone when researching the cost of a green burial plot.
Different Types of Green Burial
Natural Burial Ground
A natural burial ground is one in which burial containers like vaults and grave liners are prohibited. Bodies cannot be embalmed and the containers used must be made of natural or plant-based materials. The idea behind this type of land is to have a managed area that is as natural as possible. Machinery will be kept to an absolute minimum, as will the use of markers (ie: you won't see ornate headstones in a natural burial ground). Natural burial grounds will also prohibit the use of pesticides to maintain the grounds.
A conservation burial is a green burial that takes place in a cemetery or natural burial ground that also has a conservation easement registered on the title of the land. The easement can be held by a municipality, a conservation authority or a land trust. It provides for the perpetual restoration and conservation of the native ecological environment of the specific location. Willow’s Rest, a green burial ground located in Fairview Cemetery, Niagara Falls, ON, has a conservation easement. Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is another example, located in Gainesville, FL. Some burial grounds, like Denman Island Natural Cemetery in British Columbia, have a conservation covenant that specifically protects the land from toxic chemicals or metals. This type of burial is exactly like a natural burial, but with stricter standards.
A hybrid cemetery is 'traditional' cemetery space with a green burial allotment. Most cemeteries require a burial vault. This is because when a casket starts to disintegrate, the ground above and around it will shift. A burial vault allows for easier lawn maintenance. Hybrid cemeteries will designate a parcel of land where burial vaults are not used. This means that green burials can technically occur there. Some hybrid cemeteries may not have a burial space but will have sections for the internment of green urns, or they may have scattering gardens.
The concept of green burial is a continuum. It can be helpful to compare striving for green burial to striving for safe sex. The only way to have completely, 100% safe sex is to abstain. However, people do not give up having sex since there are many ways to have “safer” sex. Given our current societal realities, a 100% green burial, with no carbon impact at all, is not possible. Using the same logic, it doesn’t make sense to dismiss green burial as impossible, a fad, or hypocritical since there are many ways to have a “greener” burial. The idea is to strive to lower our carbon footprint and the use of non-renewable resources in our day to day living, and at the end of life as well.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our 4 part series! Have other questions? Ask them in the comments section below.