By Mary Carpenter
Q: I have long wanted a green burial, preferably in a burlap bag in a forest in an unmarked grave, but I fear that may be difficult to achieve. I now love the idea of body composting. I wonder if such a service will come to the East Coast before my demise.
MyLittleBird: In the four years since MyLittleBird’s “Alternatives to Burial and Cremation,” organizations focusing on green burials have expanded their listings and evaluations—notably the Green Burial Council, with its mission to “prevent meaningless greenwashing in the green burial world.” And new sites like Cake offer guidance through the morass of burial choices and responsibilities.
Nearly 54% of Americans are now considering a green burial, and 72% of cemeteries are reporting an increased demand, according to a recent National Funeral Directors Association survey. Requirements for green burials, such as the condition of the body and use of a casket, vary by state and by cemetery.
Green burials involve no embalming—or only organic embalming—and usually no vault or grave liner. While some cemeteries require grave liners to keep the surrounding earth from caving in (because that makes grass mowing difficult), the Green Burial Council recommends no grass cutting or chemicals to control weeds, as well as graves dug and filled using only hand tools.
While green burials can obviate costly caskets, green options, such as “shroud burial,” may use a casket to ease the transport and lowering of the body. Green caskets employ biodegradable materials such as bamboo, paper, cardboard, wool, banana leaf and cedar. But green burials can also be costly, depending on location—mostly due to the varying prices of burial plots, with urban areas the most expensive: Plots in New York City go as high as $25,000.
Answering oft-posed questions, the Green Burial Council site reassures that unembalmed bodies do not pollute the ground with toxic chemicals, because “soil is the best natural filter there is.” Wild animals will not dig up corpses: “Burials occur at 3.5 feet under the ground with, at minimum, an 18-inch smell barrier. Animals are much more interested in living prey…we’re just not that delicious.” Similarly, humans are unable to smell buried bodies, which take up to two years for complete decomposition.”
Body composting, on the other hand, involves placing the body in a container with organic materials, such as wood chips; exposing the container to oxygen and heat; and rotating it like a typical composter to speed the body’s decomposition. According to US Funerals Online, the resulting “soil” —which can be returned to the family or donated to a conservation entity—“will be very nutrient-rich and make excellent fertilizer.”
Not yet available in the District, what’s also called “natural organic reduction” (NOR) is increasingly popular, especially among “city dwellers who don’t have access to large expanses of land to take advantage of a greener burial,” according to Spectrum News. In Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, where it is currently legal—with legislation introduced in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York—companies offering NOR charge around $5,000 to $7,000.
The mushroom burial suit, another green option, is a full body suit made using mushrooms to speed decomposition, which “is accepted at most green burial cemeteries,” according to Cake. From its inventor and manufacturer, Coeio, the suit costs about $1,500, with smaller pouches for pets at about $200. The mushroom burial suit can fit inside a casket if desired, and burial must be at least four feet deep to ensure proper germination of the mushrooms.
For green burials, including plot plus interment, public cemeteries charge anywhere from $900 to $4,000; and private cemeteries, anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 and higher in some urban areas. Another option is home burial, with restrictions varying by state. DC one of the few that does not allow it under any conditions.
But money is not the main issue for people committed to lowering the environmental costs of their deaths. “Supporting the operation of a natural burial ground through the purchase of a cemetery plot can help to fund permanent protection of important natural areas,” according to Cake.
Traditional burial, on the other hand, involves “a few gallons of toxic embalming fluid, which will soon leach out of your body and then out of your casket, which will most likely be stored for posterity in a cemetery that uses tons of pesticides and astronomical amounts of water to keep it looking nice,” according to howstuffworks.
“Flame cremation,” currently the most popular option in the U.S., releases the CO2 equivalent to burning about 800,000 barrels of oil – as well as soot and mercury from dental fillings–into the atmosphere. Newer, electric cremation uses less fuel and can be powered by renewable energy. The cheapest “direct cremation” — just the body with no service, performed within 24 hours of death— costs as low as $495; adding a cremation service brings it closer to $3,000.
The greenest options of all —tree burial (leaving the body high in a tree or entombed in the trunk) and sky burial (also known as “exposure,” relying on vultures to take care of the remains) —require no container or plot at all. But green burials can be carbon neutral —with human composting using about one-eighth the energy as cremation—and appears to be expanding across the country.
“Improved logistics and availability of natural burial grounds” are helping to expand eco-burial options, writes US Funerals Online editor Sara Marsden-Ille. With more green cemeteries emerging across the U.S., and even traditional cemeteries adding a designated green section to cater to this demand… I think I would opt for my remains to naturally decompose in a conservation area and return to the earth in eternity…rather than a quick reduction in a steel vat to produce a bucket of soil.”
Cremation with ashes scattered in the ocean always seemed like the best choice for me— until I learned about the environmental costs of cremation. And while I hesitate to pay big bucks to end up as that bucket of compost, the soil is scatterable and thus also an appealing way to give back to the land. I am reconsidering.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on need-to-know topics in health and medicine.
For more information on eco-burial options, see Natural End and Green Burial Cemeteries.
2 thoughts on “Green Burial”
I’m pondering green burial, but like so many, keep putting off the decision. An alternative, chosen by friends of mine: donating your body to a local medical school or research center. No muss, no fuss, and I suspect, little cost to the family.
Wow, Mary! This one was certainly thought provoking! I’m with you. As a teenager I visited a crematory once, after my car died while taking a shortcut through a local cemetery. I asked to use the phone in the main office and was offered a tour of the ghoulish operation.
I’m not sure if this is accepted standard of practice but according to the cemetery director, what ashes are scooped and placed in a burial urn are only what falls through a large grate in the oven as a body is partially consumed by the flames. The large unturned bones were retrieved and buried separately, he explained. I asked how they prevented ashes from multiple individuals from mixing in the process. His blank stare in response to that question said it all.
Religious symbolism and ritual aside, I’d prefer to think my remains might help sustain life after I’m gone. Pushing up daisies or feeding a stately oak appeals more than sitting in an urn on a loved one’s fireplace mantle.