A green or natural burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact. It aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduces carbon emissions, and helps in the restoration and preservation of habitat. In a green burial, the body is buried in a natural setting without embalming. Any shroud or casket is biodegradable, nontoxic, and constructed of sustainable materials. Traditional standing headstones are replaced by rocks, plants, or trees that serve as simple, natural grave markers.
In order for a burial to be "green", the body should have as little impact on the environment as possible. The main considerations in a green burial are preservation of the environment, conservation of natural resources, and protection of the health of funeral industry workers. Lately, more and more people are becoming concerned with the impact humans are having on the planet. The use of green burial products as well as burial in a green cemetery or natural burial ground is one way to lessen that impact and reduce our carbon footprint. Many people consider green burial to be the traditional burial method and a return to the way people were buried before funeral commercialization. For those observing religious traditions, especially Jewish or Muslim funeral traditions, a green burial may be the easiest way to meet the requirements of religious law.
Green caskets are constructed from sustainably-produced materials that come from renewable sources. Conventional caskets are often made out of materials like wood or steel that have not been produced in a sustainable way. Green caskets are easily biodegradable, don't add toxins to the earth as they decompose, and are often produced in a way that's carbon-neutral. Commercially produced caskets can take a very long time to break down in the soil, especially if the casket contains metal parts. Most commercially produced caskets have been chemically treated with paint or veneer that will eventually seep into the soil as the casket degrades. The manufacturing and transport of conventional caskets and burial containers also requires a large amount of energy that produces significant carbon emissions.
Green cemeteries and natural burial grounds require that a green casket or a shroud be used when a body is interred and prohibit the use of outer types of burial containers. This helps to maintain the natural habitat of the environment including maintaining clean groundwater, preserving the natural landscape, and providing an environment in which native plants and animals can thrive. Conventional cemeteries often have to use herbicides to maintain the grass. These can be absorbed into the earth. Outer burial containers impede the decomposition of the body and take an extremely long time to decompose. After burial, embalmed bodies can result in formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals leaching into the soil.
Green burial prohibits conventional embalming in order to protect the environment once the body is buried as well as to protect the health of funeral home workers. Conventional embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen that has been proven to pose health risks to people who have regular exposure to the chemical. There are now formaldehyde-free alternatives to conventional embalming fluid which are made up mostly of essential oils that will not harm the health of the embalmer and have been approved by the Green Burial Council.
Many green caskets are made by companies that have been Fair Trade Certified. This ensures that the people making the caskets are employed in safe environments and receive a fair wage for their work. And because green caskets do not have chemical-based paints or finishes on them, there are no toxic by-products released into the environment where the caskets are produced.
It's not always possible to have an entirely green burial. But there are a number of ways to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices when planning a funeral. Features of a burial that can be green include working with a certified green or green-friendly funeral home, burying the body in a green casket or shroud, burying the body in a green cemetery or a natural burial ground, burying the body without an outer burial vault or grave liner, and marking the grave with a green headstone.
If you're working with a green funeral home, they will likely have access to many of the environmentally-friendly resources necessary in order to have a green burial. If you're working with a conventional funeral home, you may need to identify the resources you'll need on your own.
Green cemetery markers at the entrance to a natural burial site may feature a simple wall of plaques with the names of those interred at the site or a simple sign that directs family, friends, and visitors to the entrance of the footpath. Some green burial sites provide simple wood or stone tables or benches like the one below for those who wish to spend time at the site.
(Sources: http://www.larkspurconservation.org/larkspur-in-the-news-the-tennessean-usa-today/; Green Burial Council; https://www.everplans.com/articles/important-facts-to-know-about-green-burials; http://brightwatergreenburial.co.uk/; http://www.naturalburialcompany.com/where-to-go/; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/smarter-living/green-funeral-burial-environment.html)