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Natural burials, which strive to return the dead to their source, nature, in a respectful, human, way, are rising in popularity. Might a green funeral be right for you?

When you are preparing for a death and funeral, you may hear funeral home staff speak of "traditional burials". You can bet that they involve things like embalming (once with arsenic and now with formaldehyde), metal caskets or wooden caskets treated with chemicals that keep them preserved for longer, and (today frequently concrete) vaults that prevent graves from sinking [1]. These practices that delay the process of "dust to dust", and are a complete newcomer in the grand scheme of history — and as such, really, anything but traditional. 

Not only do these burials release nasty chemicals into the environment, they also take up an awful lot of space [2]; I've heard "traditional" cemeteries referred to as "landfill sites for dead bodies". To illustrate this, the US Funeral Consumers' Alliance notes that, along with our dead, people bury, in the United States alone [3]:

  • More than 30 million feet of hardwood
  • Over 90,000 tons of steel and copper
  • Around 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete
  • A whopping 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid
If you are a green-minded person hoping to reduce the carbon footprint you continue to leave after death, someone who simply prefers the thought of becoming one with nature more quickly, or are looking to save (your loved ones) some money, you may ask yourself questions like "Should I choose cremation or burial?", and "How do I choose a funeral home?" While you are looking for answers, you may opt for a truly traditional burial, burial the way everyone was buried until a few hundred years ago, starting with the Homo species who buried their dead 70,000 years ago [4]. Now called natural burials, eco burials, or green burials, they are rising in popularity. Might a natural burial be right for you and your family?

What Is A Natural Burial?

"A natural burial is the act of returning a body as naturally as possible to the earth," [5], the Canadian Natural Burial Association succinctly explains. Steps that lessen the environmental impact of burial may include [6]:

  • Not embalming the body, and instead keeping it in a refrigerated space for viewing for a short period of a few days prior to the funeral. 
  • Choosing a biodegradable coffin made from chemically untreated wood or cardboard, or choosing a shroud instead. 
  • Choosing not to have a vault. 
  • Keeping things local — the environmental impact of a funeral can be minimized by choosing a coffin that is made locally with locally-sourced materials, honoring the dead with locally-grown flowers, and choosing a nearby cemetery to which neither the body nor the funeral attendees have to spend much fuel to travel. 

People wishing to be buried in this way may encounter cemetery rules that make a more natural burial impossible, for example by requiring a vault, but natural burial sites are also emerging. Especially popular in the United Kingdom where there are now more than 250 natural burial grounds [7], around 60 green cemeteries now exist in the United States as well [4].

These natural burial sites aren't your average cemetery — besides being memorializing and honoring those who are buried there, they also act as an ode to Planet Earth itself. Not only are natural cemeteries free of pesticides and herbicides, they may forego traditional gravestones too, and those buried there may instead have opted to plant a tree of their choice as a grave marker [8].

Natural Burial As A Means Towards Family Participation

Natural funerals and burials might strive to preserve the environment, but they can also be emotionally beneficial. Funeral rites play an important role in our process of mourning and giving a our deceased friend or relative a new place in our lives, and the transition from life to death may be less abrupt where natural funerals and burials are practiced. 

Preceding a natural burial, family and friends are frequently involved in the process of caring for the body by washing, grooming, and dressing their loved one and having a home wake or vigil — under the experienced guidance of a competent funeral home. [9] Loved ones may be able to help dig the grave if they so wish, and can symbolically take turns adding soil as they send their departed off. 

I am still processing the personal impact of being able to be there for my dad in this way after he passed away. My family was present as he struggled to hold on in the days before his passing. We were there when he began to let go, and we held his hands when he finally did. After his death, my dad's body didn't simply become a corpse — though he was gone, he was also, in a very real sense, still the man who raised me. Being there for him after his death in all these ways was a final act of honoring him, and we experienced it as nothing but natural. Just as my dad was there in my first moments, I was there in his last, and beyond. He wasn't just gone. We sent him off, and that meant something.

Natural Burial Can Save Money

If you want to know what makes so-called "traditional funerals" so expensive, go back to the beginning of this piece and click on the first reference. Embalming, caskets, vaults, and elaborate gravestones all cost. Much. As I see it, natural burials honor both the dead and nature in allowing the two to become one, and in doing away with the practices that delay this process, a significant portion of the cost of modern funerals is eliminated as well. The cost of a funeral can place an enormous financial burden on those left behind, and easing it is another benefit of natural burial. 

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