Green Burials

Are you considering a green burial for yourself or a loved one?  Many cemeteries offer green burial options, but what does that mean?  It seems a green burial may mean different things to different people and cemeteries.  On one end of the spectrum, at a conventional cemetery, it may simply mean burial without embalming, using a casket of choice, and no bottom on the vault.  There are grave markers, and the grass is regularly treated and mowed.  On the other end, it may mean burial in a natural area such as a woods or prairie, without embalming, either wrapped in a shroud or using a biodegradable casket.  Perhaps family and friends will dig the grave, lower the body, and fill the grave.  Often there are no grave markers and the gravesites are left to return to nature with minimal if any maintenance.

When we write about green burials here, we mean something like the latter.

Why Have a Green Burial?

There are a few very good reasons to consider a green burial:

  • First, they’re really “green”.  Unlike conventional burials and cemeteries, they have minimal impact on the environment.  Based on experience at a local green cemetery, most bodies entombed there are simply enshrouded, i.e. wrapped in cloth and buried without a casket.  If caskets are used however, they are generally made of cardboard or a simple pine box.  Once the body is interred and the grave filled, the site is left to return to vegetation naturally, which around here that takes a growing season.  After that there is little if any cemetery maintenance.  Other than the 4’ x 8’ plot, a green burial requires minimal resource use and has minimal environmental impact.

Contrast that with a conventional burial.  If the body is embalmed, the embalming fluids typically contain a toxic mix of formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents (Wikipedia).  Most caskets are made of a metal alloy but more exotic metals (stainless steel, copper and bronze) are also used.  Those polished wooden caskets are generally made of hardwoods such as walnut, oak or maple, or even exotic woods such as rosewood.  Most cemeteries also require the use of a substantial vault, usually of concrete, metal or fiberglass, to cover the coffin and keep the soil from collapsing as the coffin collapses.  Finally, most cemeteries have a regular retinue of mowing and treating the landscape that will continue for decades and beyond.  The environmental impact of a conventional burial is significant and long term.

And if you’re considering cremation rather than burial, while cremation doesn’t use metal or concrete or toxic materials, it uses considerable fossil fuel and the combustion has considerable atmospheric impact.  It takes two to four hours at temperatures of 1400-2100F to cremate a body, using more than enough fuel to drive from New York to L.A., and spewing large amounts of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide) as well as carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and other gases in the process, along with cadmium and lead from pacemakers and mercury from dental fillings.  Clean it’s not.

  • Second, green burials are typically far less expensive than most conventional burials.  First, the cost of a shroud or a cardboard or simple pine casket is generally hundreds (thousands?) less than most conventional caskets.  Second, the burial plots themselves are cheaper (think of the long-term maintenance costs in a conventional cemetery).  And third, if needed, the cost of digging and filling a grave at a green cemetery is usually far less, but based on local experience, many families choose to dig and fill the grave themselves.
  • Third and perhaps most significantly, like a home funeral, we believe that participating more fully in a burial for a loved one can help you to better cope with and accept their death. The process of personally enshrouding a body or placing it in the casket, then transporting it to the cemetery, perhaps digging the grave, lowering the dead into the grave, and then filling the grave we believe can help with the grieving, accepting, and letting go process.

Contrast that with a sanitized conventional burial, where someone has prepared and placed your loved one in a casket, which is then taken to the cemetery where backhoes have dug the grave and temporarily removed the dirt offsite, where the grave edge is masked by green carpet, where the graveside service is conducted while the casket remains above ground (even hiding the very grave), where the mourners are asked to depart while the casket is still above ground, and where once everyone has left the casket is finally lowered, the vault is lowered over it, trucks return the dirt, and attendants fill the grave.

We believe that it would be easier to process and accept someone’s death if you’ve participated more closely in their burial.

Green Burial Options Nearby:

We in the Madison area are extremely fortunate to have two excellent green cemeteries nearby.  The closest at hand, just outside of Verona, is the Natural Path Sanctuary which is part of the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability.  A little further west, north of Barneveld, is Circle Cemetery, part of Circle Sanctuary .  Both Natural Path Sanctuary and Circle Sanctuary offer excellent green burial options.  Please contact them for more information.

Green Burials and Home Funerals:

A green burial may or may not be associated with a home funeral, and vice-versa.  They are a great fit together, and there are elements of both that are very consistent with each other, but you can have a conventional funeral home conduct a conventional funeral and then take a body to a green cemetery as long as they haven’t embalmed the body and that you use a simple casket that complies with the cemetery’s guidelines.  Or you can have a home funeral and personally take the deceased to a conventional cemetery, again as long as you comply with their internment guidelines.

We can help:

We can help you quickly obtain a cardboard casket or burial shroud, transport the body, and more.