How Green Burials Work and How They Help the Environment

Anyone dying to save the environment can opt for a sustainable burial by forgoing three common conventional practices.

What happens after we die? Green burials bring a whole new perspective to the timeless philosophical question. An increasingly popular way to protect the environment in the afterlife, green burials are designed to have minimal environmental impact by using biodegradable materials and forgoing chemical preservatives.

At the most fundamental level, a green burial requires biodegradable caskets, containers, shrouds or urns and eliminates grave liners, concrete vaults and embalming chemicals. The latter conventional burial practices are bad for the environment because they contaminate the earth with non-biodegradable materials and toxins, according to experts.

“If you took all of the materials for all the internments over the course of a year in the United States, it would be the equivalent of two Golden Gate bridges every single year,” CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery Matthew Stephens said.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a historic cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is part of a national movement in the death care industry to adopt more environmentally-conscious practices. It is one of hundreds of cemeteries across the country certified by the Green Burial Council, a non-profit that advocates for “environmentally sustainable, natural death care.”

Mount Auburn Cemetery began seeing a significant increase in interest after Nate Fisher, a character in the HBO Series Six Feet Under, was given a natural burial in 2005.

“People started coming to us inquiring if it would be something we would consider,” Mount Auburn Vice President Bree Harvey said. “There are people who feel very strongly about leaving as little impact as they possibly can on the planet.”

Though legal in all 50 states, green burials are not offered at all cemeteries and are often accompanied by local restrictions. Some organizations are pushing to expand access, including Green Burial Massachusetts, Inc., a nonprofit that is working to create the first green cemetery open to all in the Bay State.

“The idea that we are part of the Earth means that our body has been designed to decompose. We are part of nature. We are not separated from nature,” said Candace Currie, clerk for Green Burial Massachusetts, Inc. “That's one of the major tenants of green burial and what makes us part of the living, dying and rebirth cycle.”

What makes a green burial green?

Many common practices for conventional burials were implemented to delay body decomposition and maintain cemetery grounds, according to industry experts. The three main components of conventional burials that damage the environment — chemical embalming, conventional caskets and grave liners — are eliminated with green burials.

“Green burials are also known as natural burials,” Currie said. “It's basically ensuring that everything going into the ground for the burial is biodegradable — it will decompose naturally.”

Bodies are typically embalmed between 24 and 48 hours after death for conventional burials. The preservative fluid is usually comprised of the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde.

With green burials, embalming is either substituted or forgone altogether. Some natural and green burials involve formaldehyde-free embalming fluids, while others opt for dry ice, according to Mallory McDuff, professor of environmental science at Warren Wilson College and author of Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love.

“One thing that green burial does from an environmental standpoint is it eliminates the toxins from embalming fluids, which are essentially burying toxins underground,” McDuff said. “So, you can imagine the environmental impacts from water quality to the land to wildlife.”

Conventional caskets are often comprised of hundreds of pounds of wood, metals, fabric, paints and varnish, McDuff added, which create environmental hazards both in production and underground. With green burials, caskets are made of nontoxic biodegradable materials, including a pine box, cardboard casket or a natural-fiber shroud.

“Conventional burial can turn a cemetery into a landfill, given the amount of materials buried under the earth,” McDuff said.

Most cemeteries across Massachusetts and the nation require a contained burial, which involves a concrete grave lining or a metal vault that goes into the ground before a casket. Experts said the outer layer, typically made up of around 3,000 pounds of cement or steel, helps with grounds maintenance.

“That's to help prevent the lawn from being too bumpy, because as a casket decomposes and the body decomposes, there could be some settling of the earth,” Currie explained. “But it was basically a method to keep lawn maintenance easier. It's an interesting concept, but it's not the way it needs to be done at this day and age, where we're so conscious of changing climate and keeping things simpler.”

Additionally, the manufacturing and transporting of vaults can use a great deal of energy and emit lots of carbon. In the U.S., vault manufacturing requires the production of 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete annually, according to the Green Burial Council.

Green burials remove the lining entirely and come with an added environmental benefit. Because those vaults and liners take up more space, green burials are also more efficient than conventional ones.

“We can have more natural burials in the same square footage than we could if we were laying out conventional casket space, which then means we can accommodate more people within a smaller amount of space,” Harvey said.

Though not conventional by modern standards, green burials turn back the clock to before the Civil War. When Mount Auburn Cemetery became the first in Massachusetts to get certified by the Green Burial Council in 2014, it started burying people much like the way it first did in its inception nearly 200 years ago.

“How people used to be buried is very different than it is today, or that people envision of like a Hollywood movie. Back in 1831, when Mount Auburn was founded, many of the original burials were green burials of sorts,” Stephens said. “So, all things come back to where they once began.”