An inside look into the not-so-new way of laying our loved ones to rest.
In spring of 2021, a comedian on Twitter pondered a truly important issue — why pay $4,000 for a coffin if you can just be buried “loose”? Absurd, maybe (hilarious, definitely), but his tweet also begs a fair question: Is there a way to forgo traditional burials in favor of having our bodies join the earth sans chemicals, or pricey, non-biodegradable coffins? Thankfully, there absolutely is another option. Enter natural, or “green,” burials.
Though specifics vary widely, this no-frills style of burial emphasizes a more straightforward and environmentally friendly approach to funerals, involving no toxic embalming fluids, elaborate caskets, or even burial vaults. “We truly focus on simple and natural — less is more, is our philosophy,” says Mitizi Chafetz, a funeral director at Austin Natural Funerals and a manager at Eloise Woods Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas. At Eloise Woods, as at many natural burial services or parks, the deceased’s family can opt for them to be buried in a biodegradable container, a shroud, or just placed straight into the earth.
Other cemeteries or businesses offer different forms of “green burials”: Steelmantown Green Burial Preserve (with cemeteries in Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, and New Jersey) will mix cremated remains with a concrete material to form a “reef ball” that’s then submerged at an ecologically approved ocean location. It then becomes a home for fish and other wildlife. Or you can choose to honor your loved one by having their remains mixed with soil, and planted along with a tree in their memory. Owner and founder Ed Bixby says both of these options give back to the environment, meaning “not only can you feel good about what you’re doing for your loved one, but you truly are making a big difference for the planet.”
Natural burials can be significantly more eco-friendly than the usual methods, which is part of the reason the green burial movement is starting to gain traction. “Traditional” cemeteries in the U.S. put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,000 tons of steel into the ground each year, along with 1.6 million tons of concrete, according to the Green Burial Council.
This concept of natural burials is nothing new: In fact, it’s what most families did right up until the Civil War, when embalming became more common in the United States as a way to preserve the bodies of servicemen who died far from home and needed to be transported long distances.
“I think of green burial or natural burial as neotraditional,” says Tanya Marsh, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who’s written books about laws pertaining to the dead. “They’re what most people have been doing for most of history, and it’s just a sort of blip that we have this more consumerist model in the 20th century.”
The logistics of a natural burial may not be as odd or complicated as you might think. In fact, they can be significantly less complex — and more participatory — than traditional ones: While families often hire a funeral director to transport the body and a cemetery worker to dig the burial hole in a green burial, many families and friends opt to help lower the body into the grave, and even choose to fill in the dirt themselves.
That’s what long-time California resident Jan Tiura did for her former high school teacher and longtime friend Bob Swift, who died of a blood disorder in 2019. They buried Swift at a green cemetery, and instead of a headstone, his grave was marked with a boulder from the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he was an avid climber. On the second anniversary of his death, she placed a hand carved marker from the Redwood Forest on his grave.
“Aside from buying the plot and paying a guy to dig the hole, it’s actually physically possible to bury someone ourselves,” she tells us. “We don’t have to mystify it.”
Of course, natural burials do have standard protocols just like traditional burials, though they may differ slightly. For instance, the phrase “six feet under” is not only a common euphemism for death, it’s the standard depth of a grave. But that’s not always necessary: Bodies in a natural burial are typically dug at around 3.5 to 4 feet down, which experts say is plenty deep for protection against any predators.
The coronavirus pandemic has tightened some burials protocols, mandating that bodies had to be wrapped in disaster bags, and provided for social-distancing requirements during funerals, according to Bixby.
But regardless of the pandemic, natural burials are still completely legal in virtually every jurisdiction. “There’s no state that requires anything involved in so-called traditional burials, like a casket, a vault, or embalming,” Marsh tells us. But you may run into trouble finding a green cemetery in your area. Today, the Green Burial Council estimates that there are nearly 350 green or hybrid cemeteries in the United States and Canada. Contrast that with the more than 144,000 graveyards and cemeteries across America. Marsh believes this dearth could relate to the fact that there’s little economic incentive for existing cemeteries to make a switch to green methods. “What inhibits green burial practices is that commercial cemeteries make more money off selling a vault and all of the accoutrements that go along with so-called traditional burials,” she says.
Just how popular are natural burials? About 56% of Americans say they’d be interested in exploring the option, according to a 2021 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association. Though interest in this pared-down style of laying people to rest has grown over the last several years, the survey reported a slight dip last year, and some attribute this to the coronavirus, which led to a rise in cremations, particularly within minority communities.
Still, the lower cost of natural burials is a major draw for some families, especially amid these chaotic economic times. Dying has become increasingly expensive over the past decade: In 2019, the median cost of a traditional adult funeral with viewing, burial, and vault was $9,130, compared with $8,508 in 2014. By comparison, natural burials cost anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000.
But it is important to know what’s exactly on offer with these “green” options — commercialization of so-called natural or environmentally sound alternatives has become a reality in many industries, and death care is no exception. Chafetz warns that people looking into this option should make sure that they’re well-informed about the details of whichever process they choose, and be wary of anyone trying to sell them anything, like “green” cremations (which use fewer resources but still pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere).
“A lot of places are grasping onto the green trend, or becoming what I would call funeral-tainers, where they’re using death as a platform to promote themselves,” says Chafetz.
Perhaps the biggest draw of a natural burial is its more intimate approach to grief and loss. Instead of watching a massive metal casket be lowered into the ground by a machine at a distance, mourners can choose to be more a part of natural burials.
By involving families throughout the process, Bixby believes natural burials can help families find the closure they need, while helping develop a much more healthy relationship with death (which remains taboo in our culture, even as the nation weathers an unprecedented number of fatalities due to Covid-19).
“This experience — of allowing families to shroud their loved ones, to care for them in death as they cared for them in life — has made them look at the funeral director differently,” he tells us. “The funeral director’s role now is not to direct, it’s to help facilitate. Green burials allow people to do things the way they would like. You do have certain rules and regulations and parameters to keep, but you’re not interfering with the intimacy of what needs to take place.”