Green Burial Questions

What is green burial?

Green burial (also called natural burial) is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that furthers legitimate ecological aims such as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Its main requirements are that caskets or burial shrouds must be biodegradable, toxic embalming fluids—such as those containing formaldehyde—are prohibited, and burial vaults are not used. In addition, most green cemeteries require grave markers, if used, to be made of local natural materials like local stone or wood.

Is natural (green) burial legal?

Yes. Most of what you may think of as laws are either rules of individual cemeteries or common practices assumed to be legal requirements. There is no law that a burial vault must be used, but many cemeteries require them for ease of lawn maintenance and closer spacing of graves. Embalming is only required under rare circumstances such as death from cholera.

Since burial vaults are made from concrete shouldn’t they be considered green?

While the concrete and metal in vaults may be considered “natural” to some, the manufacturing and transporting of vaults uses a tremendous amount of energy and causes enormous carbon emission. In the US, vault manufacturing requires the production of 1.6 tons of reinforced concrete.

Will animals disturb the gravesites?

No. Green burial is one of the oldest technologies. It is truly a prehistoric technology. Animals simply do not dig into graves. Ramsey Creek, a natural burial cemetery in South Carolina started in 1996, has a wild boar population as well as black bears and they have never experienced any problems. This is one of those “old-wives-tale” myths popular in scary stories. Nature preserve cemeteries throughout the United States have not experienced animals disturbing graves in any way. Pioneers buried in cemeteries near wilderness areas did not experience grave disturbances from animals, even with relatively shallow graves.

Will a natural burial cemetery hurt water quality?

No. Because green cemeteries don’t have run-off of fertilizers, spilled fuels or toxins, natural burial land produces cleaner water than urban, suburban, or agricultural areas. Soil is a remarkably good filter. Products of decomposition are contained and don’t leak into the water table. The forest and meadow watershed at Penn Forest will provide safe, clean water for the Plum Creek and the Allegheny River. This is not the case with conventional cemeteries, since burial vaults have drains, they do not retain toxic materials, such as formaldehyde, which flow out of the cemetery and into the watershed.

Can families have a viewing if the body is not embalmed?

This is an issue to discuss with your funeral director. Policies and laws for viewing unembalmed bodies vary from state to state and funeral home to funeral home. Viewing is often limited to the immediate family. Refrigeration and dry ice are methods of temporary preservation that some funeral homes use in lieu of embalming. And approved non-toxic embalming fluids may also be used. However, some funeral homes will not allow viewing of unembalmed bodies. If you want a green burial and no embalming and a viewing, you’ll need to find a funeral home that will accommodate your wishes.

Doesn’t embalming preserve a body for all time?

No. It only slows decomposition for a short time—weeks to months.

Isn’t green burial the same as Jewish burial?

In some ways they are similar in that Jews don’t allow embalming and often don’t use burial vaults. In many cases traditional Jewish burials can take place at green cemeteries and meet both the green cemetery requirements and satisfy Jewish burial traditions.

Is natural (green) burial against anyone’s religion?

This is a tough question to answer, considering the wide diversity of religious faiths and their inherent beliefs. It does not conflict with any of the major religions’ views. Some organized religions even require natural burial, such as the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Natural burial acts in accordance with the most ancient burial traditions. Because green burial obeys the biblical injunction, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19. KJV), it complies with most Christian burial traditions and requirements, as well.

How can I learn more about natural (green) burial?

You can visit the Green Burial Council’s website. This is an organization that sets standards and benchmarks for cemeteries and funeral homes offering natural burial. Those organizations meeting their standards can receive GBC certification and approved provider status. There is also this Wikipedia article on natural burial, and more local information is available on the Green Burial Pittsburgh website.