What Are Green Burials – Learn About Earth-Friendly Burial Options
By: Tonya Barnett, (Author of FRESHCUTKY)
The passing of loved ones is never easy. Along with the lossof those closest to us, the process of making final arrangements can leavefamily and friends feeling distraught and overwhelmed by the options. In recentyears, more and more people have started to explore various types of greenburials.
What are Green Burials?
The modern funeral industry is a billion dollar business.However, this has certainly not always been the case. Burial practices as weknow them today first began to take shape during the Civil War. As soldierswere killed in battle, the need for preservation of the bodies was required inorder to be shipped home for burial. Over time, the preservation of the bodybefore burial became common societal practice.
Traditional burial methods can be both expensive and costlyto the environment. Between the use of carcinogenic chemicals andnon-decomposing materials, modern burial raises concern for environmentalminded individuals. Green burials once again put the focus on making the burialprocess as natural as possible. In doing so, the decomposition of the bodyoccurs naturally and once again becomes part of the Earth.
This is the most important aspect of green burialalternatives – it must be natural: no embalming, no vault and only biodegradablematerials can be used.
Earth-Friendly Burial Options
Types of green burials can vary, but most involve the use ofbiodegradable materials. This can range from the use of simple pine boxes,wicker baskets, or even fabric shrouds. Most common of these green burials areshallow dug graves that allow the body to recycle naturally, similar tocomposting.
Some people are exploring ideas that include the use of a biodegradabletype pod or container that can be buried near a tree, or have one planted above,where the body would then nourish the tree. Cremains are sometimes used forthis, added to biodegradable containers that are buried and then planted overwith a tree.
The ashes of those choosing to be cremated could also be placed in urns made from recycled paper or natural fabric. They may even include flower seeds or other plants that grow from the planting area.
Anyone interested in these end-of-life choices can receive more information about earth-friendly burial options by contacting a local funeral professional in their area.
While the benefits to natural burials are numerous, there is still a negative stigma attached to their use. Many believe that green burial alternatives are unable to fully pay tribute to the loved ones lost.
Choosing burial proceedings is truly one of the most personal decisions that can be made. Learning more about the impact of these choices can help us make better informed decisions regarding our imprint on the planet.
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In addition to traditional cemeteries, there are a number of other options for where you can be buried, such as at a “green” or “eco-friendly” cemetery.
Green burial grounds are characterized by the degree to which they conserve natural resources and preserve the environment, among other specific standards set forth by the Green Burial Council.
Natural Burial vs. Green Burial
You may have recently heard about natural burials (which are sometimes incorrectly referred to as green burials) as an alternative to a traditional burial. Many people are opting for this non-traditional form of interment for a number of different reasons - it is more eco-friendly, as one example) - and if you're planning your burial, a natural funeral and interment are worthy of consideration.
The terms natural burial and green burial are often used interchangeably. Although they are similar, they are actually two different types of burial option.
While a natural burial can occur within a traditional cemetery, but a green burial requires a special cemetery.
- "Natural burial" strictly refers to the actually burial process. This means the opening and closing of the grave, the preparation of the remains, and the laying of those remains in the burial plot.
- "Green burial" refers to this process but also to the cemetery in which the burial takes place. A "green cemetery" uses no artificial pesticides and none of the bodies buried in a green cemetery can have been embalmed or buried in a traditional casket.
Burial Planning Guide
For more information to guide your decision, download a free burial planning guide. You'll find details on everything from cemeteries to navigating the entire process.
No matter which type of funeral you decide on, it's important to start thinking about it while you're still of sound body and mind. That way, you or your loved ones won't make a hasty decision in the throes of emotional distress. By making a decision early, you also spare your loved ones the heartache of having to make the decision for you, and you avoid them possibly regretting their decision afterward.
What Happens During a Tree Pod Burial?
A tree pod burial is sure to be unlike any other funeral you’ve ever experienced. While some green burial practices are becoming more widespread, tree pod burials are relatively new and quite niche. Here’s a small preview of what you may expect:
Before the burial
Before a person dies, they will select a tree to be planted upon their death. This choice can be made by a terminally ill people who know they will die soon. Or, it could be done by a healthy person to ensure their wishes are followed at the time of their death.
During the burial
Ashes are placed in the hollow center of the urn and closed up with a conical screw-on top. The urn is then buried in a place of significance and meaning to the deceased and their friends and family.
After the burial
After the urn is buried, a tree will be planted directly above it. Once the tree is planted, the family and friends of the deceased will be able to tend to the tree as a kind of living memorial.
Beneath the earth, the urn will biodegrade and the soil will reclaim and be nourished by the ashes within. The soil will be richer as a direct result of the ashes and will help the tree above it flourish and grow. Instead of a symbol of death, the tree is a tribute to ongoing life.
Eco-friendly green burials become more popular in Arizona, the U.S.
Sunwest Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory in El Mirage began offering green burials in 2009. Since then, it has filled 14 of 24 plots. (Photo by Ben Brown/Cronkite News)
An alternative, environmentally-focused way of interment is picking up popularity across the United States.
Registered “green burial” sites have grown from one in 2006 to more than 300 across 41 states in the U.S. and six provinces in Canada.
In Arizona, two mortuaries and one funeral home – owned by Heritage Mortuary – are approved by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit group that has established standards for eco-friendly “death care.” A funeral home does not need to be registered with the group to provide green burials.
Although experts said green burials are a more popular trend in the Pacific Northwest, it’s gaining more acceptance in the Southwest.
Green burials can be done in a variety of ways. Generally, workers will place the deceased in a biodegradable container, such as a cardboard box, instead of a traditional coffin.
The bodies are not embalmed, and they are not clothed with any material that is not biodegradable, such as rubber shoes or metal buckles. Alternatively, workers can shroud the bodies in different types of greenery to help the breakdown process.
At Sunwest Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory in El Mirage, the green burial sites are marked with a small tag instead of a tombstone.
“It’s a choice that people are making,” said Bill Gabriel, the funeral home director and embalmer at Sunwest. “Unlike a traditional burial or cremation, this probably has the least effect on the environment, and it’ s a natural way of going back to the Earth.”
In a traditional wood coffin, a human body can take up to 50 years to decompose, according to memorialpages.co.
Gabriel said Sunwest Funeral in El Mirage began offering green burials in 2009. Since then, it has filled 14 of 24 plots.
“I don’t think – as an industry – you can ignore that there are people that are interested in this,” Gabriel said. “I would assume that other places would pick up on it and get interested in it. It may take a while. You’re talking about something that started in 2006, and look how it’s grown. It’s something fairly new. It’ll probably be a situation much like cremation has been. Cremation started off really slow, and sometimes the industry itself fights with itself on things.”
Although the Green Burial Council only lists three Arizona sites, more are considering providing the service. Peter Callaghan, general manager at Evergreen Mortuary and Cemetery in Tucson, said they have considered offering green burials for about a year.
“People are becoming more and more aware of all types of things – the need not to waste products and wood and different things like that,” Callaghan said. “I think it could be a growing trend.”
Trend slow, but growing
Gabriel said he visited a friend who owns a cemetery in Washington. The friend told him green burials have “taken off up there much faster than it has here (in Arizona).”
But Gabriel said it is picking up in Arizona because “we have a lot of transplanted people in Arizona.”
One challenge is adjusting for Arizona’s desert landscape, he said.
Green burial caskets costs about the same as traditional coffins and caskets. Nature Casket, a provider approved by Green Burial Council, offers caskets from $600 to $1,000. They also offer urns up to $225.
However, some green burials can cost less because they don’t involve embalming or concrete vaults, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Some people have questioned whether green burials may expose diseases of viruses as the body degrades. Jessica Rigler, chief for the bureau of epidemiology and disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there is no need for unease. She said the risks for infectious disease is “low to zero.”
“Once a body is no longer living, it’s a very short time (until) the bacteria and viruses also can’t survive anymore,” she said. “The risk of infection is really quite low from a dead body.”
Why choose a green burial?
Instead of a tombstone, Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay’s mother, Robin Kissinger, has a tree growing where she was buried in Phoenix.
“We wanted her body to nourish the earth below that tree,” Kissinger-Virizlay said. “She was shrouded really beautifully, put in a biodegradable kind of box because you still need to have something around the body, but it was open faced. They laid a beautiful palm fronds over the body, and then we got to bury her.
“Now, I go visit a living tree rather than a dead tombstone. It means so much.”
Dianna Repp, an anthropology professor at Pima Community College, started studying green burials as it became more popular.
“It also becomes a nexus for the values that people have (such as) their relationship with nature and their relationship with each other and with a higher power if they believe in a deity of some kind,” she said.
Kissinger-Virizlay’s mom found out about green burial through a friend, and when she was diagnosed with cancer, she began to do research on how she wanted to be laid to rest.
“My mom knew what she wanted, and she went for it,” Kissinger-Virizlay said. “It was her decision, and I wanted to honor that.”
Kissinger-Virizlay said she would consider a green burial.
“I don’t want to add to the already polluted environment,” she said. “I don’t want to be preserved in chemicals that I wouldn’t want touching me when I was alive.”
Gabriel attributes green burials’ growth in popularity to the fact that people like Kissinger-Virizlay are more aware of their environmental impact. He said that offering green burial in Arizona has been well received by people who may not know much about it. When they find out they can have a green burial done in Arizona, they are pleasantly surprised.
“They think it’s great,” Gabriel said. “The fact that they can do something like this here where they didn’t think it was available – they like it a lot under the circumstances considering what they’re going through.”
Repp said green burials, though it may be a growing trend, is a sort of throwback-method of interment.
“When we look at this idea of green burial, I think the first thing to do is step back and realize that for a long time in human history, that’s what burials really were,” Repp said. “Bodies were placed into the ground. Sometimes, there were coffins or caskets or things like that, but generally, the body goes into the ground.”
Repp said a big reason why people choose a green burial is the thought that people can give back to the Earth and nourish its soil after dying.
“Most people talk about (how) we do the funerals for the living,” she said. “I think that when we honor the wishes of the dead, that also helps us in our grieving process and in our honoring and memorializing of people. Those values continue to be brought forward that people had.”
Gabriel said they plan to add more plots for green burial to accommodate for people like Kissinger-Vizirlay.
“In my opinion, I don’t need to have a marker for myself after I’m gone,” she said. “If I did my job in life, then people will remember me, and I don’t need any other thing to do it for me. That tree will live much longer. Tombstones can be broken. The tree could get cut down, but ultimately, it’s contributing to a living cycle rather than getting caught up in the idea of something ending. I like it.”