Green Burials: How to Be Green in the Afterlife

Rest in (nontoxic) peace
Learn about eco-friendly, meaningful, less-expensive and natural alternatives to a traditional graveyard burial.

Vast expanses of manicured lawns kept alive with wasteful water practices and chemical fertilizers; environmentally harmful and unnatural embalming fluids used to preserve what need not be preserved; overpriced, over-resourced, air-tight coffins made from rare woods covered in toxic lacquers ...

Death these days is bad news for the environment. Although you can’t stop the steady march of time, you can ensure that your passing does not take such a toll on the earth by informing your loved ones to provide you with a green burial.

What is a green burial?

A “green” burial will typically ban the use of embalming fluids (or at least require alternatives), vaults, conventional markers and metal caskets. Green burial sites are often located in meadows and wooded areas that do not require constant maintenance or the clear-cutting of trees. A “tree burial” is one type of green burial in which the body is laid to rest under a newly planted tree.

A green burial has many advantages over traditional Western burials, and not just because they’re more environmentally friendly. Green burials are typically less expensive (sometimes less than half the cost of traditional burials), and can be more meaningful and less depressing for family members. Regardless of what you believe about an eternal soul, there is a visceral comfort in knowing that your body will find its way back into the cycle of life on earth, and that your death will not be one more nail in the coffin (pun intended) for the Earth that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will continue to inhabit.

Traditional funerals = Bad for the environment

It is estimated that the more than 22,500 cemeteries across the Unites States bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid every year. Embalming fluids can include chemicals and additives like formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, phenol, methanol, antibiotics, dyes, anti-edemic chemicals and disinfectant chemicals.

These substances eventually find their way into the soil where they can contaminate the local water supplies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers formaldehyde a Class 1 Carcinogen. Does it make sense to risk the health of the living to preserve — for just a little while — the bodies of the deceased?

Ashes to ashes; Dust to dust

Instead of row upon row of grayish-white tombstones, imagine being buried in a meadow of wildflowers or a peaceful forest setting. Imagine the comfort your loved ones will feel knowing that they can sit down and remember you while leaning against a tree that was planted above you, and which your everlasting energy feeds. In a sense, the tree is you — living on — as it was your body that provided the nutrients it needed to grow tall and strong.

It might be environmental legislation that eventually persuades the Western world to stop using embalming fluids and clear-cutting thousands of acres for traditional graveyards. But it is the “meaning” behind it all that will open our hearts and our minds to the idea of green burials.

Although usually paraphrased as “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust,” the following passage from Genesis 3:19 is oft-repeated for good reasons. It is peaceful. It is beautiful. It is natural:

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.


A note from the author:

To my family: Let this article stand as my living request for a green “tree burial” in the event of my death.

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Relevant Resources:

Green Burial Council
An independent, nonprofit organization founded to encourage ethical and sustainable practices in the deathcare industry.

Green Burials
Provides educational materials on green burials and other eco-friendly options.

The Centre for Natural Burial
Resources and information supporting green burial in North America and the United Kingdom.

Natural Burial Company
This company promotes the ecological and sustainable production of natural burial goods to support environmentally sound funeral and cemetery landscape practices in the 21st Century.

If I Should Die family bereavement advice
Offers advice on organizing a green / woodland / alternative / DIY funeral.

Society for Ecological Restoration
An international organization for those interested in biodiversity, ecological processes and structures, regional and historical context, and sustainable cultural practices in restoration.

Not quite ready to think about your post-life plans? We’ve also got plenty of ways for you to live green!

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destries's picture
User offline. Last seen 9 years 23 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 03/14/2007

For those interested, I created a video about a green cemetery near me, Greensprings Natural Cemetery. You can view this video here:

John Schaeffer
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User offline. Last seen 9 years 23 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/05/2007

Great Article, Everett. Soon a full story on Green Burial will be out in the 30th anniversary edition of the Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook. Thx, John Schaeffer

Otrib's picture
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Joined: 05/21/2007

Great to see that green burials are being discussed. I see virtue not only in the fact that green burials are eco-friendly, but they also cost less than "traditional" burials. Families who are grieving can take comfort knowing that doing the right thing can also keep one from incurring substantial debt (avg national funeral costs are near $10k). I have an article on my site about green burials. Submitted for your consideration:

Living Sacred
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Joined: 02/09/2011

Talking about death makes people very nervous but we must plan properly! I am working on a project at college called, "How To Not Pollute The Earth if it's the Last Thing You Do." Thank you for all of this information. I'll be sure to give appropriate references.

LotusChick's picture
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Joined: 03/31/2011

I think this is fantastic! I really don't like either of the two options we are normally given, embalming and expensive casket or cremation. I love the idea of being peacefully buried under a newly planted tree. My question is about the coffin - is there none? Or is there a different kind of coffin? I just can't picture my family being to thrilled about carrying my body out to the burial site. :-) Of course, I wouldn't want them to have to build a coffin for me either just to compound their grief. What's the answer to that? Thanks!

delyco's picture
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Joined: 03/31/2011

I didn't have a name for how I'd like to be laid to rest, but now I know it's a green burial! I am so glad that you wrote this article; it's very courageous and inspirational. I hope your article helps thousands of people choose this option for themselves and loved ones!

TONI425's picture
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Joined: 04/18/2008

What's the stance on cremation? I always wanted my ashes added to a compost pile.

All_Natural_Me's picture
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Joined: 04/06/2011

How about a beautiful woolen casket LotusChick?

I want a white one:

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