Some People Think Green Burial Is

MYTH FIVE     Akin to doing nothing to honour our dead…

In fact, green burial is part of a set of deliberate choices founded on five core principles.  Green burial is chosen based on the desire to ensure that an individual’s last act—their choice of final disposition—reflects their values and beliefs. 

The five core principles of green burial are:       

1.     No Embalming: The human body is 100% biodegradable. When buried without embalming, the body will decompose naturally, fulfilling the timeless concept of “earth to earth.” 

Embalming involves the use of chemical and mechanical means to preserve the body and to restore the appearance that it is still alive. Once a common practice (and promoted as “necessary” for public health and safety), embalming is now seen as unnecessary and invasive. Embalming exposes people and the environment to toxic chemicals, with unknown effects on the air, soil, water and other organisms.

2.     Direct Earth Burial: Burial of un-embalmed human remains in a fully biodegradable casket or shroud is the best way to allow the body to undergo the natural process of decomposition. This process slowly releases the constituent parts of a body back into the earth where they can again contribute to supporting and creating new life.  

Expensive, exotic hardwood caskets, protective metal caskets, and sealed, in-ground burial vaults are now being understood by consumers as irrelevant or even contrary to meaningful end-of-life remembrance. The resources and energy consumed in the production, transportation and interment of these products is no longer justifiable in a world where over 50 million people die annually. Consumers are starting to realize that these types of products are too costly to the planet, with too little value to the deceased or to those left behind.    

3.     Communal Memorialization: Everyone wants to be remembered, and that is no less true for those who choose green burial.  That remembrance can be achieved on a well-designed, communal memorial, where names, dates and short epitaphs can be displayed. Communal memorials should be designed to complement rather than distract from the natural setting where green burials will take place.

Ultimately, most green burial families come to view the entire green burial area as a natural, living memorial to all those buried there.  To some, the installation of thousands of individual, often outsized, granite and bronze memorials is viewed as an unnecessary form of remembrance, when a simple memorial in a natural setting can be far more powerful.

4.     Optimizing Land Use: When properly designed, green burial sites can accommodate more burials than the same area dedicated for traditional burial practices.  Burials can be closer together because rights-of-way for memorials, roads and irrigation lines are not required. Roads needed to access graves at one end of a site can be reclaimed for additional burials, leaving only walking paths into the green burial grounds. 

The reuse of graves, common throughout most of the world, is a long term goal of the green burial movement. Unfortunately, cemetery legislation and regulation throughout North America (and a handful of other countries) prohibits the reuse of graves. This is likely to change over time as consumers apply pressure on the bereavement sector—and their governments—for greater environmental sustainability.   

5.     Ecological Restoration and Conservation: Every green burial is made in recognition of the individual’s environmental awareness and desire to reduce one’s personal impact on our environment. Ideally, green burial includes restoring gravesites with plants native to the area. Trees, shrubs and groundcovers chosen for planting at green burial sites should require little irrigation or other maintenance, and be selected to enhance the health and diversity of the local ecology.

The collective adoption of green burial by more and more people in well thought-out and purposely designed spaces helps to restore land to a more natural state. Such areas preserve, enhance and enrich the local community, socially as well as environmentally. Through the inherent protections granted to cemeteries, green burial is a direct act of conservation, enhancing and protecting a community’s natural spaces in perpetuity.

Green burial area with communal headstone                                                                 Vancouver Island, BC Photo: LEES+Associates

Green burial area with communal headstone                                                                 Vancouver Island, BC

Photo: LEES+Associates