Natural burials, sometimes referred to as green burials, are a more natural and eco-friendly way of being laid to rest. Various changes are made to the normal burial routine to ensure that the burial is as close to nature as possible, and the body is in time returned to the Earth.
The idea of a natural burial is not a new one: for centuries people buried their dead in this way, though the practise became less popular after the American Civil War. Now, there is a revival in natural burial grounds, with many available sites springing up over the last twenty years.
In this article, the environmental benefits of a green burial are outlined, as well as the issues that some people have with the process.
Many people are now choosing a natural burial in a serene piece of countryside or forest, where the grave is more likely to be marked with a tree than a headstone. Image Credits: Department For Natural Resources, Kentucky.
Environmental Benefits of Natural Burials
The main way in which green burials are eco-friendly is via the use of sustainable materials. Biodegradable coffins are often used instead of conventional hardwood coffins or concrete vaults. These will break down, along with the body, and become part of the soil. Biodegradable coffins can be made from a variety of materials, from cardboard to papier maché. More expensive biodegradable coffins, made from sustainable willow, wicker and bamboo, are also available. Alternatively, a burial shroud may be used instead.
Embalming, the process of chemical preserving a body for a short period of time, is often not undertaken during a natural burial as the chemicals can be harmful to the local ecosystem. Embalming will also prevent the body from breaking down, as the chemicals used can inhibit the microbial decomposers that are needed to recycle the body naturally. Alternatively, more eco-friendly embalming chemicals can be used, which do not contain formaldehyde.
Traditional burial sites also become full up relatively quickly, and the land cannot be used for anything else. However, a green burial site is often indistinguishable from a normal field or woods and so in the future these can be passed across to wildlife trusts when they are full, to become parkland or gardens.
Furthermore, natural burials offer an economical advantage over traditional burials, whilst still providing a respectful and poignant service. For example, a biodegradable coffin made from cardboard is often around the £60 mark. Advocates of natural burials say they are content with the idea, because it means the person will always be a part of the Earth and in this sense are never really gone.
Issues With Natural Burials
People are often wary about natural burials and several myths have sprung up which can often put people off. However, most of these issues are unfounded. Listed below are some common issues raised:
- Legality: The service is perfectly legal, providing that standard laws and regulations are adhered to. For example, There is a legal requirement to mark an individual grave in some respect, but this can be done with a granite slab, a tree or even an electronic chip instead of a traditional headstone. A natural burial can be performed on private land or in any cemetery that is willing to accommodate the process.
- Disease: There have been concerns that not embalming the body at the time of burial can lead to infection of local water supplies. This is not the case according to Gordon Maupin, the Executive Director of the Wilderness Center, a US-based, non-profit nature center that specialises in natural burials. Talking to energy digital, Maupin says that it is simple biology that disproves the idea that disease can be transferred from the buried bodies, as soil microbes will break down anything dangerous into its elemental form, rendering it harmless.
- Animal Disturbance: All bodies in a natural burial are buried to a sufficient depth so that no animal could dig down to reach them, hence leaving the body undisturbed.
- Religion: Though the ground in which the person is buried is often not consecrated, individual sites can be blessed. Priests in the UK are warming to the idea of greener cemeteries, as limited church budgets mean that traditional graveyards can fall into disrepair.
The only real issue with a green burial is personal feeling towards the process.
Sites Involved in Natural Burials
Natural burial is now a rapidly growing alternative to conventional burial and there are currently over 200 natural burial sites in the UK alone. The first modern natural burial site in the UK was ‘The Woodland Burial’ at Carlisle cemetery. This site opened in 1993, and each grave is marked by an Oak tree instead of a headstone. The first privately owned natural burial ground in the UK, the Greenhaven Woodland Burial Ground near Rugby, was opened a year later in 1994.
In the United States, the Green Burial Council is the main organisation that deals with natural burials. Through their website, a provider of green burials can be found in any state or Canadian province.
Sources and Further Reading