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Back to the Earth: Non-Traditional Burials

Paper urns, memorial trees and biodegradable caskets are options for those who want their burial to be environmentally friendly

By Rosie Wolf Williams

Scientific research and the indisputable issue of climate change has broken down a few barriers around the classic burial. Boomers want less to do with shining caskets and high-priced funerals, and instead crave a way to be returned to the earth they love.

Some choose to be buried in hand-woven caskets. Others opt for a future life as a tree.

A woven casket with flowers on top of it. Next Avenue, non traditional burial options
A handcrafted casket made from biodegradable materials  |  Credit: Getty

In a 2021 report by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 60.5% of those surveyed were interested in green burial options. Some cited reasons such as cost or a desire to be more environmentally friendly.

Green burials are allowed in all 50 states.

And yes, it's legal. Green burials are allowed in all 50 states. But each state has its own regulations regarding transport, burial on private property, preparation, and other factors.

"The only prohibiting factors are the cemeteries themselves," says Ed Bixby of Destination Destiny Memorials in Steelmantown, New Jersey and Green Burial Council president. "They may require an outer burial container or vault."

Natural Graves

The Green Burial Council has certified ten conservation burial grounds across the country where guidelines forbid heavy machinery use. That means that graves are hand dug, and there are no paved areas. Only native plants are allowed as memorial bouquets, the grave markers must be made of unpolished, natural stone, and any wrappings or coffins must be biodegradable.

"I think green burial is the best form of body disposition; no embalming, biodegradable container, no vault and relatively shallow burial is basically composting yourself, putting all the nutrients in your body right back into the system," says Chuck Lakin of Waterville, Maine. "It has a positive effect on the environment."

Lakin, a retired librarian and woodworker, offers resources about alternative burial on his website, Last Things. He tells of his personal experience with the death of his father, and the disconnection he felt after the funeral director was contacted and the ashes were unceremoniously returned a few days later.

"There are more and more green burial cemeteries and products available than there were ten or twenty years ago."

"When I learned what I could have done, I started talking about home funerals, not trying to convince anyone, but to give those interested the information they would need," Lakin writes on his website. Today, he helps others by sharing alternative end-of-life resources. He also builds wooden coffins; lists Maine-based coffin, urn and shroud makers; and offers free plans for building coffins on Last Things.

Alternative Burials

"There are many factors when it comes to a family's decisions to choose green and natural burial practices for their loved one. More and more families are choosing natural burial practices simply because they are more readily available at this time," says Jimmy Olson, owner and funeral director of Olson Funeral Home & Cremation Service, and spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association.


"There are more and more green burial cemeteries and products available than there were ten or twenty years ago," he says. "Every funeral home has the ability to provide products and services now which they did not have in the past. This means that they have more options to give to families now than they ever did before."

Cremation is touted as being more eco-conscious than a typical burial. However, some say that is still up for debate.

With more interest in environmentally friendly burials, new methods of burials are emerging. Recompose, a licensed green funeral home in Seattle, Washington, specializes in human composting, or "natural organic reduction," which allows the body to return to the earth naturally using a similar process to household compost. The company says this process requires only a fraction of the energy that is needed to cremate or bury a loved one in the traditional way. The resulting compost is returned to the family or used to feed conservation land in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.

Not yet on the market, an Italian company, Capsula Mundi, plans to offer egg-shaped pods that will hold a body in the fetal position, buried, and topped with a mature tree that will use the nutrients from the degrading body to grow. The company currently sells an egg-shaped pod that holds cremains and is buried in the same manner.

The Option of Cremation

Cremation is touted as being more eco-conscious than a typical burial. However, some say that is still up for debate. Although cremation reduces the need for land as well as the effect of embalming fluids used in the body, cremation emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air while using fuels to reach high temperatures. It is difficult to pinpoint the carbon emissions as factors such as size, container and even time of day factor into the data.

Resomation Ltd. was founded in Scotland in 2007 to offer water cremation as a smart ecological choice. The body is placed in a biodegradable shroud or coffin, and then placed in a water chamber. The process uses water and alkali-based solutions to speed up natural decomposition to a few hours. The remaining ash is placed in an urn and returned to the family. Natural water cremation is available in the United States but is not approved in every state. Contact your funeral home director for information.

Eco-Friendly Urns

Eco-friendly cremation urns have become more and more available, made from sustainably sourced, recycled, or recyclable materials.

  • American Willow Caskets, based in central New York, is one of a number of basket companies that turn their skills to making environmentally friendly caskets and urns that are made following the guidelines of the Green Burial Council.
  • Other urns use materials that dissolve after water scattering, such as this sea turtle-shaped paper urn.
  • Sand and gelatin urns are lightweight and biodegradable.
  • Urns made from Himalayan salt dissolve a few hours after they are placed in water, and this company even offers a GEO-code on their company’s memorial map, so loved ones can visit the scattering spot.
  • Birdhouse urns are a way to remember a loved one after their ashes are scattered.
  • If you prefer to have a memorial tree, The Living Urn offers a complete planting system including one of a selection of tree species to plant with the cremains. Another option is to have cremains mixed with soil and planted with a tree in a memorial forest, such as Better Place Forests.
Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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