What is a green burial?

With a green burial, care is taken not to harm the earth. In many ways it’s like a conventional burial, only eco-friendly and simpler. What we call green burial today would have been known simply as “burial” for all of human history, up until the 20th century.

The deceased is not embalmed with toxic chemicals. Instead the body is either left in its natural state, or embalmed with new non-toxic formaldehyde-free fluids. (Embalming is not legally required in green or conventional burials.)

Only biodegradable materials are used. Favorites are natural-fiber shrouds, and caskets made of pine, wicker, bamboo or paper. There is no outer burial container--no vault or liner made of concrete. The body is in direct contact with the earth, nestled among roots and stones and soil.

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Typically, the grave is dug four to five feet deep. This depth is optimal, as it allows more aerobic activity, which speeds decomposition. Most green cemeteries use a backhoe to dig the grave these days, but if six strong able-bodied people want to hand dig, and have several hours to spare, it’s possible in some cemeteries for families to participate.

Commonly, a mechanical lowering device is used with a casket burial. However, in some cemeteries a casket or shrouded body may simply rest on two-by-four planks laid across the open grave during the graveside service. When the time comes to commit the dead, family and friends may assist in lowering the casket or shrouded body with canvas straps or ropes. Mourners can drop flowers or rose petals down into the open grave as a final tribute and good-bye.

The grave is then filled, often with a layer of biomass (leaves, grass and flowers) followed by compost and soil. Family and friends can take part with shovels, either as a ceremonial gesture, or helping to fill in the whole grave. (This takes a long time to do, but can be a helpful closing ritual.) If this is not wanted, the cemetery staff fills the grave after the family leaves. As the grave is filled, slowly the soil rises and forms a mound above the ground. The mound allows for natural settling. Over time, it disappears as the earth flattens.

Families often select a natural object for a marker, such as a tree or native fieldstone. It is possible in some places to plant blossoming ground cover and make a small garden on the plot. Some cemeteries allow more conventional markers, while others provide GPS for those visiting the grave in its wild, unmarked natural setting.