A Guide to Green Burials

You recycle, drive a hybrid, eat vegetarian, and take your own bag to the grocery store—but have you thought about how your death will affect the planet?

By Reader's Digest Editors
A Guide to Green BurialsPhoto courtesy of EternalReefs.com

You recycle, drive a hybrid, eat vegetarian, and take your own bag to the grocery store—but have you thought about how your death will affect the planet? In all seriousness, if you want to continue to make a positive impact on the environment after you’re gone, consider how your remains will be handled.

Plus: 13 Things the Funeral Director Won’t Tell You

Traditional burial and cremation methods take a serious toll on the environment. Cemeteries use up valuable water on their lush lawns, as well as liberally spray pesticides, and use pollution-producing lawn mowers to keep things looking neat and tidy.

Embalming fluids contain toxins that can leak into the ground. Also, exposure to the formaldehyde in embalming fluids raises a mortician’s risk of dying from myeloid leukemia, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Americans also bury at least 1 million tons of steel caskets each year, which do not degrade. Then there’s the fact that people buried in coffins take up large amounts of land for all eternity.

Cremation isn’t much better. It releases pollutants such as nitrous oxide and mercury from dental fillings into the air. Crematories are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fortunately, there are now alternatives. More and more companies are offering green burials or other environmentally sound ways to leave life. For starters, you can now opt to forgo embalming, or request nontoxic embalming fluid. You can also make sure you are buried in a biodegradable container made from natural materials, such as bamboo, wicker, willow, or just a simple shroud.

You might also want to be buried without a marker out in nature, where dust can truly return to dust.

Another option is to have yourself turned into a “reef ball” that provides habitat for fish. To make a reef ball, Eternal Reefs mixes cremated remains with environmentally-friendly concrete and shapes them into a basketball-size “pearl.” The pearl is then attached to a beehive-shaped concrete reef. Entire families and even pets can become a reef together. Eternal Reefs has already installed over 1,500 Memorial Reefs in 20 permitted locations off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia, substantially increasing the ocean’s diminishing reef systems.

Another upside is that green burials tend to be cheaper, because you aren’t paying for embalming or expensive caskets.

“Baby boomers who define themselves as environmentalists don’t want to go out with a final act of pollution,” says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “A lot of people find solace in returning to the earth naturally.”

Plus: The Reader’s Digest Version of Going Green

Sources: The Washington Post, Greenburialcouncil.org, Greenburials.org, Newsweek, and National Geographic

  • Your Comments

    • TiarraBF

      Good Read!!!

    • http://www.thinkprogress.org Who Knew

      I love this article, and I’m glad that people are considering more environmentally-friendly, and less lavish ways to ‘leave this earth’ – so to speak.

      Truth be told, funerals are for the living – not the dead.  Why spend all that money and be buried somewhere permanently where in a decade or so, no one living – even in your own family – will come visit your grave anyway.  Even if they did – you wouldn’t know – cause you’re dead!

    • Tnkrbll1313

      The lead-in to this story mentioned having your ashes pressed into a “diamond”…this article has no mention of that. That was what interested me. I also once heard about a company in Marin (Calif) that freezes a body them puts them into some sort of chipper, rending the body into usable mulch of some sort.  That sounds cool.  Just don’t put me in a box and bury me in the ground.  Ugh.

    • Whitacers

       The reef ball sounds like a great idea if mine can be placed with the USS Oriskany (CVA-34)

    • Common Sense

      I’ve always found funerals and the lavish burials, complete with sealed steel caskets, placed into a cement vault in the ground, to be morbid and disgusting. I’d prefer a simple wrap in a shroud, and into the ground, with no pomp and circumstance, no fuss. Cremation has always been my first choice, but after reading this article, I wish someone would just dump me into the ocean to be eaten by sharks or scavengers. The business of death and disposal of empty vessels is way too profitable!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589318420 Rhea Graham

        Death is almost as profitable a cancer, and that’s why there is no cure for either – too much money in em! :)  

    • http://www.charoncms.com/products/esearch Loria Schleiff

      While it might be a morbid thought to some, it would be wise to consider these options. In the end, we will all pass away, and it’s a nice gesture to leave this world in a way that’s not harmful to the environment. You can say that it’s part of considering the impact of our deaths on the world we will be leaving.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589318420 Rhea Graham

        …and it’s not like we are going to get out of here alive!  Funerals and cemeteries are for the living – face it!

    • Jenkinsfh

      The article first says cremation is bad, then it promotes Eternal Reefs as a possible disposition. Eternal Reefs uses cremated remains.
      Actually, many funeral homes across America are embracing Green Burials, with or without embalming. 
      There is another possibility becoming more popular, but most funeral boards have not yet approved it as a method of disposition. Its bio-cremation which does not use fuel or fire. It uses the process of alkaline hydrolysis, essentially turning the body into liquid soap and is disposed in the sewer system.  Bones are left to be pulverized just like in the fire-cremation method. The family receives the “ashes.” 

      • youjusthadtosayit

        so i can be flushed down the toilet and live forever in the “sewer” system.  not something that sounds so great.  this doesn’t seem like the way to make it to heaven !  Uck.

        It uses the process of alkaline hydrolysis, essentially turning the body into liquid soap and is disposed in the sewer system.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/3KEPUP7RCT6VTIQDCPVNHGIHKE The Man from Lamancha

          “you” ceases to be you when YOU die.  What difference does it make how the corporeal remains are disposed?  You’re remains will decay one way or the other, do you want to take up space in a cemetery with your toxic remains after embalming and a traditional burial; or would you rather return to the earth as intended, supporting life along the way?

      • livedove

        Sorry, I just can’t get behind the whole flushing my loved one down the toilet like a dead goldfish….

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589318420 Rhea Graham

        Talk about a “shitty disposition” !!!  

        • Corny

          Yeah, and if you think about how they’re now using septic refuse as fertilizer on farms, you may be re-born as a corn cob!! And the gray water then gets filtered and reused so you’d become a part of everything, so you’re never really gone… hmmm!

    • Rocel Santiago

      not bad

    • Rocel Santiago

      not bad

    • stephljones

      Your article states that, “You can now opt to forgo embalming”. In actuality you have always had this option. There is no law that states a body must be embalmed, and there hasn’t been.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1403533820 Twila Cox

        Actually some states require if you are moving the body out of state.

      • Jflord

         you speak too broadly. this isn’t a matter of federal law — it’s state law. every state has its own standards. there’s no `one size fits all bodies’ on embalming.

      • Tom

        Why not just opt for burial at sea. That is totally green, you are just wrapped in a cotton bag and dumped at sea, what is greener than that. Your body then becomes fish food long before it is decomposed to no toxic chemicals and forgo the embalming for this service too. A local company is being formed by an ex-waterman for just this reason. Some states have laws against it but you can go out beyond the continential line and be buried at sea in international waters.

      • GreenScorpion

        True but many people do no know that. I know I didn’t and still question the protection box.