5 Common Myths That Families (& Funeral Pros) Have About Green Burials

green burials
I’ve heard just about every myth and misconception about green burial that you can think of. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Doesn’t green burial pollute the groundwater?” or, “Isn’t there some state law against that?” But our families aren’t the only ones who are sometimes in the dark about what it means to have a green burial. Even some of the funeral professionals I speak with don’t fully understand the benefits of this type of service. So I think it’s time we cleared a few things up… But before we address the common questions, what exactly is green burial?

Someone once asked me, “Merilynne, what’s the absolute most green funeral or burial I could have?” My answer was, “Well, it depends… It depends on where you die, when you die, what’s available locally, etc.” If the nearest green cemetery is 50 miles away and all your friends drive there, that uses a lot of fuel, doesn’t it? A cremation might be more environmentally friendly when you weigh all the factors.

But let’s say there is a local green cemetery. What does that mean? The answer is still, “It depends.” Is it a new cemetery that only offers green burial, or is it an established cemetery that has a green burial section? Does it use conventional ground maintenance techniques or does it strive to conserve or restore the land by not mowing, weed whacking, fertilizing, and by using native plants?

Regardless, there are three minimal requirements that are commonly used to describe a green burial:

  1. No concrete or polypropylene grave liner was used;
  2. The burial container or shroud is biodegradable; and
  3. The body was not embalmed with toxic chemicals.

In other words, the body is being allowed to “go back to the earth” with as little interference as possible.

The Basics of Green Burial (That You Probably Don’t Know)

The Green Burial Council certifies three levels of green burial (hybrid, natural and conservation) according to graduated requirements laid out in standards developed to ensure quality and consistency. To learn more about green burial levels, click here. But before you do, let’s learn a little more about green burial basics by reading the answers to five of the most commonly asked questions about green burial…

1. Do animals dig up the body?

There is no report of animals digging up a body after a green burial was performed at any cemetery in the US since the first green cemetery in the US was developed in 1998. Green burials require an 18-24 inch soil and smell barrier between the burial container or shroud and the surface of the ground.This depth of soil is more than sufficient to remove any smell that animals, much less humans, can detect.

2. Will the body contaminate the groundwater?

Contamination of groundwater is the single biggest concern that people give when opposing green burial. But it’s been well documented that the rare instances of contamination from cemeteries have been caused by the materials buried with the body, and not the body itself. In order to establish a cemetery in the first place, the area must be deemed suitable for burial by the local authorities and best practices should be followed. For example, most states provide setback parameters for water, buildings and roads for home burial that may give some guidance for best practices in green cemeteries. This article on “The Science Behind Green Burial” provides excellent information about this topic.

3. Is green burial legal?

There are very few actual laws about burial anywhere in the US. However, there are many regulations and requirements imposed by individual cemeteries. Usually, when someone says green burial is illegal, the real issue is that the cemetery itself does not allow it. It’s of paramount importance to understand the difference between law and common practice or policy.

4. Who wants a green burial?

A recent Harris Poll conducted for the Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC) said that 64 percent of people age 40 and over expressed interest in green burial. I regularly speak to community groups about the subject; when informed, most think it’s a good idea and want to know more about it and where it’s available. I think it’s an attractive idea not only because of the environmental benefits, but because green burials return a sense of intimacy to an otherwise difficult event by giving family members the chance to have an active role in caring for their loved one after death. When families tap into this possibility, whole realms of meaning blossom within them to be able to connect with the death in a wholesome and healing way.

5. Can I be buried on my own property?

Apparently, other than the glib, “Just bury me and plant a tree!” this is a popular concept; you probably already know that the answer is a qualified yes. In my state, one may establish a family cemetery if one lives outside city limits, tests the soil for drainage, obtains a permit from the county health department (officials of which must be educated and encouraged in the process!), consults a lawyer, obtains a deed, and registers with the county registrar. State regulations determine the correct set-backs for water, highways, buildings, and right-of ways. If there are no state regulations, local zoning and health officers will make a determination. Only two states deny families the right to bury on their own property.

Green burial is going to become very popular in the next 10 years, especially as Baby Boomers age and GenX-ers start making burial decisions with or for their parents. Younger generations grew up with recycling and composting and a strong sense of caring for the environment; they readily question conventional practices. Funeral Directors and Cemeterians need to know about green burial as it becomes more popular to be ahead of the curve. My favorite local funeral director says we better get on board; we don’t want to be left behind like those who didn’t embrace cremation 40 years ago.

green burialsAbout The Author

Merilynne Rush, retired midwife and hospice nurse, is a home funeral guide, green burial advocate and advance care planning facilitator. She frequently speaks to community groups, congregations, healthcare providers, and cemeterians in Michigan. She serves on the board of directors of the Green Burial Council International and holds a graduate certificate in Hospice and Palliative Studies.



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  1. Elizabeth Grabow

    Perfectly well said! Thanks

  2. Lawrence C. Barber, Ph.D.

    This is how I’m going under.

  3. K E Malmquist

    Just last year my mother (who helped make the decision while she was able to do so) was buried at Foxfield Preserve — Ohio’s green burial cemetery. I have decided instead of cremation to do the same.