Green Burial Guide: Cost, Pros, & Cons to a Natural Burial

Kim Wilhelm CEO of Final Expense Direct Life Insurance
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Written by Kim Wilhelm

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Last Updated 03 Dec 2022

While current generations are accustomed to a full funeral with burial and viewing, it can be a costly affair. The median cost for a basic funeral with burial and viewing is over $8,800, while a cremation with viewing has a median cost of $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

The median cost doesn’t include personalized items like flowers, cemetery and plot costs, grave markers, and cremation urns. Add on those features to make your funeral and burial uniquely yours, and you’re easily looking at well over $10,000 for your final send off to meet the Good Lord.

You also have to factor in inflation. With inflation rapidly increasing, the cost of burial and funeral will continue to increase as well. The many casualties of COVID-19 is another factor increasing total funeral costs, which can make your desires too costly and out of reach.

A cheaper and more eco-friendly solution is a green burial, or natural burial. While it may not have all the bells and whistles of what we know as a traditional funeral and burial, it’s a great final way to lower your carbon footprint and go back to the earth from once you came.

What is a Green Burial?

A green burial is an eco-friendly burial that doesn’t use toxic chemicals for preservation, like embalming fluid. Instead, green, or natural, burials use biodegradable or renewable materials. Green burial caskets, such as biodegradable shrouds or urns, replace caskets and urns that will never break down. Biodegradable materials include:

  • Cork

  • Jute

  • Bamboo

  • Wicker

  • Unfinished wood

  • Cardboard

  • Hemp 

Before the 1930s, home funerals were common in America. The next of kin or legal agent of the decedent maintained custody and control of the deceased body from death to disposition, whether a burial or cremation. A home funeral was also called a DIY funeral or a home vigil.

Rather than use toxic preservation chemicals like formaldehyde, the decedent’s body was bathed and dressed with Techni-ice, dry ice, refrigeration, or some other cooling method to slow down decomposition. Home funerals usually happen within 1-3 days after death, as these more environmentally friendly options wouldn’t slow decomposition for long.

With climate change an ever present threat to current and future generations, a natural burial offers a way to replenish eco-systems and conserve natural resources.

And a recent study by the NFDA showed over half of respondents would choose a green burial to save on costs or reduce their carbon footprint.

Where Can I Have a Natural Burial?

There are several options for where a green burial can take place. There are natural burial grounds that have dedicated spaces for green burials. The embalming and burial process only uses biodegradable materials.

There are also conservation cemeteries, which have land that is only used for conservation. Development is not allowed on these protected lands, which are dedicated to preserving, protecting, and restoring natural lands.

You also have a hybrid cemetery solution, which has some space allotted for green burials, but also has space dedicated to traditional burial methods. 

Green burials are legal in all 50 states. However, you must meet the legal burial requirements set out by the state if you want to have a home or natural burial, including:

  • Burial depth requirements

  • If a home burial is allowed

  • How far the burial plot must be from a body of water or buildings

  • Body care requirements (embalming, refrigeration, etc.)

If you prefer cremation over burial, you can have a carbon-neutral cremation, which offsets the carbon emissions from the cremation process. It’s estimated that the typical cremation releases about the same carbon emissions as two tankfuls of fuel in your car.

Funeral homes and cremation centers will typically work with renewable energy partners by supporting eco-projects that will offset their carbon footprint. If you prefer cremation to a natural burial, be sure to ask your funeral home if they participate.

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Pros and Cons of Green Burial

If you’re considering the simplicity and sustainability of a green burial, there are pros and cons to consider before you proceed. 

Pros of Green Natural Burial

Uses Fewer Resources

Annually, cemeteries in the U.S. bury more than:

  • 20 million feet of wood

  • 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete

  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid

  • 64,500 tons of steel

A green burial or cremation uses none of these resources.

Better for Groundskeepers (and Ground) Health

The runoff of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used to maintain cemeteries can cause neurological and respiratory illnesses in groundskeepers, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Runoff or ground saturation can also harm drinking water and habitat ecosystems, creating noxious odors, water deoxygenation, and other imbalances that can kill off aquatic animals.

Grave digging and maintenance equipment also pose a threat to groundskeepers and the surrounding communities with fossil fuel emission.

Green burials typically include hand-dug graves with no harmful chemicals that affect human and animal health.

Protects the Environment and Industry Professionals

Conventional cemeteries are quickly running out of space, especially in California and New York. Green cemeteries are left natural to allow animals and plants to thrive, reducing the need for more protected lands to house bodies.

With no need for formaldehyde, a key ingredient in embalming fluid and known carcinogen, green burials are better for the health of funeral industry workers. Studies have shown a direct link to higher instances of cancers from constant contact with these harmful chemicals.

Though you may think cremation is more eco-friendly, it’s not. Cremation releases pollutants in the air, like heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

More Cost Effective

Although cremations are cheaper than a burial, they can still be expensive. Expect to pay upwards of $9,000 for a basic burial, and close to $7,000 for a cremation with a service.

Though green burial costs vary by location and type of natural burial site, the cost is much cheaper. Expect to pay between $1,000 to $4,000 for a green burial at a natural burial cemetery. This cost includes opening and closing grave fees. If you choose to do a home burial or other method, the cost can be even cheaper.

Your beneficiary can pay for part or all of the cost of a green burial if you own burial insurance. If you’re interested in how much burial insurance will cost, contact Final Expense Direct to get a quote today.

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Cons of Green Natural Burial

No Grave Marker

Many people prefer a cemetery plot as their final resting place so their loved ones can continue to visit them after the Good Lord calls them home. A green burial offers no option for a grave marker, so you’ll have to know the exact location where your loved one is buried. Some natural cemeteries offer a chip or other tracking device that can be buried with your loved one so you know where they are. You also might not be able to visit whenever you want, depending on where they’re buried.

Burial is Much Faster

Without embalming the body, green burials have to happen much faster than a conventional burial. If you’re not prepared at death, it could mean throwing together a quick burial that not everyone who wants to can attend. The lack of embalming could also limit your ability to transport the body, especially if you’re crossing state lines to the final resting place.

Not Everyone May Agree

Even if you leave specific instructions on your wishes for a green burial, not everyone will agree with you. Many people are used to a traditional burial with gravesite marking or urn to visit their loved ones as they wish. If someone isn’t environmentally conscious or prefers the conventional method, you could be met with some opposition to a green or natural burial.

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FAQ Green Burial Guide

What are the Cons of Green Burials?

There are a few cons of green burials. There typically isn’t a grave marker, burial has to happen much faster when the body isn’t embalmed, and not everyone agrees with this type of burial process. 

What is the Difference Between a Green Burial and a Natural Burial?

Both green burial and natural burial can be used interchangeably. However, the main difference between a green burial and a natural burial is that a green burial must happen in a green cemetery while a natural burial can occur in a traditional cemetery with a natural plot section.

What is the Cheapest Way to Bury a Loved One?

A cremation is a cheaper way to bury a loved one compared to a burial, but choosing a green or natural burial may be the cheapest way to bury a loved one.

What is the Best Burial for the Environment?

A green, or natural, burial is the best burial for the environment. It forgoes harmful chemicals like embalming fluid and “forever” coffins made of metal and concrete for environmentally friendly and biodegradable coffins or shrouds.

Are Green Burials Expensive?

No, green burials are not expensive. In fact, green burials are usually the cheapest option available when compared to a traditional burial or direct cremation.

Can a Body be Buried Without a Casket?

Yes, a body can be buried without a casket. You can inter a body directly into the earth, or use a vault or shroud without a casket. If you choose to use a hybrid or conventional cemetery, they may have rules that require a casket for burial.

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