Natural Burial: No Longer an Underground Movement


Will your years of good green living end with a natural, good green death?

It’s a sensitive topic – so sensitive, many of us can’t embrace it. I cringed some years back when my book group chose to read Mary Roach’s Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. The last thing I wanted to do was cuddle up with a read about how to dispose of our bodies: donating organs to eager medical school students, cremation, wrapping remains in biodegradable burial shrouds before returning them to the earth. Still, I managed to trudge through it.


Stiff, published at the height of HBO’s Six Feet Under craze, introduced me to the notion of natural burials and got me thinking about such choices. You should consider them as well.

According to the Centre for Natural Burial in Canada, the modern concept for this alternative approach first began in the UK in 1993 and has since spread globally. A relatively new idea, it focuses on methods that conserve, sustain and protect the earth from which we came and shall return. In other words, your concern for the planet (driving a hybrid, sparing landfills of bad plastics, using reusable shopping bags) doesn’t have to die when your time has come.

The body is prepared for burial in a simple shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket made of locally harvested wood, wicker or recycled paper. No embalming chemicals are used to prepare the body, natural markers like shrubs and trees replace headstones, and burial grounds are often protected preserves in which the natural burial protects and restores nature. There’s no need for irrigation, herbicides or pesticides to sustain the habitat.

The benefits to the planet are obvious, but is it right for your family? “It’s a big leap for some and a thankful change for others,” observes Kathy Curry of the Fernwood Funeral Home in upscale and earthy Mill Valley, California. Fernwood’s natural burials are located on a diverse, 32-acre site adjacent to the Golden Gate National Recreation areas. “It really appeals to environmentalists and people looking to do something more simple, people who don’t like the excess of a big fancy casket and funeral.”

Indeed, the metal caskets and other excesses of conventional burials are taking a huge ecological toll on our planet, according to Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, considered the green standard for eco-friendly burial methods in the United States. “We are burying some 800,000 gallons of fluids known to contain carcinogens, along with enough metal each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge and enough concrete to fill a two-lane highway,” he told me. “The lid is being lifted on what we are spending and wasting, and that is what we are trying to get away from.”

Sehee sees the concept moving into the mainstream quickly with supply having trouble keeping up with demand, including a surge in green cremation practices, up from 3% in the 1960’s to as high as 70% in parts of California and almost 50% nationally. “Most people don’t want to impede the process of regeneration by embalming and spending $5,000 on a box, which is what we have been doing over the last 100 years in the industry,” he says.

The recession could also increase the trend. At Fernwood, you might spend $7,500 on a natural burial while an ornate burial can cost well over $20,000. Curry points out that in the U.S., some plots alone sell for as much as $60,000.

Meantime, those opting for green should be careful, suggests Sehee, who warns some mortuaries falsely advertise chemical-free and healthy grasses, but are guilty of green washing. One reason his council was established was to keep the once underground movement of alternative burials well above board.

Image: batega

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.