Photo, left: A patchwork quilt used as a burial shroud for a funeral conducted by Benton Mennonite Church, Benton, Ind.
A “natural burial,” usually means a burial that does not involve embalming or a vault and avoids materials that do not decompose, such as caskets that include metal. Being buried without these things may sound like a radical step, but green burials are really nothing new. As late as 1915, only 5 to 10% of Americans were buried in a vault. Both traditional Islamic and traditional Jewish burials are “green.”
Depending on local authorities, there are many options within the green burial category. A body might be buried in a plain wooden box, in a wicker casket, or simply a shroud; it may be buried in a traditional cemetery, on private property or on conservation land with the purpose of helping to preserve that land as a nature sanctuary.
The environmental case for a green burial is strong: a grave vault requires between 1 and 2 tons of reinforced concrete. Traditional caskets often include copper, bronze, steel and/or wood shipped from rainforests. Producing and transporting concrete and steel is carbon-intense. Meanwhile, embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen. This is an occupational hazard for funeral directors.
Cremation is more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial, but is not classified as a green burial because of the fossil fuels required to burn the body. This is estimated to be equivalent to a 500-mile car trip. If the body includes dental fillings, mercury is also emitted during cremation.
The arguments against green burial primarily have to do with the personal needs of families (such as the desire to be buried together in a cemetery that does not permit green burial) or the challenges of coming to a consensus quickly if the death is unexpected. Green burial can also be impractical if the only legal option is at a distance.
As the story of the Byler family indicates, those who clearly communicate their wishes in advance have the best chance of having the kind of burial they wish for. – Jennifer Schrock