What is a green burial?
A green, or natural, burial allows the body to return to the earth in a manner that doesn't inhibit decomposition and allows the body to recycle naturally. Green burials are an environmentally sustainable alternative to conventional funeral practices as green burials use only non-toxic and biodegradable materials. Green burials are becoming increasingly popular as our desire to live more natural lives and to minimize our impact on the environment increases. In addition to using only environmentally friendly materials, a green burial can also advance ecological goals such as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.
How do green burials differ from conventional burials?
In conventional burials, the preparation of the body and burial site generally do not take into consideration environmental impact. In addition, the biodegradability and sustainability of materials used to make a casket are not considered in a conventional burial and are often constructed from metal or from rare species of wood. Likewise, conventional cemeteries require the purchase of a concrete vault to prevent the ground from sinking in after it is covered and to allow for the ground to stay level and to be manicured. The concrete vault lines the grave and the casket is then inserted into the concrete vault.
Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
827,060 US gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde)
90,00 tons of steel (caskets)
2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
Compiled from statistics by the Casket and Funeral Association of America, Cremation Association of North America, Doric Inc., The Rainforest Action Network, and Mary Woodsen, Pre-Posthumous Society.
In a green burial:
Cement vaults are prohibited
Caskets must be biodegradable or a shroud can be used
Formaldehyde-based embalming is prohibited
Burial is in an area with native trees, shrubs, and flowers, with no man-made additions
Grave markers are those that do not intrude on the landscape
As in all cemeteries, a record is kept of the exact location of each burial (GPS coordinates may be used)
Human Composting or Natural Organic Reduction (NOR)
NOR is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere. NOR involves placing the deceased body in an 8-foot steel box surrounded by biodegradable materials like wood chips. The box is aerated to allow microbes and bacteria to grow. The remains are then decomposed into soil in about 30 to 60 days. Thereafter, human-composted soil will be returned to the deceased’s family, or otherwise donated to conservation land.
NOR is less energy-intensive than cremation, which burns fossil fuels and emits carbon monoxide. According to National Geographic, cremations in the US emit about 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Composting is also a more economical alternative to traditional burial services. A 2021 study by the National Funeral Directors Association reported that the average funeral with a viewing and burial cost $7,848. According to US Funerals Online, NOR is cheaper, at between $4,000 and $5,500.
California is the fifth state to legalize human composting; the practice is already legal in Washington, Colorado, Vermont, and Oregon. At the forefront of the NOR, movement is Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a Washington-based funeral home specializing in human composting.
“It’s not easy to think about after-death choices,” Spade said in a statement. “Natural organic reduction is safe, sustainable, and informed by nature. This process would provide Californians an option that offers significant savings in carbon emissions and land usage over conventional burial or cremation.”
Micah Truman, CEO of return home, another NOR funeral home in Washington, agreed with Spade’s assessment.
“With cremation, instead of sitting with our person and saying goodbye, we are very divorced from the process,” he told the Guardian. Demand for NOR is increasing, he added, with families from 12 other states where the practice is not legal traveling for return home’s “gentle, inclusive, and transparent death care.”
When the soil process is completed, Truman explained, “the rules are identical to that of cremated remains.” Some families plant trees or flowers, or scatter the soil in the ocean, while one farmer specifically requested to be replanted on his beloved land.
Still, not everyone is pleased that human composting is becoming more popular. The California Catholic Conference submitted a letter in June opposing AB 351, saying it “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”
Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, noted that the NOR process stems from the methods originally developed for livestock.
“These methods of disposal were used to lessen the possibility of disease being transmitted by the dead carcass,” she said. “Using these same methods for the ‘transformation’ of human remains can create an unfortunate spiritual, emotional and psychological distancing from the deceased.”
Garcia, however, remains undeterred and is interested in opting for NOR when she passes away herself.
“I look forward to continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree,” she said.
After Newsom’s signature approved the practice in California, NOR is also awaiting legalization in New York. Spearheaded by Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), Assembly Bill A382 is pending review by Gov. Kathy Hochul.