Green burials minimize negative environmental impacts by using biodegradable materials, avoiding toxic chemicals, and occurring on land maintained using good conservation practices.
Conventional burial practices harm the environment: they involve hazardous chemicals, non-biodegradable materials, and cemeteries that are often ecologically barren due to herbicide and fertilizer use. The term “green burial” refers to burial practices that minimize negative impacts on the environment. Unlike conventional burials, green burials:
Some people extend the eco-friendly principles of green burials to encompass other parts of the death process such as funerals (e.g., a family might seek contributions to an environmental charity in lieu of flowers or print programs on recycled paper).
Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast definition of what constitutes a green burial. However, the Green Burial Council does operate a certification program for burial grounds, funeral homes, and products based on a set of rigorous standards.
Green burials can cost far less than conventional burials because they do not require a vault, expensive casket, or embalming fluids. A simple shroud or pine casket costs hundreds of dollars, not thousands. However, prices vary depending on a number of factors such as burial location and time of year.
Conservation burial is a form of green burial with an additional layer of environmental protection: the burial grounds are protected by conservation easement, which ensures that they are managed in perpetuity in accordance with conservation principles. Conservation burial grounds are still relatively rare in the United States, but there are a handful listed by the Conservation Burial Alliance. Conservation burial cemeteries seeking certification from the Green Burial Council (currently the only independent, third-party certifying entity in the world) must meet standards of performance to qualify.
The original tenets of conservation burial were established by Dr. Billy Campbell, the pioneer of conservation burial in the United States (and founder of the first-ever conservation burial ground in the world, Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina). Members of the Conservation Burial Alliance were instrumental in developing the original standards in 2005, and others in updating them again in 2019, along with land trust and green burial experts.
Opinions are mixed on whether or not cremation counts as a green burial practice. Cremation generates air pollution and requires more fossil fuels than burial in a biodegradable shroud or casket; however, it has a much smaller environmental impact than conventional burial, since it does not require land, burial materials, or toxic chemicals.
The Green Burial Council does not certify cremation-disposition programs but acknowledges that there are ways to offset the carbon footprint of cremation. See the FAQ page on the Council’s website for more information.