When you picture your final resting place, is it surrounded by tombstones and flat green lawns, or by rocky vistas and wildflowers? If you’d prefer the wildflowers, a natural burial ground may be right for you.

Natural Burial

An example of a natural casket.

Natural burial — or what human beings have been referring to simply as “burial” for most of our existence — is a beautiful and eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial.

With natural burial, the body is not embalmed. It is placed in a biodegradable shroud or simple casket made from natural materials such as pine or wicker. The body or casket is placed directly in the ground, where it returns to the soil and provides nutrients for native plants, which in turn nourish wildlife habitats.

In some natural cemeteries, family and friends can participate in digging the grave for their loved one, a process that can be profoundly meaningful.  They may also help to lower the body into the ground using straps or ropes, and help cover it with flowers, grass, leaves, and soil.  Families may also choose to leave a natural marker, such as a tree or small stone.

Natural burial grounds that seek to actively protect and ecologically restore natural areas are called conservation burial grounds.  Once established, they require little maintenance and become protected green space, providing a combination of eco-friendly interment and land conservation.   Loved ones left behind are provided with a beautiful landscape to enjoy, and the personal experience of helping lay a loved one to rest naturally.

“Traditional” Burial

Most people haven’t given much thought to what happens to their bodies when they die. With “traditional” burial, the process is anything but rooted in tradition. First, the body is typically preserved with embalming fluid. This formaldehyde-based solution is highly toxic—not only to the embalmer, but to the ground in which it is buried.

Next, the body is placed in a casket, the majority of which are not biodegradable. Steel and rare woods are often used in their creation; the one-time use of these materials is extremely wasteful.

The casket is then interred — not directly in the ground, but in a sealed concrete or plastic vault. This is done to prevent shifting of lawns underneath lawnmowers and foot traffic, and to keep adjacent gravesites from collapsing when another grave is dug.

It’s far from a natural process.

Each year cemeteries across the US bury (source):

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid
  • 20 million board feet of tropical hardwood 
  • 64,500 tons of steel
  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
  • 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults

Some opt to forego the environmental damage and waste of resources involved in a standard burial, and choose cremation instead, but even that is not without its drawbacks. The process of cremation uses a substantial amount of fossil fuel energy, contributing to greenhouse gases, and also releases mercury and other heavy metals into the atmosphere.

The average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of CO2 each year.

Natural burial eliminates these health and environmental hazards and provides a meaningful and beautiful context to death.