A Naturalist’s Point of View on Green Burial

coverBy Zalene C. Corey

While organizing my kayak gear to get ready to shoot the rapids on my favorite river recently, I overheard the following conversation:

“Have you spoken with your mother-in-law about her funeral wishes yet?”

“Oh, no! She would just think we were trying to get rid of her! Besides, the church has a ‘way’ and that’s how it was for her parents. That’s what we will do for her when her time comes.”

I found that snippet of conversation intriguing and unsettling at the same time. As I maneuvered through whitewater that day, I began to question what conversation my loved ones would be having about me someday.

As a naturalist, I also wondered what options were available to me. How could my death plans be consistent with my values during my short stint on the planet? What end-of-life decisions would have to be made, and would the choices mirror my straight-up attitude about self-sufficiency, simplicity, and sustainability? After all, when I’m on the river, I’m just one big rock away from ending my run.

Later that day, after I had landed safely at home, I did a little research and learned that there was no need to embalm my body, filling it with chemicals that would then go into the ground. None of the fifty states requires this. My family could bring or keep my body home and tend to me there, with family and friends gathered around, until it is time for the last launch this body will make.

I was also gratified to learn that there are nearly one hundred cemeteries in the United States and Canada that encourage the burial of bodies without embalming and without concrete or plastic vaults, and more are coming into being every month.

Green burial, also called natural burial, has been around a few years already—basically since humanity walked upright on the earth. The current practice of burying pickled bodies in a box within a box and mowing over it all summer has been around for only a few decades (which, by the way, is the reason for the cement vault: to keep the lawn flat for easy mowing).

There are hybrid cemeteries (mixing vault and vault-less burial in the same cemetery); and burial grounds (often called natural or conservation cemeteries), which welcome us back to the earth in nontoxic ways. In some cases, the fees involved may actually be used to support conservation, recreation, education, sustainable harvesting, and agricultural endeavors aboveground.

When buried in a biodegradable shroud or plain wooden casket, bodies are returned to nature without impediment. Local craftspeople supply disposition vessels made out of native materials rather than the customary imported exotic woods from South America; or the steel, copper, or other metals often used for caskets.

What a simple solution to the environmental nightmare of concrete-riddled land; and to fossil fuel-expending cremation, which puts mercury and other chemicals into the air that falls into our rivers and streams.

What of the questions about tradition, religious ritual, and the expectations of friends and neighbors, should I choose this option? Would my loved ones find solace in an outdoor graveside ceremony without green indoor/outdoor carpeting, now replaced by the forest floor? Would they feel moved to help lower my body into the grave and pick up a shovel to fill it? Would my minister support them in seeking a final resting place for me among towering pines or swaying prairie grass, instead of marble and granite monoliths? I hope so.

For those of us looking for a way to go out with minimal environmental impact, green burial offers a meaningful, eco-friendly legacy that the naturalist in all of us can stand behind.

In gratitude to the conversation that spurred my quest for a better way out, I’ll take a turn on the river again today, knowing that I’ve found my answer.

Zalene Corey has life experience in an intentional community and has worked in non-profits organizations with positions spanning from direct care to executive director. Helping others learn their options for post-death care and human/consumer rights is a passion for her, along with making a positive difference in this life. As president and co-founder of Gentle Passages, Inc., Zalene has worked with individuals of all ages with and without special needs for more than thirty years. She is currently on the board of directors of the National Home Funeral Alliance.


Green Burial Council

National Home Funeral Alliance

Green Burial Cemeteries in the United States & Canada

Funeral Consumers Alliance

Five Wishes