Grave Matters brings helpful green alternatives to modern burial

Grave Matters offers tasteful green alternatives to traditional burials

Two things in life are certain – death and taxes.

Death’s a subject rarely discussed unless one is forced to. Whatever the reason, death and burials are mired with grief, strained coping abilities and a myriad of details to deal with.

With a mind-numbing cost upwards of $10,000. traditional funerals and burials are generally left to funeral homes to manage. But this fairly new impersonal tradition is changing.

Several surveys, including one by AARP, show that roughly a quarter of those surveyed said they were interested in having a green burial.

Green burial, says author Mark Harris, speaks to old-fashioned, American values – thrift, simplicity, a desire to do-it-yourself and a respect for tradition.

Green cenetaries are growing in popularity

Harris’ book, Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (Scribner, 2007), offers an eye-opening look both at current funeral industry practices and an intelligently and sensitively written, tasteful description of the light-on-the-earth burial alternatives.

More than 820,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used in the U.S. each year. Yet there are no federal regulations requiring a body to be embalmed. Few states require it, although some do for the purposes of transporting a body across state lines. Funeral directors must get permission from the family of the deceased to embalm and, says Harris, they utilize over three pounds of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid each time an embalmed body is interred.

Modern burials consume large amounts of resources. Harris cites the example of a 10-acre cemetery grounds encompassing “enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete … a volume of toxic formalin nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and gallons of pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds preternaturally green.”

Heastones are unobtrusive in natural burial "preserves"

A well-known burial alternative is cremation. This uses significantly less resources than standard burial and is less costly but it’s energy intensive and could pose risks of leakage from mercury from silver fillings.

Growing in popularity, the Memorial Reef Ball is a concrete form into which the cremated remains of the deceased are mixed. The hardened igloo-shaped form is then dropped into the ocean onto established reef sites, becoming aquatic nurseries for fish and other marine wildlife.

“The deeper engagement involved in making those reef balls and in tending to the remains,” said Harris, “can be a tremendous help in the bereavement process”

Home funerals and burials have been a long-standing tradition. A majority of states allow families to tend to their loved ones at home, rather than have a funeral director whisk them away. Death becomes a more natural part of the cycle of life. Should you choose this path, there is a great deal of paperwork to deal with – city, state and federal – and some advance planning is important.

Burial at sea is a time-honored tradition. It’s not only for military families. Costs can vary and there are state and federal regulations to follow.

There are a variety of simple, eco-friendly caskets to choose from for green burials

A natural cemetery is a Nature-filled alternative. There’s no embalming or other toxic chemicals, no lead vault liner and no metal casket. A simple hardwood box or cloth shroud (or cardboard or paper alternative) is utilized. Natural cemeteries are acreage set aside as “preserves”, with little actual evidence of burial sites, incorporating walking trails and native flora and fauna – a place like Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina or Forever Fernwood in Mill Valley, California. There’s little indication that people are buried in these natural open environments.

With demanding, green-conscious consumers, funeral directors are beginning to embrace the concept. Some now offer to assist with home burials, to provide refrigeration instead of embalming, even offering a variety of “eco caskets” made of readily biodegradable, earth-friendly materials, like bamboo, wicker, paper mache, even banana leaf.

Harris understands that green burials aren’t for everyone. “I wrote this book to educate people about alternatives,” he said. Grave Matters contains useful resources to help organize and plan for whatever green burial alternative you decide on.

As a side note, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently updated its Green Guides, which are intended to inform both consumers and businesses on how to recognize empty or false claims about green burials and funeral homes that offer them.

Grave Matters is available at Barnes & Noble (retail and online), online through Harris’ website, at Amazon and at independent booksellers in your area at

8 Responses

  1. I read about a company out there that makes banana caskets. While I’m all for going green I can’t shake the creepy feeling such caskets give me.

  2. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon this post. I’ve long been disturbed by the idea of traditional burials…the embalming and being in a casket that prevents quick and natural decomposition. However the alternative of cremation is even more disturbing to me. Glad to see that I am not the only one and that there are alternatives out there. I’m off to see if any of these natural cemeteries are in my area.

  3. Great thinking!!!

  4. I was thinking about the greenest way to get buried, and I didn’t get further than being buried with no casket, because all will go faster. So simple to just make a garden out of your burial. And not necessarily in a cemetery, but in a forest or something. That would be awesomely green! After death you body has no function anymore(except organ-donor). After that It goes into the cycle of compost.

    • Just remember that wherever you wish to be buried and however you want it to be, there are regulations and permits involved in order to have it the way you want.

  5. Just say not to being pumped full of latex and stuffed in a never-ending box. Return to the earth literally.

  6. I think natural burials are the way to go. It just takes preplanning and deciding which works best for you and the environment. Thanks for this.

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