Until recently, there have been only two standard options regarding your remains after your passing: cremation or burial. Those who choose to participate in the donation to science programs are cremated and returned to their families, who may then bury the ashes as they deem fit.
However, there is now a third option: natural burials. With the resurgence in natural living and environmental stewardship, natural burials have become not only more common, but accepted and attractive choices to many. Let’s explore this topic a little further.
What Is It?
A natural burial is one which doesn’t prevent decomposition, but allows the body to recycle naturally. Often a biodegradable coffin, casket, or other such container is used for the internment. Natural or “green” burials are legal in all fifty states, although some states may require that deceased persons who will be transported across state lines be embalmed first. Although legal, there may be additional rules and regulations for where people who choose a natural burial can be buried.
As of 2015, Maryland required that all bodies be buried in an established cemetery or a family burial plot. Family plots must either be in a cemetery or must be allowed by local ordinances; no one is allowed to be buried at home or on a property which isn’t zoned for such use. This is because there are further considerations with burial, including water pollution, land usage, etc. Maryland doesn’t require embalming or grave liners, so a natural burial is legal as long as it’s performed in an appropriate site.
Conventional Burial v. Natural Burial
According to the Green Burial Council, a green or natural burial has multiple benefits to both people and the environment: reduces carbon emissions, conserves natural resources, preserves habitat, and protects worker health. The Council “establishes standards for funeral homes and cemeteries willing to offer eco-friendly death-care, as well as for manufacture of green burial products and supplies.”
Each year, the US buries more than 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, according to the Council, in addition to the steel and wood also used for coffins. A lot of natural resources, many of which are not renewable or sustainable, are consumed every year for a short period of time and then buried. Natural burials seek to provide an alternative.
Cremation has been seen as the conventional burial alternative for about the last fifty years, but even this method presents some problems for the environmentally-conscious. Cremation emits a large amount of CO2 and sulphur dioxide. According to the Green Burial Association of Maryland, crematory ovens use enough fossil fuels to equal a 4,800 mile car trip. In addition, crematory workers are exposed to ovens and fumes, and often end up with lung issues. While cremation helps in some way, it harms in others.
In Maryland, there’s the Rapp Funeral and Cremation Services establishment in Silver Spring, which is part of the Green Burial Council and offers natural burial services. There’s also the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on E Street.
Alternatives to being buried in the ground, but still considered a natural burial, are burial at sea, coral reefs, and tree burial.
Burial at sea is typically utilized only for sailors and mariners and is typically handled by the navy. However, there are some organizations which handle sea burials for those who aren’t sailors, and in an environmentally-conscious manner similar to how the natural ground burials are performed: with a biodegradable shroud and no formaldehyde.
Coral reef burial is trickier, as most coral reefs today are endangered. There are a handful of organizations, such as The Reef Ball Foundation, which specialize in placing cremated remains inside concrete coral reef balls, which are then placed in the reef as part of the ecosystem. The concrete balls help to repair the reefs and provide new habitats for fish.
Capsula Mundi is yet another alternative. This biodegradable plastic shell holds ashes or remains and slowly breaks down once buried. A sapling is placed directly above the buried capsule, and the remains provide nutrients to the new tree.