Are ‘Green Burials’ Legal?

Casket borne by pall-bearers


“Green” or “natural’ burials are increasing in popularity for two reasons: cost and environmental awareness.

The average cost of a traditional funeral ranges from $6,000 to $10,000 – and can be much higher. This cost includes embalming, a metal casket, and cemetery services (including a concrete vault). The traditional U.S. funeral industry is a $15 billion business.

There are also environmental issues with traditional funerals. Embalming fluid often contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen. It is dangerous to funeral directors and toxic to the environment. Metal caskets do not biodegrade over time. Concrete vaults, which keep gravesites from sinking, use up natural resources and are slow to degrade.

Each year, more than 60,000 tons of steel and 4.8 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried.


What Is a Green Burial?

Green burial is a set of body preparation, funeral and burial practices that allow a body to decompose naturally in a site specifically set aside for this type of grave. Body preparation is free of chemicals, caskets are biodegradable (or simple shrouds may be used), and no cement vault separates the deceased from the natural environment.

Green burial is legal in all 50 states, but rules and regulations for dealing with human remains must be followed. Most state laws do not require embalming, although Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey require embalming a body that will be transported across state lines.


Green Cemeteries

There are about 30 green cemeteries across the country. For more information, go to The Green Burial Council. Green burial certification allows consumers to distinguish among the three levels of green burial grounds.

Hybrid burial grounds are traditional cemeteries that reserve space for green burials. Natural burial grounds exclusively conduct green burials and enforce a wide range of environmental restrictions. Conservation burial grounds are basically nature preserves that safeguard native wildlife and plant life.


Can I Bury Grandpa in the Back Yard?

Burial on private land is allowed in most counties in the United States, as long as certain requirements are met. The site must meet “distance from municipality” requirements and have a minimum number of acres. A family burial plot or cemetery must be registered with the county government. A “declaration of use” should be accompanied with a plat map, showing the exact location of the burial place.

Obviously, all of this paperwork takes time. It should be completed well in advance of any anticipated death and burial.


Can We Care for the Body at Home?

Despite what many people believe, only seven states require the involvement of a funeral director in the death process – Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York. If a person dies at home, the body can be prepared at home, the service held at home, and (in the circumstances listed above) the body buried at home. Proper death certificates and other documents must be filed.

Many states that do require a funeral director will allow the director to come to the home to validate the death and prepare the death certificate. If a person dies at the hospital, the body usually can be brought home for preparation and a funeral service prior to burial. You may need a permit to transport.


How Do I Make Sure I Get a Green Burial?

If you want a green burial, be sure to say so in your power of attorney for healthcare. It is not enough to simply put this in your will or trust documents, since these may not be seen until days after death and burial. Make sure that your next of kin and your designated agent know of your wishes.

Making thorough preparations ahead of time is important. An un-embalmed body can been cooled with gel packs or dry ice, but does not “keep” long enough for detailed preparations to be made and carried out after a person’s death.

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