Yes. A growing number of people are opting for greener alternatives to traditional burials, cremation, and other end-of-life practices. Unlike conventional approaches, earth-friendly choices aim to minimize the environmental impact — and the environmental impact of traditional practices is substantial. For example, a conventional burial typically involves heavy, intentionally non-biodegradable coffins or vaults, embalming fluid (which results in large quantities of wastewater), and the use of fossil fuels and pesticides for cemetery upkeep and landscaping. Conventional cremation isn’t much better: It requires a significant amount of energy to reach the high temperatures necessary for the process. This energy is often derived from fossil fuels, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
I’ve become increasingly interested in greener alternatives to these practices and was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are several earth-friendly options. They are often less expensive than traditional methods; for more information or to check what’s legal in your state, visit the Green Burial Council or The Natural Funeral. Here are three worth considering.
Green burial. In this approach, the deceased is placed in a biodegradable casket or a simple shroud directly in the earth. This allows for natural decomposition, facilitating the return of organic matter to the soil. No harmful chemicals are used in the process, minimizing soil and groundwater contamination. Many green burial sites are situated in natural settings, such as meadows, forests, or conservation areas. Choosing this option helps preserve these green spaces and creates sanctuaries for wildlife and native plant species. Green burials also reduce the carbon footprint associated with traditional funerals. They minimize the energy-intensive processes of embalming, manufacturing caskets, and maintaining large cemeteries, making them a more sustainable choice.
Liquefaction (water cremation). Water cremation uses water and alkaline compounds, like potassium hydroxide, to accelerate decomposition. The remains are reduced to bones in a water cremation vessel with a gentle rocking motion over a few hours. Afterward, the pH is adjusted, pathogens are neutralized, implants are recycled, and the resulting liquid becomes a sterile and nutrient-rich biofertilizer. Water cremation consumes less than one-tenth of the energy used in traditional cremation. In addition, it does not emit harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, making it a cleaner option for the environment.
Body composting. Also known as natural organic reduction, body composting involves placing the deceased in a specially designed vessel with organic materials, where microbial activity transforms the body into nutrient-rich soil. This nutrient-rich soil can then be used to enrich gardens or forests, contributing to ecological sustainability. Compared to conventional cremation, body composting also consumes less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases.
Green burial, water cremation, and body composting each offer distinct ways to honor our loved ones while reducing the environmental impact of end-of-life practices. Your decision should align with personal values, cultural or religious beliefs, and environmental considerations. By exploring these eco-friendly options, we can contribute to a more sustainable and ecologically responsible approach to the inevitable end of life.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Green Burial Council, “Natural burial FAQ.” https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/green_burial_defined.html