Green Burials

What are green burials?

Green burials, or natural burials, are methods of bodily disposal which have a lower environmental impact than traditional burial or cremation. Green burials can take place in a forest, meadow, or other natural location. Efforts are made to avoid disturbing the surrounding environment, and no permanent markers are used to mark the site. The deceased is not embalmed, and buried in either a biodegradable casket or wrapped in a cloth shroud. Other “green” alternatives include aquamation (which uses water and other chemicals – rather than fire – to break down the body) and terramation (which naturally transforms the deceased’s body into soil).

Studying green burials can help us learn more about individuals’ lifestances. People opt for green burials for numerous reasons. Rather than the hazardous chemicals used for embalming or the disruption to green space traditional burial causes, these processes aim to minimize ecological impact. Another motivation is a desire to connect with nature. The dead “returning” to nature is a theme that appears frequently. This may refer to an image of the afterlife, in which people see themselves becoming part of nature, or more clinically, may refer to how decomposing matter literally supports new vegetation. Green burials also reflect a trend of reactions against the death industry. Through more personalized funerals and these alternative means of disposal, people break with the traditional script and reinterpret how we should commemorate death.

How does the project work?

A preliminary literature review highlighted the history of death rituals, and in particular, the industrialization and professionalization of the death industry. Following this, the team conducted a media analysis of stories about green burial published in several countries, including Canada, the UK, Argentina, and Australia. The team also identified and reviewed organizations in several countries that offer “green” services, exploring what options are legal and available, and how these services are promoted.

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What are we finding so far?

Media coverage of natural burials indicates growing interest in this topic, as well as the reasons why these alternatives appeal to people. Most common is a focus on purely ecological reasons. Decreasing space for (or in) cemeteries, reducing emissions from cremation, or eliminating the hazardous chemicals used in embalming are popular reasons why people are rejecting traditional burial. Natural burials represent more “green” alternatives which tax the environment less. Similar sentiments also suggest that green burials hearken back to our past, suggesting that these approaches are “as old as humankind” and have “been practiced since the dawn of civilization.”

Other motivations emphasize the legacy a person wants to leave behind. Alternative practices allow for greater personalization, and green burials in general often reflect the environmentalist values of the deceased. A person who loved nature or gardening is placed in closer contact with the earth. Organizations also highlight green burials as dynamic. A Quebec cemetery, for instance, describes itself as “the park where your loved ones will be transformed into trees, continuing to grow alongside you.” That nature remains alive and continues to change even once a person has died highlights the way in which these practices encourage continuing remembrance for the bereaved.

Finally, the framing of green burial reveals lifestances and ideas regarding death and the afterlife. One Nova Scotia cemetery suggests: “for people who are mindful of the cyclical nature of life, green burial is a spiritually fulfilling alternative.” An organization in British Columbia explains that through green burial, “we lay our deceased gently in the arms of the earth and allow the cycle of life to continue.” From dead matter that breaks down and provides energy to plants and other life, to the deceased being transformed in some supernatural way, green burial appears to reflect a lifestance that posits continuation after death.

What are the project’s next steps?

Having conducted media analysis to recognize common themes, and identifying sites that offer green burial services, the team is currently discussing project design to further explore the people who pursue and promote green burial.

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Who is involved?

This project is led by: Lori Beaman, Chris Miller (postdoctoral fellow)

Working group members: Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier, Lauren Strumos, Sofia Armando, Margit Warburg