An Overview of Natural Burial Practices

A natural burial is defined as the internment of the remains of a deceased individual in the soil in a manner that doesn’t inhibit or in any way impair the decomposition of the body. At its essence, a natural burial is designed to permit the body of a deceased person to recycle naturally. A natural burial is also known as a green burial.

The Burial Practice That Is Truly Traditional

A natural burial is contrasted with Western burial practices that we predominately used in the United States and throughout other Western nations. Some individuals use the terms “natural” and “traditional” to contrast these diverse burial practices, with traditional being assigned to what will be called “Western” in this article.

The reality is that when discussing natural versus Western burial practices, assigning the moniker of natural to Western burial schemes is not technically accurate. Historically, natural burial practices can be more accurately described as traditional than can the Western burial techniques used today in the United States

The Impact of Western Burials on the Environment

There are approximately 22,500 cemeteries from coast to coast in the United States. Each year, through Western burial practices across the country, the environment directly is impacted in a number of different ways. These include:

  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods of different types that are utilized in the construction of caskets and coffins
  • 90,272 tons of steel utilized in the creation of caskets and coffins
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze used in the creation of caskets and coffins
  • 14,000 tons of steel used in the crafting of vaults
  • 1.7 million tons of reinforced concrete for the creation of vaults
  • 828,000 gallons of embalming fluid that nearly always utilizes formaldehyde

In simple terms, if natural burials were the common practice in the United States today, none of these materials would be utilized. The impact on the environment that occurs because of the utilization of these materials would be eliminated.

Preparation of a Body for a Natural Burial

When contrasted with more commonplace Western burial practices widely used in the United States, when it comes to the preparation of a body for a natural burial, the focus is not so much on what is done as it is on what does not happen. Natural burial eliminates key components of a Western burial practice altogether.

In a natural burial, the body is washed. This is one step that occurs in Western and natural burials. In the widely used Western practice, the cleaning of the body is performed by a funeral home, undertaken by an embalmer as part of the overall preparation process. In a natural burial, the cleaning of the body oftentimes will have a ceremonial as well as a practical purpose. Family members may participate in the cleaning ritual if they so desire.

Embalming is a major distinction between Western and natural burial practices. In Western burials, the body is nearly always embalmed. Indeed, most people operate under the presumption that a body must be embalmed. Although there are specific situations in which a body needs to be embalmed, there is no hard and fast requirement that embalming occurs in all situations. In today’s world, funeral homes include embalming as a basic component of an overall preparation and burial package.

Embalming inhibits or thwarts the human decomposition process. It does not necessarily stop it entirely.

Body Containers

Another major distinction between Western and natural burials centers on the container or vessel in which a body is buried. In a Western burial, a body is placed in a coffin or casket made of hardwood, steel, copper, or bronze. In addition, in many instances, the coffin or casket itself is then placed in a vault made of reinforced concrete or steel.

In the case of a natural burial, the body is placed in something that is readily biodegradable and that does not impair the decomposition of the remains. Shrouds are commonly utilized as a part of a natural burial process. There are also coffins or caskets that are wholly biodegradable.

Final Notes: Burial Restrictions

Across the United States, the one factor that limits fully natural burials are restrictions associated with how remains can be interned. In some communities, ordinances are in force that mandate a body be contained in a coffin or casket. At many cemeteries, there are rules and restrictions that prohibit burial without a coffin or casket. Indeed, there are cemeteries that take this a step further and require the placement of a coffin or casket in a vault.

An increasing number of cemeteries in the U.S. are designating areas in which natural burials can occur. This trend is expected to continue apace into the future. Natural burials can occur on private land. This requires appropriate zoning approval.