Grave matters

It can be quite hard to talk about death and burial. That’s why we are going to hit the topic head on, from an environmental perspective, and give you some food for thought about funerals, burials, cremation, and some green alternatives.

What's the issue?

Grave marker with flower on itConventional American funerals, burials, and cremations can be resource-intensive and polluting. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, cemeteries across the U.S. each year bury:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
  • 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)

The mining, manufacture, and transport of these materials creates air emissions, as does cemetery mowing and upkeep. Chemicals used to maintain cemetery grounds can pollute lakes and streams. Irrigation to keep cemetery grounds green uses a lot of water, a finite resource.

Flame-based cremation has some environmental advantages over burial (fewer natural resources are used), but is energy intensive. In addition, trace metals like mercury can be released to the atmosphere during the cremation process, along with other emissions.

Minnesotans have an expanding number of eco-friendly death care options. Start by asking prospective funeral homes what their internal green business practices are and what green funeral choices they offer (this approach can be especially useful if developing a future plan).

Defined in guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health, "A green funeral is generally any end-of-life ritual that is as harmless as possible for the environment, thereby reducing its environmental impact. A green burial may take place in a conventional modern cemetery or in a green cemetery or natural burial ground that uses eco-friendly methods. In a green burial, graves are dug by hand and concrete vaults or grave liners are not used." PDF icon Choices (MDH)

Minnesota rules and regulations pertaining to green funerals and burials have been evolving in recent years.

Green cremation

Originally pioneered in Minnesota by the Mayo Clinic, alkaline hydrolysis, also known as biocremation or green cremation, is an alternative to flame-based cremation.

Green cremation uses water, an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide (lye), heat, and pressure to reduce a body to bone ash. Because it is not flame based, the process uses less energy than conventional cremation.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota provides information on green cremation and where it's offered in Minnesota.

Green burial

Sunset over lakeThe Green Burial Council (GBC) identifies green or natural burial as a way of caring for the dead that reduces carbon emissions, protects worker health, helps conserve natural resources, and restores or preserves habitat.

Green burial prohibits embalming of the deceased. Biodegradable caskets, urns, or shrouds made from nontoxic, sustainably harvested materials take the place of concrete vaults and metal caskets.

Minnesota law does not require embalming except under certain circumstances, nor does it require the use of burial vaults, although some cemeteries do. 

Green cemeteries

The Green Burial Council certifies the following three categories of green cemeteries:

  • Hybrid burial grounds are conventional cemeteries that offer the option of burial without a vault, concrete slab, or outer container of any kind. Hybrid burial grounds must allow for any kind of burial container, including shrouds.
  • Natural burial grounds must meet all the requirements of hybrid burial grounds. In addition, they must have an Integrated Pest Management program in place, practice sustainable landscaping techniques, and adopt  practices/protocols  that  are  energy-­conserving, minimize waste, and do not require the use of toxic chemicals
  • Conservation burial grounds must meet all of the requirements for hybrid and natural burial grounds. In addition, they must protect in perpetuity an area of land specifically and exclusively designated for conservation.

GBC-certified funeral homes and burial sites in Minnesota can be found at

Greening the event

Funeral ceremonies can generate a lot of garbage. Here are some ways to lower the impacts.

  • Forgo flowers. Funeral flowers may be grown using pesticides and other chemicals. In lieu of flowers, ask friends and family to donate to a favorite charity. If flowers are a must-have item, request or source locally grown organic varieties.
  • Make sustainable food choices. If food is part of the event, specify locally sourced items. Reduce waste by using reusable dishware and utensils.
  • Travel green. Encourage attendees to carpool or take public transit to and from funeral events to cut down on fossil fuel use and emissions. Some funeral directors offer web-based video conferencing for friends and family who cannot travel.

After the funeral

Kitchen items for sale in an estate saleSorting through and deciding what to do with a deceased loved one's belongings can be challenging.  Practicing the “4 Rs”—reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle—can help with this difficult task.

Even items that seem hopelessly dated or worn may still have value and reuse potential. An estate sale is a good way to find new homes for things. If you’re planning to involve an estate liquidator, be sure to first check out the Minnesota Attorney General’s guidelines for hiring one.

Hold off on the dumpster until after the sale, as estate sales need inventory to be successful! Donate things that don’t sell to charity organizations. 

Feeling overwhelmed by all the “stuff”? A professional organizer may be worth engaging to help sort through things—some even specialize in estate clean-out! The National Association of Professional Organizers offers suggestions and resources for finding the right individual or company. 

Give sympathy cards a second life via repurposing! Check with local nursing homes and assisted living facilities, or youth organizations, to see if they accept card fronts for their craft projects. Or, you can send them to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children for use in their Recycled Card Program.