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  • Susan Russell

Planning a Green Burial

Updated: Mar 6

By Susan Russell:

The still and somber days of November have arrived. As the rhythm of nature moves from summer’s abundance to one of rest, many faiths likewise mark this season with days of reflection in honor of our deceased. “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween”, was meant as a day to prepare for “All Saints Day” followed by “All Souls Day” in honor of loved ones who have passed on. Similarly, the “Day of the Dead” is marked to celebrate one’s ancestors.

In that spirit, our November column is dedicated to a growing trend known as “green burials”. Individuals attracted to this option wish to have their death reflect their desires to preserve and care for the natural world.

What is a Green Burial?

As with all environmental issues, there are many shades of green. When it comes to green burial choices, options range from those certified by the national Green Burial Council (GBC) to semi-green burial options. Generally speaking, all strive to abide by the following principles:

  • A deceased’s body is buried, without formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, in a natural setting. (Embalming fluid can expose workers and leach into the environment.) Green burial favors the use of refrigeration, dry ice, or a non-toxic embalming agent to preserve the body for a memorial service.

  • The deceased’s remains are wrapped in shrouds that are biodegradable and non-toxic. Linen, wool, muslin, or canvas materials are preferred. Some families use a favorite fabric of the deceased or a quilt. Blank canvas shrouds can be personalized or decorated to commemorate a loved one.

  • If used at all, caskets, coffins, or urns are made from natural, biodegradable, and sustainable materials. Examples are wicker, bamboo, hemp, cork, cardboard, or wood that contain no toxic glues or varnishes. As such, they encourage rapid decomposition and return the body's nutrients into the soil. Metal fasteners, such as screws or nails, or other metal hardware are not allowed.

  • Headstones are not permitted. Some natural-burial cemeteries allow the use of small, unpolished, flat stones to mark a gravesite with a religious symbol, or the name and birth/death dates engraved upon them. Others allow a planted tree, a simple marker, or a perennial to honor the site. Some cemeteries note the location of graves with GPS coordinates.

  • Green burial sites are naturalized landscapes with minimal maintenance and often host wildflower gardens and trees. Stringent rules at some locations even prohibit the use of mechanical digging equipment.

  • Human composting or “Natural Organic Reduction” is a new concept legalized by a growing number of states, and most recently by NYS in 2022. While initially a shocking concept to some, this process is similar to natural, traditional composting methods. The body is placed in a sealed, temperature controlled vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw where it’s supplied with oxygen. Microorganisms break down the organic matter into a small volume of soil that’s given to family, or donated to farms or conservation efforts. A Washington State based company, “Recompose”, currently is the only provider to offer this method for NYS residents.

What about cremation?

Cremation no longer qualifies as certifiably “green” by the National Funeral Director’s Association even though it does have some positive environmental benefits. For example, it can eliminate the need for toxic embalming and high-energy consumptive steel & concrete vaults. Cremation also consumes less land than a traditional burial. Unfortunately, the carbon emissions from gas-fueled flame cremation (the equivalent of a 500-mile car trip) result in a significant carbon footprint. Of note, some crematoriums are transitioning to high-tech and efficient cremation equipment with reduced carbon impact. If you’re planning ahead, ask about your local crematorium’s efficiency rating.

Are green burials expensive?

A green burial is less expensive than a traditional funeral because expensive steel caskets and concrete vaults aren’t used. However, in NYS a family must hire a funeral director for filing permits & death certificates, and to transport the deceased. The average cost for a natural burial plot is $1,000 to $3,000. The total average cost for a green burial service is between $2,400 and $4,300. Human composting costs range from $5,000 to nearly $8,000. A traditional funeral can cost $7,000-$8,000 and cremation can range from $2,000-$5,000.

Are there any local green burial cemeteries?

It depends on whether one would prefer a certified green burial cemetery or be content with “semi-green”. Currently there are 4 specifically designated green cemeteries in our region: The closest is the St. Francis Natural Burial Garden within the Queen of Heaven Cemetery on Tonawanda Creek Road in Lockport. One need not be a member of the Catholic faith to be buried there. Their green burial criteria abide by the above certification standards with one exception— cremated remains are allowed. According to Gregg Prince, Operations Manager for Catholic Cemeteries which includes Queen of Heaven, the Catholic Church has been proactive in developing green burial options in keeping with current Pope Francis’s mission to care for the earth and environment.

The 3 remaining regional cemeteries are Whitehaven Memorial Park in Pittsford (a suburb of Rochester), and Mount Hope & Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemeteries in Rochester.

Further out in Newfield, NY southwest of Ithaca, is the GBC certified Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve. This naturalized, hilltop landscape holds 130 acres nestled between 8,000 acres of forestland.

If you feel discouraged by the scarcity of designated green burial cemeteries in our immediate locale, don’t despair yet— read on.

The Forest Lawn Group from Buffalo, that’s recently taken over management of East Aurora’s Oakwood Cemetery, is currently evaluating the feasibility of green burial certification for some of its cemeteries. At the time of this writing, it’s not publicly known where their green burial spaces could be located or with what limitations. Forest Lawn, which includes 12 local cemeteries, currently allows some semi-green burial options. Director of Communications, Mark DePalma, explains they’ve accommodated shroud burials for many years for religious groups in certain designated spaces. A recent tour of their historic cemetery in Buffalo led me past a “Scatter Garden” where cremated ashes are buried beneath. DePalma explained that there are private areas where cremated remains can be scattered in one designated plot, or community areas where they are co-mingled in a garden. (Cremated ashes are not scattered on the surface but are buried beneath a layer of sod or earth.)

Greg Wood, Director for Wattengel Funeral Home in North Tonwanda, is WNY’s only certified Green Burial Director by the Green Burial Council. Greg explained that when he was certified over 10 years ago, there was little interest but now he receives phone or email inquiries every week.

Bringing it closer to home, Manager and Funeral Director, Wes Bonczyk from Howe Kenneth Funeral Home in East Aurora said they’re open to working with families who desire green burial options. “It’s an idea that’s not new- it’s been around for 20 plus years”, he said. “Even in the absence of a green cemetery, a person can still make his or her burial more environmentally friendly by not being embalmed. And, if the cemetery allows, ask for a biodegradable casket or shroud instead of a concrete vault. If a vault is required, ask to have holes drilled in the bottom, or use a concrete grave box turned upside down or one with an open bottom so your body can return to the earth. Some of the smaller cemeteries allow this”, Bonczyk said.

Funeral Director Connie Perna, who represents Wood Funeral Home in East Aurora, is equally accommodating and knowledgeable about the requirements for green burials and the desires of those who seek these options. She explained there are a myriad of non-denominational, private, and/or faith-based cemeteries in our area and all have varying rules. Which brings us to an important point:

Funeral homes and cemeteries are separated by law in NYS. Therefore, a funeral home director can not prearrange, find, or choose your cemetery. When searching for your future burial site ask the cemetery questions such as: do they have a green burial space? If not, do they allow semi-green options such as a concrete vault turned upside down or biodegradable urns for cremation? Gregg Prince likewise advises that it’s important a Funeral Director understand green burial criteria (no embalming, etc) before one’s remains are deposed in a green burial cemetery.

For those fortunate enough to own private land, NY law allows a family to dedicate up to 3 acres of private land for use as a family cemetery as long as it’s not within 300 feet of a dwelling. Also of note, cremated ashes can also be scattered on private land, but not on public land.

As the green burial trend continues to grow in popularity, more burial options hopefully will follow. It’s important to state your wishes to your loved ones and plan ahead- this includes choosing a cemetery and a funeral home that is familiar and respectful of your desire to “go green” in death as in life.

For a deeper dive we recommend this article from the Green Burial Council.

The Science Behind Green Burial - GREEN BURIAL COUNCIL
Download PDF • 358KB

Greenfields Natural Cemetery Preserve, Newfield, NY

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