The American way of death could be changing, with more people taking an interest in green burial as an eco-friendly way of laying loved ones to rest.
A recent consumer survey from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) revealed that over half of Americans said they would be interested in exploring green funeral options to reduce the environmental impact of their end-of-life rituals.
In the survey of over 1,000 people, more than half of the participants said they would consider natural burial and green funerals as a way to be laid to rest.
Green burials and natural burials aim to have a minimal impact on the environment. They can include vault-free burials in biodegradable or recycled cardboard caskets, hybrid or carbon-neutral transport options and an interment in a dedicated natural burial ground.
Some people might just want an eco-friendly casket made from sustainable materials like bamboo or cardboard, while others might go the whole nine yards, with an interment in a natural burial ground, where graves are often left without a marker, to blend in with and become part of the natural landscape.
Professor Douglas Davies is an expert in death studies at the University of Durham in the U.K., where there are now hundreds of natural burial grounds dedicated to eco burials. He’s studied the changing funeral practices of cultures around the world and he explained why some people are beginning to favor the natural return to the earth over traditional vault burials, where the casket is placed in a reinforced, sealed container in the ground.
One of the key reasons people are warming to the idea of natural burial is the environmental factor, says Professor Davies. Issues like pollution and climate change are increasingly making headlines and influencing how we think about our impact on the natural world.
“In terms of ordinary everyday life, local authorities are encouraging us to sort our trash and to compost, if we do gardening,” he says. “I think those very practical little behaviors have their own, almost unconscious influence.”
If you’re careful about recycling, have opted for a hybrid car, or are always conscious about your carbon footprint, green burial lets you continue those eco-friendly habits in the way you’re laid to rest too.
“Rituals surrounding death are not as conservative as sometimes people make them out to be,” says Professor Davies. The way we honor loved ones is constantly evolving to include new ideas.
But what Professor Davies notes as one of the most important factors explaining natural burial’s increasing popularity, is the change in the way people think about death and returning to nature.
“When we say we don’t want to embalm, or we don’t want coffins that are not going to rot, we are saying that we want decay. This is a very important point. The idea of decay has shifted from being a negative thing to being a positive thing.”
Of course, the idea of returning to the earth is nothing new. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ has been part of our traditional funeral ceremonies for centuries.
“What woodland burial does is to make that language real,” says Professor Davies.
While natural burial may not replace vault burials entirely, it shows that Americans are willing to embrace change. This return to a tradition before modern burial may not become the new normal, but families could have more choice about how they lay their loved ones to rest.