By Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about green funeral options? At age 80, I would like to preplan my funeral and make it as natural as possible.
— Old Environmentalist
Great question! Green funeral options are becoming increasingly popular in the United States as more and more Americans are looking for environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional funerals. Here’s what you should know about “green burial” and “green cremation” options, along with some tips to help you locate services in your area.
If you wish to be buried, a green–natural burial will minimize the environmental impact by forgoing the embalming chemicals (which is not required by law), traditional casket and concrete vault. Instead, you’ll be buried in either a biodegradable container or shroud with no vault, and you won’t be embalmed. This allows the body to decompose naturally and become part of the earth.
If you want to temporarily preserve the body for viewing or a memorial service, instead of embalming, you can request dry ice or Techni ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent.
You’ll also be happy to know that green burials are much cheaper than traditional funerals, which average around $8,000 in 2023. By scrapping the coffin, vault and embalming, which are expensive, you’ll save yourself several thousand dollars on your funeral costs.
To find green burial services in your area, a good first step is to see if there’s a certified green funeral home in your area and contact them. The Green Burial Council offers an online directory of providers and other resources at GreenBurialCouncil.org.
If there isn’t one nearby, your next step is to contact several traditional funeral homes to see if they offer green funeral service options — many do.
You’ll also need to find a green cemetery. There are nearly 100 green cemeteries throughout the U.S., along with more than 300 traditional (hybrid) cemeteries that offer green burials too. To find them, the New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education and Advocacy website has a list at NHfuneral.org. Or, if you own rural property you may be able to have a home burial there, if your state and county allow it.
If, however, there are no green cemeteries nearby you can still make your burial more environmentally friendly by not being embalmed. And, if the cemetery allows, using a biodegradable casket or shroud and skipping the vault. If a vault is required, ask to have holes drilled in the bottom, or use a concrete grave box with an open bottom so the body can return to the earth.
If you would rather be cremated, you have some green choices here too. While cremation has always been touted as being more eco-friendly than a typical burial, a traditional cremation, which uses high heat to incinerate the body, does emit greenhouse gases into the air.
A green cremation, however, uses water and potassium hydroxide to reduce a deceased body to its basic element of bone ash within a few hours. This green technique, which is known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a little more expensive than traditional cremation but, unfortunately, it’s not legal in every state. Contact some local funeral providers to find out if this is available in your area, or Google “alkaline hydrolysis cremation” followed by your city and state.
Another green consideration is deciding what to do with the remains. Instead of scattering, which can be harmful to the environment, there are a wide variety of biodegradable urns that dissolve into the earth or water over time, and memorial urns that will grow a plant or tree in combination with your ashes.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.