A Sustainable Death: Benefits of a Natural Burial

Ivy Munnerlyn, Coastal Programs Coordinator

A prepared grave at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC) in Gainesville, FL. Source: PCCC Facebook.

Death is all around us, from the decomposing redwood log to the California condor’s midday snack. Anyone who has spent time in nature has witnessed the cycling of nutrients from body to soil and back to body again. So why do modern burial practices sometimes get in the way of this process? 

Over thousands of years, humans have found countless ways to lay our dead to rest. Many of these traditions emphasize the return of the body to the natural world, while others attempt to preserve the body from decay. It’s important to note that all burial traditions are valid, though some may seem strange to us. In the neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in Southern Turkey, people buried their relatives under the foundation of their houses and incorporated their body parts in furniture and decoration. Thousands of years in the future, people will likely find our current burial practices just as odd. As environmentalists, we try to make choices in life that prioritize our belief in the inherent value of nature. We should strive to do the same in death. In many ways, our bodies are the most profound thing we have to offer to the natural world. Therefore, it’s imperative that we consider a burial method that does the least harm and the most good to the planet we’ve spent our lives protecting. 

Burials in America

For most of post-colonial American history, a traditional casket burial has been the most popular funeral practice. In the early days, bodies were cared for by the family and buried in a wooden casket or cloth shroud as part of a simple home burial. Things changed during the Civil War, when soldiers who died on the battlefield were embalmed with chemicals in order to preserve their bodies for the journey home to their families. 

By the mid- 20th century, this innovation had created a booming funeral industry that charged families upwards of a fifth of their annual income for one burial. This type of burial is still popular, accounting for 43% of funerals in the United States in 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. (Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death dives into this topic more fully, for those who are interested.) 

Unfortunately, emphasizing the preservation of the body can come at a cost to the environment. As the grave ages, embalming chemicals and the metal, paint, and treated wood of the casket can leach into the surrounding soil. Each grave is lined with a concrete vault and lid, which can disrupt soil hydrology and health. Because of the financial and environmental costs associated with these burials, cremation has recently become the most popular type of funeral in the US. But an emerging trend of natural burials has the potential to maximize the body’s gift to nature while virtually erasing any harm. 

A New Old Way

Community volunteers help dig a grave at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, FL

Natural burial isn’t a new idea. It’s essentially a revival of the pre-embalming funeral practices used by many cultures throughout the world. Natural burial, which is legal in all states, forgoes underground vaults, embalming, and caskets or shrouds made of synthetic products. The deceased is returned to the soil in a simple way, without interventions that get in the way of natural processes. The emerging “conservation burial” movement takes this commitment to the Earth to the next level. According to the Conservation Burial Alliance, “Conservation burial, at its core, is about the creation and support of multidimensional social and ecological spaces that sustain us as they sustain the planet and all who dwell on it.” 

Just outside of Nashville, TN sits one of the nation’s few conservation cemeteries. At Larkspur Conservation, a combined responsibility to the deceased, the living, and the land, has protected and restored a rare collection of ecosystems. Through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the 112 acre property was purchased and set aside as both a nature preserve and burial ground. Restoration efforts funded by burial costs have created a sanctuary visited by nature-lovers and mourners alike. Conservation cemeteries like Larkspur have the potential to transform the way we think about death and inspire a more holistic understanding of our body’s connection with nature. 

Currently, Blue Lake Cemetery is the only cemetery on the north coast that accommodates natural burials. And if you want a conservation burial, the closest option is White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Southern Washington. Considering the strong community of nature-lovers on the north coast, this land would make a great home for California’s first conservation cemetery. What better way to spend eternity than pushing up trillium under a redwood tree?

To learn more, visit larkspurconservation.org and conservationburialalliance.org. For an entertaining and informative look at burial practices in general, check out the YouTube channel “Ask A Mortician” or follow the IG account @talkdeathdaily.