Myths and Misunderstandings

Myths and Misconceptions about Green Burial

1. Green burial will contaminate groundwater. Not true. Local authorities regulate how far any burial must be from wetlands, the water table, and underlying bedrock. In that earth is an excellent water filter, organic materials do not go far. The few cases of contamination from cemeteries have been from materials buried with the body, such as embalming fluids. It is much more likely that groundwater will be contaminated by lawn fertilizers and pesticides, which green burial grounds do not use. 

To put this into perspective, a decomposing body releases about 12 gallons of liquid. But the average household releases a good 250 gallons of water, much of it containing infectious materials, every day. In rural areas, this infected water goes to a septic tank just 10 or 20 feet from the house. 


2. Animals will dig up the body. Not true. There are no recorded cases of an animal digging into a grave. Animals can’t smell the body because it’s under at least two feet of soil. Also, not many animals are even capable of digging a hole more than two feet deep. 


3. Bodies must be embalmed and in a casket before they are buried. Not true. No state requires embalming. However, many cemeteries do require it, along with casket and vault. Also, in a few, very rare cases of certain infectious diseases, or if an unrefrigerated body is not to be buried soon after death, embalming may be required. 


4. Green burials are cheaper than other burials. Possibly true. Most of the costs of a conventional burial are related to the price of the plot, embalming, the casket, transportation, and any services provided by a funeral home. A green burial plot may be more expensive because the cemetery is probably on land recently purchased at modern prices. Plot prices will reflect the cost of the land. The green casket is probably less expensive than a fancy, finished, hardwood casket. Obviously embalming is a cost not incurred in a green burial. Transportation is an unavoidable cost. 


5. Green burial is less expensive than cremation. Probably not true. This will depend on the current cost of fuel, whether a casket is also cremated, transportation to a crematorium, and the cost of a green burial plot. 


6. I can have a green burial on my own land. Mostly not true. Getting a burial site approved will involve a lot of legal fees, local permits, and approval by a funeral director. While in some cases legally possible, it is not something to attempt on short notice. 


7. A casket or coffin is required for all burials. Not true. Yes, most cemeteries require a coffin or casket, green burials allow a shroud of natural material. 


8. Caskets have to be airtight and watertight. Not true. Caskets and shrouds for green burials are not air- or watertight. They are designed to facilitate decomposition. 


9. Concrete or steel vaults are required for all burials. Not true. Cemeteries usually require a vault so that the earth does not settle and leave a depression in the land. This is only for purposes of aesthetics and lawn-mowing. Green burials replace all displaced earth, leaving a mound that gradually settles. 


10. Funeral homes cannot arrange a green burial. Not true. A funeral home can arrange green burials if it wants to. While a green burial may not generate the revenues of a embalming and burial in an expensive casket, green burial can be more profitable than cremation. 


11. Any cemetery will accept a green burial. Sometimes true. A few modern cemeteries, known as “hybrid cemeteries,” accept green burials, sometimes in a separate section, sometimes right in line with other graves. Some accept the green burial coffin or shroud but require a vault. Finding such a cemetery may take some time. 


12. Green burial is too new to be trusted. Not true. People used green burial for tens of thousands of years before embalming became commonplace during the U.S. Civil War. Thousands of green burial grounds—that is, pre-1860 cemeteries—are located in downtown areas or beside churches.