Death, it has been said, is harder on the living than on the dead. The deceased’s problems are over. The only thing left for them to do is slip back into the cycle of life, nature’s unending process of regeneration.
The living, however, have to deal with death’s manifold aftermaths. There’s grief to deal with. There are financial matters to resolve. There’s a will to execute. There are possessions to distribute or dispose of. There are family issues to work out.
And, of course, there’s a corpse, the sadly empty shell, the abandoned flesh and bones, the mortal remains of what was, or, rather, who was. It isn’t anybody anymore, but human nature all but requires us to treat it respectfully, even tenderly.
The legal and emotional processes of dispatching those remains varies from state to state and family to family. Few people are really sure of how it all works, and even fewer are in a mood to do it. But it must be done, and one way to do it is the green way—the relatively rapid introduction of the body to nature, the fundamental mother who makes all life possible.
Here is how a green burial works, at least in Connecticut. (Other states have other requirements.)
Let’s start with the funeral director. You will need one. This person is legally required to oversee the burial or cremation. In Connecticut, the funeral director will need to sanitize the body and to provide transportation.
By federal law, embalming is not required except in a few special circumstances, and of course embalming for any reason precludes green burial. If the unembalmed body will be presented for viewing, it will need to be refrigerated until then. The funeral home may be able to rent you a coffin for the showing, kind of like a little motel room that can be used for a day, except it uses a disposable liner and is sterilized before and after use.
Cremation is greener than embalming but less green than a green burial. Cremation burns a lot of fossil fuel, and it releases a lot of carbon dioxide and toxins into the atmosphere. It requires a rigid container with no metal parts, in most cases a special cardboard box.
Casket or Shroud?
A green burial requires some kind of biodegradable container. It can be a casket of simple unpainted pine held together with organic glue or wooden pegs. It could also be of wicker or other natural material. It could also be a shroud of natural material. These things are available online. Search for “green burial caskets.” You an pick one and have it shipped to the funeral home. Or the funeral home may have something on hand, though you are always entitled to find one elsewhere.
The funeral director will have to handle transportation to the burial ground. If it’s a long way, the body may have to be packed in ice. Transportation within a state as small as Connecticut probably won’t require ice.
The Burial Plot
You will need to buy a plot in a cemetery. You will buy it from the cemetery, not the funeral home. The price may or may not include “opening and closing” the grave—that is, digging it up and filling in. The funeral director can advise you on how to deal with the cemetery operators, which will be a church, municipality, or not-for-profit cemetery association.
A green burial ground allows only green burials and, possibly, the scattering or burial of cremated remains.
A hybrid cemetery allows green burials and other burials, maybe right next to each other, maybe in separate sections.
Some cemeteries will allow a burial that is green except for a steel or concrete vault, which they insist on so as to keep their lawn flat and easy to mow. Of course the many years of mowing and the use of fertilizers and other lawn chemicals detracts from the greenness of this sem-green burial.
You may want to enlist the services of a cleric. If there is no wake before the burial, you may want to arrange a graveside service, giving people a chance to say a few words of remembrance and grief. You may be able to hire an “end of life doula,” a consultant who can help people through not only the burial process but the handling of grief.
A good green burial ground will have a grave dug by hand, though in some rocky places, that may be all but impossible. Frozen ground may also prevent digging by hand. A green burial ground may allow family members to help dig the grave.
A green burial ground may open graves in an unforested area, then plant a tree or other plant on top. Others may open graves among trees in a forest. In either case, the grave will probably be three or four feet deep and at least a couple of feet above the water table. A deeper grave would slow decomposition due to lack of oxygen.
Two people can be buried in a double-decker grave. The first to go is lowered to a depth of about six feet, covered with a layer of dirt, then with a layer of cedar branches or other natural, rot-resistant material. Then the remaining space is filled in with dirt. When it’s time for the second burial, the grave is opened down to the cedar. The body on the bottom bunk, of course, will take much longer to compose in its relatively anaerobic environment.
To Answer a Few Questions
No, animals won’t dig down there. No, roots won’t bring the body to the surface. No, the body will not contaminate the water table.
Yes, you can have several people buried near each other in a family plot. Yes, you can buy a single plot or family plot in advance. Yes, you can sell an unused plot to someone else.
No, you can’t mark the grave with a vertical stone. Yes, you may lay a local stone atop the grave, and the cemetery association may allow you to engrave it. No, the location will not be forgotten even though a forest may grow over it. The cemetery operator is required to record the precise location of each grave.
No, Connecticut Green Burial Grounds doesn’t have a burial ground yet, but it soon will. Yes, you can reserve a plot now by contacting the organization. No, we don’t know where the burial ground will be, but yes, it will be in Connecticut and, of course, most importantly, in that nice place we call Earth.