Frequently Asked Questions
(click on the question to read more)
What is Green Burial?
In some ways this is like asking, what is environmental consciousness? It covers a wide range. Perhaps it would be easier to detail what it’s not. But we have to start somewhere.
In its simplest form, green burial is burial without a concrete (or other type) vault, with an unembalmed body, buried in a biodegradable casket, container, or shroud. From there we begin to add value: A burial at 3.5 ft is preferable to a deeper burial as the body is placed in the active layer of the soil, aiding decomposition. A burial without an upright headstone is preferable to conventional grave markers for multiple reasons, not the least of which is conservation of the embodied energy that goes into mining, cutting and creating all those memorial markers. Also conventional grave markers prohibit many multiple uses of the land, most notably leaving it as natural habitat. The exclusion of pesticides, herbicides, and mowing are preferable to the manicured monoculture of lawn grass present at most conventional cemeteries. The living soil ecosystem is greatly enhanced by the absence of these toxins and disturbances. Then there is the value-add from a sociological perspective. A burial where the family or loved ones have the opportunity to participate by lowering the body, and/or helping to close the grave has been shown to be more cathartic then one that does not. It goes on. The answer to the question ‘What is green burial?’ is not simple. Once the most basic requirements are met, the question really becomes, ‘How green is your green burial?’.
Will Green Burial Work in Vermont?
There are over 125 natural burial cemeteries in 38 states in the US, with many certified by the Green Burial Council in California. Examples of certified green burial cemeteries in our region are not rare. There is Greensprings Natural Burial Preserve in Newfield, NY; Rhinebeck Municipal Cemetery in Rhinebeck, NY; Mt Auburn hybrid cemetery in Cambridge, MA; Steelmantown Natural Burial Ground in Steelmantown, New Jersey; and various non-certified facilities such as Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, Maine, and Rainbow’s End Natural Cemetery in Orrington, ME. All of these and more have been performing green burials successfully in northern climate with similar soils to those of Vermont. Soil, no matter what state it is in, is not homogenous. Within Vermont, as within any state, there are soil types that are appropriate for green burial (or any burial), and those that are not. Many conventional cemeteries in Vermont were located opportunistically, and as such struggle with burials in sub-optimal soils. New green burial facilities have the advantage of applying current soil science and hydrologic analyses to determine if the location is suitable for burial. As such, green burial in Vermont is likely to be much more effective at returning the body’s biological material to the earth than many conventional burials. Green burial takes advantage of the natural process of decomposition, which is different than ‘composting’. Composting, as it is typically used in gardening vernacular refers to an active, multi-step process of creating amended soil. Green burial does not actively compost.
Will scavengers such as coyotes smell and dig up green burial graves?
The short answer is no. Eighteen inches (18") of soil has been proven to be an effective smell and physical barrier against predators. Vermont law requires that graves be dug to a mininum of 3 1/2 feet below the ground's surface. Unlike conventional burial where mowing is a concern, in a dedicated green burial cemetery, all the soil that is removed from the grave is replaced, and mounded over the body. This creates a barrier well in excess of the proven 18" thickness. In the 125+ green burial cemeteries spread across 38 states, not a single incidence of an animal scavenging a grave has been reported.
Will unembalmed bodies contaminate groundwater?
No, and here's why. There's less chance of ground water contamination in a well managed green burial cemetery than in multitude of conventional cemeteries, many of which have been in operation for hundreds of years. Conventional embalming does not 'disinfect' a body, and is only designed to slow decomposition for several days while funeral arrangements are made, and ceremonies performed. But formaldahyde-based embalming fluid, which is not allowed in green burial, can become a contaminate in itself, and has been shown to be a carcinogen, affecting funeral home employees and assocated workers.
Care should be taken when siting cemeteries to ensure that bodies are not placed in the water table. It’s worth noting here that in Vermont, the deeper a body is buried, the higher the likelihood that that body will encounter seasonal high water table conditions. Also, many of the studies that examine groundwater contamination at cemeteries cite the high levels of heavy metals and containments that are introduced by burial materials. Heavy metals, paints, varnishes and the like all become potential leachate and sources of contamination. Most of this material is omitted in green burial, decreasing the toxic substances that are available to migrate.
What’s wrong with cremation? I thought it was environmentally friendly, and cost effective.
Green Burial Vermont does not consider any person’s choice for final disposition to be ‘wrong’. We don’t wish to make anyone feel badly about end-of-life choices they or loved ones have already made, nor do we wish to ‘strong-arm’ anyone into choosing green burial as an option. But we do feel it’s important to describe the factors that have led us to choose green burial as the ‘right thing to do’ for the land and for society.
As of 2016, fifty one percent (51%) of Americans were choosing to be cremated at death. Vermont leads the nation with the cremation rate here at ~ 70%. Many people make that choice on the basis of cost. Cremation continues to be one of the least costly methods of final disposition. And compared to the environmental costs of conventional burial, cremation may have been easier on the environment. But in the U.S., green burial has only been viable as an option in modern times for approximately 20 years. Compared to green burial, cremation has significant environmental costs that are not tallied in the dollar total.
With a national cremation rate of 51% and considering the current mortality rate of 8.2 deaths per 1000 population/year, an estimated 1.33 million cremations will take place in the U.S. in the next 25 years. Those cremations will produce the following emissions:
Use enough energy in gas and electricity to drive a car 662,000,000 mi (around the earth 26, 600 times, or drive to the sun and back , 3 ½ times).
Emit the following pollutants: Carbon Dioxide… 530,000 Tons (a solo round trip by auto, NY to SF would emit ~ = 2 tons of CO2) Carbon Monoxide… 408,000 lbs Mercury…4.34 Million lbs elemental mercury Sulfur Dioxide…329,000 lbs Nitrogen Oxides… 2.40 million lbs Particulate matter…201,000 lbs
According to the United Nations, 0.2% of global dioxin and furan emissions are produced by cremation.
Cremated remains are mostly dry calcium phosphates with some minor minerals, such as salts of sodium and potassium. Sulfur and most carbon are driven off as oxidized gases during the process. These remains are mostly devoid of nutrients, high in pH (basic), and can be harmful to vegetation and soil organisms when spread in concentrations.
Are home funerals and/or home burial on private property legal in Vermont?
Yes, From the Vermont Secretary of State’s publication ‘Digging Deep’: According to state statute and a 1973 Attorney General’s opinion, families in Vermont may care for their own dead. This includes transporting the deceased, burial on private property, and/or cremation. Vermont law does not require embalming… Vermont law provides that a private individual may set aside a portion of land he or she owns (fee simple) to use as a burial space for immediate family members, so long as this use does not violate the health laws and regulations of the state and the town in which such land is situated. Generally, the statutes define ‘immediate family members as relations by blood, marriage, civil union, and adoption.
The health laws cited above primarily involve some common sense restrictions on burial of bodies where the cause of death was a highly communicable disease such as Ebola, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, etc., as determined by the Commissioner (see Vermont Statutes online 18 V.S.A. § 5201). For example, if death occurs from a virulent communicable disease, the Vermont Dept. of Health will be involved, and will manage permits and disposition of the body if deemed necessary.
The health laws also dictate burial setback distances from water sources, and boundaries. Those requirements can be found in Vermont Statutes online, 18 V.S.A. § 5319. In addition, some towns may have local ordinances regarding home burials.
Home burials must follow state statutes regarding minimum burial depth. Graves must be dug so that the minimum depth from the bottom of the coffin (or the body if a burial shroud is used in place of a coffin) is no less that 3 ½ feet. Deeper graves are allowed, though green burial best management practices recommend against them.
A map of the burial site should be drawn, with gravesites clearly located. This should be filed with the town clerk. The Secretary of State recommends adding an easement to the deed to permit access to the burial ground. Along those lines, it is wise to consider potential future issues around resale of the property should that arise, as well as visitation to the burial grounds should the property be sold. The easement just mentioned can legally guarantee right of access…comfortability of access and protection of the site in perpetuity are factors worth considering.
Before a body may be buried in a family burial ground, a death certificate must be submitted to the town clerk or a deputy and a burial-transit (certificate of permission) permit must be obtained from the clerk. After the burial is completed this permit must be certified and returned to the clerk. 18 V.S.A. § 521, 5201.
Photo by Evan Dennis