Green Burial

By Gina Vliet

As life would have it, the jury is still out on what actually constitutes green burial. I personally like the Green Burial Society of Canada’s five principles, which I’ve paraphrased below:

  1. THE BODY is in a natural state. We can assume this means if you go out in a blaze of chemically induced glory, and aren’t embalmed after the fact, you’re still Good To Go, so to speak.
  2. THE CONTAINER is fully biodegradable. Whether you choose to be buried in the hand-crafted quilted/embroidered/crocheted organic cotton shroud you made yourself, or in an untreated wood/bamboo/wicker/cardboard box you painted with non-toxic paints in all the bright colours your mom never let you paint your room when you were younger, you’re still Good To Go!
  3. THE BURIAL is directly into the earth. No liners or vaults to hinder your becoming one with the Earth again.
  4. THE MEMORIAL is minimally intrusive to the landscape. No ginormous pyramid to rival those at Giza, no Taj Mahal, no weeping angel headstone, just a wee plaque maybe near the entrance to the cemetery, leaving nature to do what it does best – look awesome.
  5. THE CEMETERY uses sustainable practices. Green burial friendly cemeteries will also advocate for and remove barriers to green burial.

Talk around the water cooler makes it sound like green burial is something new, something innovative, but in reality, it’s been around for EVER. Think about it. Archaeologists have been excavating green burial sites since they got out of their armchairs and started actually excavating.  Yes folks, green burial is yet another victim of the ‘everything old is new again’ phenomenon we see so much of these days.

The archaeological record has (green) burial going back pretty far. General scientific consensus is that Neanderthals (400-40 KYA (KYA= x1000 years ago) buried their dead with some ceremony. Paleolithic burial record shows evidence beginning around 78 KYA, and as we get closer and closer to modern humans, the archaeological record is rife with grave goods. In fact, without grave goods, archaeology would be pretty boring.


Regardless of where we count from, it’s evident we’ve been doing green burial a long time. Some cultures (eg: Jews, Muslims) continue to solely practice green burial, whereas some other cultures have hybridized modern and traditional practices.

It was really the adoption of modern embalming practices (Remember: the Egyptians did it first!) when we began to see a trend away from green burial as we’ve defined it. In North America, the emergence of commercial funeral homes and the opportunity for families to opt for embalming began in the late 1800’s. This trend moved us away from burying everyone on the family farm or in the family plot at the local church cemetery.  And the trend picked up speed when the medicalization of death began in earnest in the 1930’s.

With funeral homes becoming our death project managers, and with more of us moving into urban areas and away from the farm, our exposure to the complete life cycle lessened. Death became ‘other’ as we allowed others to take care of our deceased.

Today, with climate change looming large and inconveniently, people are becoming more mindful of their impact on the planet. More attention is being paid to how we dispose of things and to what we leave behind, and this is beginning to include one’s corpse.

Your mortuary practices should be a reflection of your values. If you separate your recyclables, perhaps you should think about how you’re going to recycle your magical meat skeleton once its batteries have died.

Green burial is a means of ecological conservation. The green burial areas in cemeteries are left as natural as possible. You may be pushing up daisies, but you won’t be doing it under a manicured lawn. These spaces reflect local, natural flora (and fauna and insects!) and will remain that was for a very, very long time.

Green burial is a good use of land. Unlike other areas of the cemetery which allot a specific square footage to one person/family, the green burial area will see multiple plantings, so to speak. In about 50 years or so your burial space may be home to another buried after you. So if you do wish to be buried in the ground, green burial gives you an eco-friendly, economical option.

Green burial is cheap(er). Being green keeps the green in your pocket! Because there is no vault or liner, no expensive metal casket, this option is a frugal-friendly option. Spend all that money instead on a memorial to help your loved ones kick off the mourning process.

Now you know what green burial is. So whatcha gonna do about it? Here are some practical ways to apply what you’ve learned:

  • Reflect on your values. Get reacquainted with your values, and choose an end of life plan that reflects what matters most to you.
  • Have those important conversations with loved ones. Your legacy is for them, not for you. You, my friend, will be dead.
  • Shop around. Don’t wait until you (your loved ones) HAVE to make a decision. Cemeteries are not gloomy places. Bring a friend. Bring a dog. Bring a friend with a dog! Take a walk in the lovely green space that is a cemetery. Scope it out. Rinse. Repeat.
  • Get curious about end of life. Yes, I know death is something we don’t like to talk about. Especially our own! But I’ll let you in on a secret. We can enjoy life more once we acknowledge our own mortality. Trust me on this. Get educated, ask questions. And talk about it. Give others permission to talk about it, too. Why not check out a local Death Cafe?
  • Pat yourself on the back. I mean seriously, congratulations for being here, on this website, reading this post. And thanks for sticking around until the end. I know getting your death ducks in a row can seem like a daunting task, but baby steps work just fine. Investigating green burial is a great beginning to this part of your plan.



Hey evolution nerds, want to learn more about who first buried their dead? Check out these resources: