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Q&A: What It Means to Have a Green Burial

When Six Feet Under character Nate Fisher was laid to rest in the HBO series, his unconventional funeral gave many viewers their first glimpse of eco-friendly "green burials." A scene in the series shows several characters carrying Fisher's shrouded body — sans casket — to a gravesite in the woods.

Since then, the movement to make funerals more environmentally friendly has grown. But what exactly makes a funeral green? Here, a look at some of the environmental, health and legal issues involved.

What is a "green burial?"

Green funerals shun chemical preservatives, traditional heavy metal and wood caskets, and other features of costly modern burials. Going green is billed as a low-cost, highly personal alternative to a conventional burial. Un-embalmed remains are put directly into the ground, either shrouded in cloth or buried in natural caskets made of biodegradable materials, such as cardboard, wicker and pine. Burial vaults – underground, concrete reinforcement used to ensure that graves do not collapse – are not used.

Where do green burials take place?

Usually, at cemeteries that aim to preserve the natural landscape. Some cemeteries also create a conservation fund to protect the burial area for years to come.

Why opt for a green burial?

The principle is to follow the natural cycle of life by returning the body to the earth and embracing the Biblical philosophy of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Advocates also cite their reduced environmental impact over conventional burials, as well as land-preservation benefits and affordability. Traditional burials, they argue, are a waste of resources: Each year, cemeteries bury millions of feet of wood, thousands of tons of steel, copper and concrete, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of embalming fluids — which contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Isn't embalming required?

Not by federal law. Some funeral practitioners say embalming is vital for preventing the spread of disease. But the Green Burial Council — which has set standards for the practice — argues that "there is no evidence suggesting that embalming provides any public health benefits." In green burials, bodies are preserved using dry ice or a cooler for up to three to four days.

Do green burials pollute water?

Advocates say water quality will not be jeopardized because, for the most part, harmful bacteria and viruses become inert within hours or days after death. To prevent any potential contamination, they say burial sites should be kept far from streams.

If the natural landscape is supposed to be preserved, how are graves marked?

Some green cemeteries use flat native fieldstones to mark graves, as well as shrubs and trees. Green cemeteries are also going geek — using GPS coordinates to locate graves.

Where are green burials held?

A handful of green cemeteries have sprouted up in a few states — including California, Florida, Michigan, New York, South Carolina and Texas. Many traditional cemeteries are also considering devoting areas to burials where remains are not embalmed and vaults are not used.

Ramsey Creek Preserve in northwestern South Carolina –- the first green cemetery in the U.S. — does not require a casket; instead, bodies may be wrapped in a shroud or blanket. Most graves there are hand-dug in order to protect plants and minimize the impact on surrounding land.

What about cremation?

Cremation uses far fewer resources than burial. But the process involves burning fossil fuels, and it can produce emissions including carbon monoxide and mercury (from dental fillings). Some crematoriums are considering reducing their carbon footprint by participating in carbon-offset programs.

Those who want to bury cremated remains can purchase biodegradable urns. Some people also opt to add ashes to balls that are dropped onto memorial ocean reef sites, according to Grave Matters, a book on the natural death movement.

How much does a green burial cost?

At Ramsey Creek Preserve, prices start at about $2,000, which covers the cost of the burial site. A pine casket can cost $420, a cardboard casket as little as $50. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,500 — excluding cemetery costs such as a lot, vault and plot marker. Many funerals run well over $10,000.

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Heidi Glenn