Green burial, an eco-friendly alternative to conventional steel-lined caskets and embalming, has risen in popularity within the funeral industry in recent years. A new state law codifies Vermont's approach to natural burial and the creation of green cemeteries.
Thinking about what you want to happen to your body when you die is a morbid exercise, but one many of us undertake. There are a lot of considerations – financial, religious, familial and cultural, to name a few. More recently, there have been concerns regarding the environmental impacts incurred during and after the burial process.
Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, joined Vermont Edition to discuss the new law, natural burial methods, and how they relate to today's perception of what should happen to our bodies after death.
"I think the first thing people should understand is what we call ‘green’ burial, or ‘natural’ burial, is what our great-great grandparents would have simply called ‘burial,'" Slocum says. "What it means is, burial in the earth without embalming, without a metal casket — perhaps with a shroud or with a wood coffin — and without the concrete vault that is typically used in cemeteries, just around the casket to keep it level."
This sort of burial – on private property or otherwise – is already legal in Vermont and across the country, Slocum says, though it's a common misconception that it isn't.
"One can always choose to have a simple, straightforward burial. But whether or not the cemetery you use will accommodate that request is a different question," Slocum says.
Act 24, meanwhile, simply makes it easier for people who want to open a natural cemetery to do so, says Slocum, "without having to adhere to some of the regulations that are more appropriate to a conventional cemetery, such as fencing and the way graves are marked out."
Green cemeteries in other states aren't immediately recognizable as cemeteries, Slocum says. Instead of gravestones, burial plots are marked with native rocks — or they're not marked at all, and are only located by GPS coordinate.
"These places look like what the land looks like," says Slocum. "I toured one in upstate New York a couple of years ago, and it’s … pastureland and rock outcroppings and stands of trees. I mean, it’s very familiar to what you would see in Vermont. But the key to it is that the intervention into the land in order to manicure it, the way that we think of with conventional cemeteries, is out."
Presently, there's no dedicated "green cemetery" in Vermont, but Slocum says it's a natural next step for the state.
"In a state where we take such good care of the environment, where we understand that not only do we want that, but that it’s important for our tourist industry, this just seems like something that could just sail through, and it did," he says.
And green burial is certainly picking up momentum elsewhere. Slocum says that when he came to Vermont to join the Funeral Consumers Alliance in the early 2000s, he only knew of one green cemetery, in South Carolina.
"At last count, there are at least 80 of them that are either dedicated natural cemeteries, or they’re portions of conventional or municipal cemeteries," he says, pointing out that many traditional Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as Amish communities, already practice the methods that characterize green burial.
Interested in a green burial for yourself? Slocum recommends starting by discussing your wishes with your family.
"You can never guarantee that they’re going to be followed through with, which is a sad reality I have to share with many people who call," he says. "But, you can get a good start by having a frank family conversation. I mean, talk about your end-of-life funeral [and] burial plans. Write them down, explore your options. A lot of what we think, as Americans, that we have to do or that we’re not allowed to do when it comes to funerals is not true at all. So know what your options are."
Act 24 goes into effect on July 1.