Green Burials

When it comes to burial practices, everything old is new again
Funeral Heart Sympathy. Funeral Heart Near A Tree. Natural Burial Grave In The Forest. Heart On Grass Or Moss.

Illustration by Imagesines

Life comes from the Earth, and life returns to the Earth,” Zhuangzi, a significant Chinese Daoist thinker, philosophized in the 4th century B.C.E.   

Trending now are green burials that provide an environmentally friendly way to honor departed loved ones while protecting nature. For a true green burial, no embalming fluid or chemicals are used to preserve the body, varnished caskets are not allowed, vaults made of concrete, metal or plastic to encase a casket are forbidden and a concrete grave liner cannot be put into the ground. 

“The body is simply buried without impediment,” says Lee Webster of Plymouth, who is an internationally renowned expert on the subject and a foremost advocate. “No vaults, just a simple casket or shroud made of locally sourced and naturally biodegradable material. In green burial, we do nothing to impede decomposition. Everything must be biodegradable.”

Then Mother Nature takes over and does her part. Moreover, she’s been at it for a long time.

Funeral rituals in common practice today didn’t take root until the early 1900s. Before then, a natural burial was literally the way to go. When someone died, the body was wrapped in an unadorned shroud made of natural fibers and placed in the ground, or sometimes laid to rest in a plain pine box and then buried.

This natural approach is still favored by some religions, among them Orthodox Jews, Muslims and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). 

Arthur “Buddy” Phaneuf (CFSP, CPC), who sits on the National Board of Funeral Directors and owns Phaneuf Funeral Homes & Crematorium, which is the largest in New England, says, “One of our funeral homes in Manchester is very active with the Islamic community. Islamic burials are green burials. So are Orthodox Jewish burials and we do those, too. Both communities have been doing it this way for thousands of years. It’s being called a green burial now, but it’s really the same. It’s nothing new, but it is to Christians.”

Currently, there are 15 cemeteries in New Hampshire categorized as one of three types allowing green burials, according to But the classification of what constitutes a green burial cemetery can be misleading. 

Webster, who teaches certified master classes on the subject, notes the three kinds are a hybrid cemetery, which is a separate space in a conventional cemetery; a natural cemetery, which is one specifically for the purpose, so burial is without impediment; and a conservation cemetery, where one is buried on land conserved by a trust so the internment supports restoration, recreation and education.

“There are no natural burial cemeteries in New Hampshire,” says Webster, the former president of the Green Burial Council and co-founder of the Conservation Burial Alliance. “Not yet. But I’m working on it.”

The Friends Natural Burial Ground in Jaffrey comes close. It was established 10 years ago to meet the desires and needs of the members of the Friends Society of Monadnock Meeting after they spent two years working with town and state officials to meet regulations.

“The burial here is entirely green,” says Judith Brophy while addressing the specific 100 burial slots set aside within this individual meeting’s cemetery. “There is no vault, and the casket is to be entirely bio-degradable. One of our (Quaker) major tenets is simplicity. A vault and a fancy coffin with satin lining and all is not simple. This appeals in all kinds of ways to our values. But these slots are only for our members.”

Even though green burials are sought after across America, Phaneuf doesn’t see the demand increasing in the Granite State, where the cemeteries are hybrid and therefore not “True Green,” as they don’t meet all bio-degradable requirements. 

“It’s getting some traction here, but it’s not very popular in New Hampshire. The reason is that people seem to think that there is no embalming and no casket. They don’t realize that they still need a casket, still need to engage the funeral home to do the transfer and complete the paperwork, and they have to buy the cemetery property, so it ends up costing way more than cremation does. A lot of cemeteries that have a green section are charging an upcharge to buy the lots and do the (hand) digging. It’s not always quite as cost effective as families might think. Some think it must be way less than cremation, but the answer is no, not even close,” he says. 

 Another consideration is the New Hampshire climate.

“Green burial works very well if all the stars align. A number of the green burial cemeteries here in New Hampshire that we work with don’t do winter burials. They are small towns’ cemeteries. What do you do if someone has passed away in December and the cemetery is not going to open up again until April or May? The answer is, ‘I don’t know,’ because the funeral home is certainly not going to hold a non-embalmed deceased person for four, five or six months. A lot of these small-town cemeteries have winter tombs but require embalming. Some don’t have winter tombs. That’s one of the issues we’ve experienced in the last several years,” explains Phaneuf.

He says other factors are New Hampshire’s 80% cremation rate, which is among the highest in the country, traditional religious practices among the state’s large Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox communities, and gifting bodies to medical science. Moreover, New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery, the most active in the state, will not do green burials. 

“What you’re left with is a very small subset of people. Once you take out the cremation folks, the more traditional folks, those going out of state, those who are donating the body, those who don’t have the funds for green burial, and the veterans, you’re probably talking about one percent per year,” says Phaneuf. “We maybe do five or six green burials per year, and we are the largest funeral home in New England. Chances are we would be doing the lion’s share. It’s not a lot.”

Nonetheless, Webster makes a strong case for going green and going back to the future.  

“I work with scientists from all over the world. We’re always trying to come down to discovering not just what we’re putting out into the atmosphere but how this process of decomposing in the ground is the way nature intended, how that can sequester carbon, how that can be beneficial, and how the nutrients of our bodies can support plant and animal communities above ground,” she says. “Burying green is saving land. It’s allowing Mother Nature to do her thing.”

Categories: Health & Wellness, Seniors