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Greening The Grave: Why More People Are Choosing Climate-Friendly Burials

Mishy Lesser stands at the green burial site of her mother, Nettie Lesser. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Mishy Lesser stands at the green burial site of her mother, Nettie Lesser. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Nettie Lesser’s grave is tucked in the back of Mount Auburn Cemetery in a quiet area surrounded by trees and birds and a carpet of purple flowers starting to bloom. The plot blends into the scene around it, the only marker a small plaque the size of a hockey puck; you wouldn’t know it was a grave unless you were looking for it.

“She loved Mount Auburn, loved visiting here,” says Mishy Lesser, Nettie’s daughter. “We loved the beech trees, and the cedars, and the wall and the placement of the graves.” 

Lesser buried her mother in 2017 in what’s called a “green burial.” The practice has surged in popularity over the past several years, with 25 cemeteries in Massachusetts now offering the services and about 60 cemeteries offering green burial options across New England. Even more cemeteries, such as the municipal grounds in Wellfleet, MA, are considering changing their regulations to allow green burials.

While natural burials have a long history in some religious and Indigenous traditions, advocates attribute the surge in popularity to growing environmental awareness.

A low-carbon burial

In general, the goal of green or natural burials is to remove as many chemicals and manufactured materials from the process as possible. Compared to what’s often referred to as “conventional” burial — which involves embalming, a metal or lacquered casket and a concrete liner or vault where the body will be buried — green burials avoid embalming, do not use grave liners and place the body in either a shroud or simple wood casket that will break down over time.

“There’s a different aesthetic that’s involved with the way we’re perceiving death and perceiving the ways we deal with it,” said Lee Webster, former president of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that certifies green burial cemeteries. She says current thinking “has more to do with authenticity.”

Under the umbrella of “green burial,” the Green Burial Council categorizes cemeteries on a spectrum: hybrid cemetery, natural burial ground and conservation cemetery.

Hybrid cemeteries like Mount Auburn allow both green and conventional burials; a conservation cemetery combines a burial ground with a land trust, valuing environmental health and conservation as much as the burial practices.

Green burial plots themselves look different than conventional ones. Green burials are meant to be a natural part of the landscape; instead of a large headstone, they use either small, flat markers like the one at Lesser’s grave, or no markers at all. The graves themselves are dug only four feet deep; the displaced dirt initially looks like a mound, but eventually flattens out.

“It’s a shallow grave,” says Regina Harrison, sales manager at Mount Auburn. “That’s where the process of decomposition happens in the soil.”  

“If you want a natural burial, that’s the goal — decomposition,” she added.

Mount Auburn began officially offering natural burial plots for purchase in 2014. They’re frequently placed between existing graves in the cemetery’s historic core, because those graves are also considered natural burials; grave liners did not come into common practice until after the Civil War. 

Harrison said Mount Auburn made the change in order to become more sustainable, and because of increasing interest from potential clients. 

“The first year we had this as an official product, I think we sold 11 spaces. Last fiscal year we sold 27,” she said. “So it’s continuing to grow, and we see that trajectory just continuing onwards and upwards.”

Green burial is allowed under Massachusetts state law, but  individual cemeteries and local boards of health decide whether to permit them. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Green Burial Massachusetts, a growing number of cemeteries are setting aside space for green burials.Efforts are also underway to establish a conservation cemetery in the Pioneer Valley.

Judith Lorei, the co-founder of Green Burial Massachusetts, attributes the increased interest to a greater awareness of climate change and carbon footprints. Between the manufacturing of caskets and vaults, the actual burial process and ongoing maintenance, analysts with the Green Burial Council estimate a conventional burial emits about 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, while green burials emit significantly less. 

“If you’ve been an environmentalist your whole life, you would want to be an environmentalist in your death,” said Lorei. “We really believe that if our body is left to decompose naturally, that the nutrients your body provides really feed the soil.” 

It comes with costs

But many people have reservations about green burials. At Mount Auburn, Harrison frequently addresses questions about animals digging to a body in a shallower grave; Lorei says people ask whether green burial plots are less stable, or if a decomposing body is bad for the ground. Both say they understand people’s concerns, but that those particular risks are low or nonexistent.

Still, the “green” option has its own costs. Without the preservation of embalming, bodies need to be buried more quickly, leaving less time for people to gather for a funeral. It can also make some traditions, like the open casket viewing common in some Christian funerals, difficult, if not impossible.

Some argue for a broader definition of green burial, so that people  can both retain certain traditions and choose their preferred method of burial. Victor Watson, who owns and operates Bishop Funeral Home in Worcester, MA, says embalming, for example, shouldn’t automatically be ruled out. 

“Embalming doesn’t have the impact on the environment people think it does,” he said. “Embalming chemicals have changed, some companies have non-formaldehyde embalming substance[s].”

“And you know, formaldehyde itself is a protein-binding substance,” he added. “So technically, even when everything starts to break down, you don’t have formaldehyde seeping into the ground like people think.”

A long history

While the branding of environmentally-friendly burials is a relatively new development, the practice itself has a long history in some religious traditions. Watson, who is Muslim, primarily serves Worcester’s Islamic community; he said those funerals do not include embalming, rarely include a casket and are completed as soon after death as possible.

“Any time we do an Islamic burial, I mean, it’s a green burial,” he said. “This is the tradition. So they haven’t done it any other way — green burial wasn’t a term when this started.”

While Mount Auburn has always been officially nondenominational, the cemetery has seen a slight increase in its number of Muslim and Jewish burials since it started offering green burial plots.

That was one of the draws for Mishy Lesser and her family — natural burial aligned with both the ancient traditions of Lesser and her mother’s Jewish faith, and the environmental values she shares with her husband.

“It’s something comforting about imagining life emerging over time on this planet,” she said. “And then when our time is up, we go back to the earth.”

At the plot in the back, Lesser points to a patch of grass next to her mother. It’s where she and her husband will one day lie themselves, in natural graves.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR

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