The Minnesota Legislature approved a law in May that stops new cemeteries from offering green burial for a period of two years in response to concerns raised in Carlton County over a proposed green burial ground. The commonplace means of burial for our ancestors until relatively recently, to many the practice of green burial is new.
“Green,” or “natural,” burial is simply returning the unembalmed dead body to the earth in a biodegradable container — a wicker, simple wood, or sturdy cardboard casket – or wrapped in a shroud. It is safe, practiced all around the country in both historic cemeteries and new green burial preserves, and is also the typical burial practice of Jewish and Muslim communities in the U.S.
Our death care practices have shifted over time in response to pressing concerns posed to communities in times of change. The early Puritan burial grounds in cities like Boston were in the center of town. They were stark and intentionally morbid. Winged skulls and emptying hourglasses adorned the stones reminding passersby of their own impending death.
Around the time these burying grounds were full in the early 1800s, the young country was asking questions about its identity as a nation, religious sentiments were shifting toward nature’s ability to direct us toward the divine rather than lead us astray from God, and burial began moving out of the city center to the rural outskirts.
This began the rural cemetery movement that took hold in cities across the country from the 1830s until the turn of the 20th century. Final resting places became a place of beauty, surrounded by trees and plantings, and graves became sites of memory for individual families and a society making a history for itself. Rural cemeteries became the parks of big cities before big cities had parks, and people visited them in droves.
Until the 1860s, death typically occurred at home, the deathbed surrounded by family who cared for the dying and, later, for their dead body. The Civil War ruptured that good death narrative. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying traumatically away from home, the practice of arterial embalming was invented for the battlefield so that about 40,000 soldiers (who could afford it) could return to their families for burial.
When President Abraham Lincoln was embalmed, this solidified as acceptable what was, to most, a very strange and grotesque practice in the collective consciousness.
In the last 150 years, embalming the dead gradually became the norm, as did burial within a hardwood or metal casket placed into a cement or metal vault (in order to keep the ground from sinking and the grass easier to mow). Care for the dead moved out of the hands of families and into the hands of funeral directors. While modern cremation began in the U.S. in the 1870s, the practice didn’t take off until Jessica Mitford wrote her 1963 takedown of the funeral industry’s financial practices, “The American Way of Death.” Now cremation accounts for 59% of the U.S. disposition market.
Our pressing concerns today are different ones: Climate change is one of our greatest existential threats, reshaping the planet faster than we can adapt and producing some of the hottest months on record this summer. Many desire to return to the death care practices of our forbearers, not because they will save us from climate change, but because green burials and other practices like water cremation (using an eighth the energy of flame cremation) and human composting align more closely with our environmental ethics. And with the average cost of a U.S. funeral hovering around $10,000, alternatives to the contemporary conventional practices are aimed at becoming both less energy-intensive and less economically consumptive.
The value of new green burial cemeteries that the state Legislature has now rather hastily blocked is their ability to preserve landscapes from damage and development. At the conservation level, green burial becomes an environmentally activist way for our corpse to contribute to the wider web of life — no big granite monuments or paved drives, no carcinogenic chemicals pumped into our corpses, no cement vaults to perpetually sever our remains from the earth. The entire burial ground preserves the native habitat, and the habitat becomes a memorial to deceased loved ones.
They are more of a nature preserve for the living rather than a granite and cement city for the dead.
Each time I educate a congregation or religious organization about practices of more ecologically responsible death care practices, the audience is full. Attendance is typically because people are drawn toward either simpler forms of death care, or practices that more closely align with their environmental ethics. For most, it’s about our connection to the wider web of life and our sense of responsibility to care for the entire creation. There’s a desire for the words of scripture, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), to become more than just a metaphor again.
For churches with land already zoned for cemetery use, green burial opens the opportunity to revisit how the congregation can use its land to serve the community by offering affordable natural burial options. And for those churches with cemeteries already on their property, these would presumably not fall under the “new cemetery” category of this recent legislation, and green burials could proceed. This could serve the dual purpose of meeting the community’s death care needs in ecologically responsive ways while also preserving a beautiful plot of land in perpetuity without adding stone monuments, metal caskets and concrete vaults to the grounds.
Our death care practices should address the most pressing questions of the living: How do we honor our dead? How do we continue relating to deceased loved ones? How can we preserve collective memory? How are our bodies — dead and alive — related to the ecological web of life, now on the brink? And what do we owe the earth at life’s end?
Τhe Rev. Cody J. Sanders is an associate professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, and coauthor of Corpse Care: Ethics for Tending the Dead (Fortress Press, 2023).