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Green in Funeral Service: Frequently Asked Questions

Consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental issues such as the need to conserve energy, to preserve natural resources, and to use biodegradable products in homes and businesses. These are the "green" issues in the headlines. Eventually, you may be asked to explain or to offer "green" funeral choices for some of the families in the communities you serve.

This FAQ provides some basic definitions and information about green funeral service to help you understand and explain what "green" funeral service is to consumers and to your employees. It also suggest some simple "green" alternatives for families who choose this type of funeral.

There are many "shades" of green possible when planning a green funeral. The type of green funeral you provide will be based on consumer preferences, funeral home capabilities, cemetery practices and regulations, and the availability of other green options in your market. Your professional responsibility is to educate yourself and your staff about local cemetery practices and to make sure you are in compliance with any state or local burial restrictions. You should also research and make choices about "green" funeral practices, such as alternatives to embalming, and green services and products, such as biodegradable caskets, that your firm might offer.

You may have questions that are not answered here, such as questions about possible public health or hazard issues, or about how special circumstances of the deceased, such as the existence of implants or certain diseases at time of death, may affect preparation of the body and final disposition. Because green funerals are an emerging alternative to traditional funeral practices, some questions have not yet been answered, such as whether there are any long-term effects on the environment. NFDA is currently researching this and related topics.

What does it mean to be "green" in funeral service?

As with the concept of "green" in general, green in funeral service means practicing environmental consciousness and being eco-friendly.

It encompasses green funeral homes, green funerals, and natural or green burial. Any funeral home can be "green" in practice. You have the option to adopt green practices to improve your business operations as well as to meet the needs of the families you serve.
Going green in funeral service is a natural consequence of today's eco-consciousness.

Consumer values and lifestyles are reflected in their attitudes and decision making about products and services in the marketplace, including their approach to death and funerals.

Green funeral choices are expected to grow in popularity in the U.S. as this eco-consciousness grows – and as more people become aware of available options.

What is a green funeral?

A green funeral incorporates environmentally-friendly options to meet the needs of a family requesting a green service.

It may include any or all of the following basic options: no embalming or embalming with formaldehyde-free products; the use of sustainable biodegradable clothing, shroud or casket; using recycled paper products, locally-grown organic flowers, organic food; carpooling; arranging a small memorial gathering in a natural setting; natural or green burial.

What is natural or green burial?

In a "purist" natural or green burial, the body is buried, without embalming, in a natural setting.

Any shroud or casket that is used must be biodegradable, nontoxic, and of sustainable material. With this type of burial, traditional standing headstones are not permitted. Instead, flat rocks, plants or trees may serve as grave markers; some cemeteries use GPS to mark the locations of gravesites.

A "natural or green burial" may also simply mean burial without embalming, in a biodegradable casket without a vault, when permitted by a cemetery.

What is a green cemetery?

A green cemetery is a burial site that does not permit vaults, non-biodegradable caskets or embalming chemicals.

It uses no herbicides, pesticides or irrigation for maintenance of the cemetery grounds. Any material used at a green cemetery must meet the goal of replenishing the earth. There are cemeteries in the U.S. that accommodate both conventional burial practices and vaultless burial on their premises; others incorporate some features of a green cemetery such as sustainable landscape design and natural memorialization.

The first green burial in the modern sense took place in England in 1993; in the ensuing 15 years, the number of green burial grounds in the UK has grown to nearly 40. In the United States, one of the first natural burial grounds was opened in 1996 in western South Carolina. Some green cemeteries are established as conservation areas in accordance with specific state laws. There are now green cemeteries in 10 states – California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Utah – with more under development. The resource section at the end of this Q&A provides a link to U.S. green burial information.

If the area I serve does not have any green cemeteries, can I offer green funerals?

Yes, you can offer green funerals in an area without green cemeteries. A green funeral incorporates available green options in order to meet the needs of a family requesting a green service.

Note: while the use of outer burial containers is not required by federal or state law, it is in practice required by many cemeteries. Find out if any cemeteries in your area have begun to offer green burial sections that do not require vaults. In rural areas, vaults or grave liners are usually not required.

When a cemetery requires a vault, do I have "green" alternatives?

Check first with the cemetery to determine what is allowed, such as:

  1. Casket protectors or grave liners that are open on the bottom, such as those used in Orthodox Jewish funerals, so that the body comes into contact with the earth.
  2. Using a regular vault that is turned upside-down.

What about cremation? Is it considered "green"?

In general, cremation is not considered "green" because the cremation process uses nonrenewable fossil fuels, even though cremation does use fewer resources than conventional forms of disposition.

Cremation also produces airborne emissions. However, cremated remains do not need to be interred in a cemetery, which reduces land use.

What alternatives to formaldehyde are available to preserve a body for a viewing?

  1. Refrigeration.
  2. Dry ice. Note: there are well-established safety guidelines for handling, storage, and ventilation when using dry ice as a preservative.
  3. Formaldehyde-free embalming products. Ask your embalming product supplier about the formaldehyde-free products it may offer. Trials of aardbalm, an iodine-based embalming product, used by some United Kingdom funeral homes, are taking place in funeral homes in the United States.

How do I respond to a consumer who wants a green funeral or who asks, "Do you perform environmentally-sensitive funerals?"

Be prepared to discuss the array of green funeral options that your funeral home offers to meet the family's needs!

Help the family create a funeral that is as green as possible. Be ahead of the curve in your community by educating yourself now about the options available to you and to your families.

What is a green funeral home?

A green funeral home is a business that operates in an environmentally-responsible manner, implementing green business practices.

Owners and staff comply with environmental protection, health, and safety laws and regulations, and follow NFDA's environmental, health, and safety best practices. A green funeral homes is energy-efficient and follows resource-saving practices, operating in a manner that is sustainable. Sustainable in this sense means business practices that do not deplete resources and that only will have minimal impact on the environment.

A green funeral home is a healthy place to work that is oriented to the quality of life of its employees and to the greater community in which the funeral home operates. It is committed to environmental stewardship that can attract positive attention in the community as well as draw eco-minded consumers.

Where do I start if I want to “green” my business?

EPA provides free green resources including technical support, “how-to” guides, public relations materials for promotional purposes, and links to financial resources such as state and local government grants, loans, and rebate programs

EPA offers two free green business programs: the EPA WasteWise Program and the EnergyWise® Program for Small Businesses. Each program provides comprehensive guidelines; assessment tools to measure, set goals, and track energy use; and consulting services for the small business aiming to reduce waste and save energy – and aiming to achieve local and national recognition.

Minimally, each program offers a network for small businesses to help them save money and protect the environment through reducing waste and saving energy.

What are some eco-friendly business measures my funeral home can plan to implement?

  • Use of alternative energy sources for energy efficiency and conservation
  • Environmentally preferable purchasing
  • Green construction and remodeling
  • Green office/workplace practices
  • Green landscaping
  • Public advocacy for healthier environment
  • Energy-saving transportation/fleet practices
  • Waste prevention, reduction, and recycling
  • Water conservation/efficiency/quality

Selected Green Funeral Service Resources

EPA EnergyStar® for Business program home page

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leads the nation's environmental science, research, education, and assessment efforts in its mission to protect human health and the environment.

Free, voluntary EPA program to help organizations save money through reduced purchasing and disposal costs and improved operating efficiency.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) website includes links to small business management tools and the SBA Small Business Guide to Energy Efficiency.