submitted by Anne Murphy

When we think about our transition into death, green burials and cremations are becoming more commonplace. This is away of caring for the dead that minimizes the environmental impact, while also protecting the health of workers by using sustainable land management techniques. With 3.5 million people dying every year in North America, the way we care for our dead does have an impact.

According to 2015 data, conventional burials in the U.S. bury 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde embalming fluid. Caskets put 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and 90,272 tons of steel, into cemetery grounds. The hardwoods required is the equivalent of 77,000 trees, many of which are from endangered species. Another 14,000 tons of steel and 1.6 tons of reinforced concrete are used for burial vaults.

Reducing Toxicity

Chemical embalming involves replacing the blood and fluid from a body and replacing them with liquids that contain formaldehyde. The Funeral Consumers Alliance states, "embalming chemicals are highly toxic. Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while embalming."

Embalming is rarely required by law and it is legal to choose to not embalm.

The Minnesota Department of Health indicates the law "requires that the body be buried or cremated within 72 hours of the time the body is released from the place of death or released by the coroner or medical examiner. If embalming is not chosen, refrigeration of the body allows the timeline to be extended up to six days. Individuals without access to refrigeration may extend the timeline to four days by using dry ice."

Some tips for preserving the body without embalming:

  • If you have a home vigil, use techni ice (my preference), air conditioning, dry ice, or an open window in cold weather.
  • Choose non-toxic embalming products. Inquire with your funeral director about what they use.
  • Request the use of a funeral home refrigeration unit.

Alternatives to Vaults

Concrete vaults, reinforced with steel, house the caskets and are widely used. Without vaults, caskets naturally collapse over time, which causes the cemetery lawn to form an uneven surface. To help caretakers keep a flat surface, without concrete, purchase a shroud, which has been used by most first peoples and early religions and is still used today.

Other ideas: Ask to use only a casket, or donate funds for the maintenance.

Maintain the Natural Cycle

I tell people I work with, who are preparing for the end of life, that as human beings we are 100 percent biodegradable and beneficial to the soil.

  • To be part of the healthiest green burial, choose a container that mimics your body's natural ability to decompose.
  • Use a shroud made from natural materials such as cotton or silk. This ensures the most rapid return to the earth.
  • Make your own casket out of locally sourced materials, reclaimed wood, or sustainably harvested wood.
  • Hire an artist, friend or craftsperson to help create a container that is uniquely you.

Anne Murphy is a celebrant, home vigil guide, and death doula. She is a founding member of the Minnesota Death Collaborative and is on the Minnesota Threshold Network Leadership Committee. Learn more at