Green Burials and why we dig them!

Death is a taboo subject. Most people don't like talking or thinking about it, and certainly don't want to plan for it! However, as Caitlin Doughty, funeral director and death care educator, quipped "accepting our own mortality is like eating your vegetables: You may not want to do it, but it's good for you."

Traditionally when someone died they were cared for at home, usually by women who knew them or an experienced local woman who would wash, anoint and lay out the body. The deceased would be sewn into a shroud and placed into a transport coffin. At the cemetery the body would be removed from the coffin and buried. However, funerals became big business in the late 19th century, pushing women aside in favour of the emerging male-dominated death industry which embraced invasive body preservation, and elaborate funeral and burial practices. Fortunately, women, home care and shrouded burials have been progressively making a comeback. Women are reclaiming their place in all aspects of deathcare, guiding others towards a greener and more holistic final disposition. This is exciting for the environment, women's autonomy and the communities who benefit from these cathartic experiences.

What are the environmental issues?


Embalming is uncommon in Australia, but is more prevalent than is necessary. It is only legally required for mausoleum burials or aeroplane repatriation. Embalming is not needed for hygiene as, unless the person died of a serious communicable disease, only basic hygiene practices are required to handle a body.

In addition to embalming fluids, the caskets, including cardboard and particleboard, are impregnated with chemicals, paints, varnishes and usually have metal or plastic fixtures. In the United States, casket manufacturers are listed in the EPA's top 50 hazardous waste generators (p34). All these elements degrade or corrode, leaching harmful toxins into the surrounding environment.


Plastic takes up to 500 years to biodegrade and is used extensively to prepare and lay out the body: this is accepted as normal but is usually unnecessary.


The volume of resources consumed by conventional burials is staggering. By extrapolating American figures (p.24) we estimate that conventional burials in Australia annually inter 34,000 tonnes of concrete for burial vaults and 475,500 metres of hardwood for caskets. This is in addition to enormous unknown quantities of embalming fluid and non-biodegradable drapery, cushioning, hardware and plastic.

It is particularly environmentally devastating that old growth forests are unsustainably logged for casket timber which is rapidly buried or burned.


Bodies are usually buried 'six feet under' requiring heavy machinery to dig the grave and lower the casket while burning fuel and oil.

At that depth there is minimal insect life or microbes to assist decomposition and this restricts nutrients from entering the ecosystem. Bodies interred within hardwood caskets and encased in concrete vaults do not decompose naturally. Instead they decompose anaerobically creating methane gases which are 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.


Cremations are slightly greener than conventional burials but with crematory ovens reaching around 980 degrees centigrade the energy used for an average cremation could drive you from Melbourne to Darwin and back - a journey of 7500 km!

Each cremation emits 45 kg of carbon dioxide, and produces a variety of harmful emissions.

Cremation ashes (cremains) are not ash, but pulverised bone fragments. Cremains are high in sodium with a pH level of 12-14, the same as household bleach, making them harmful to most plants. Cremains are made inorganic by the extreme heat, meaning they will never biodegrade.

So, what are the solutions?

Luckily there are options! Death care plans are not as restrictive and clinical as we are led to believe. For example, it is legal to collect your deceased person from a facility in your own car and bring them home for family-led deathcare, vigil and funeral, with or without support from funeral professionals.

The environment is a driving force for many of us so it is important to ensure our end of life choices reflect this. Green burials protect the earth from the chemicals, plastics, hardwoods and concrete prevalent in common burial practices while allowing our bodies to benefit the ecosystem. We take from the Earth throughout our lives so it is comforting to know that by choosing a green burial we can finally give something back.

The hallmarks of a green burial are:

  1. A shallower grave. Usually dug to 1.2 metres, a depth that can be achieved by hand. This allows the body to rest in an aerated, microbial environment which encourages natural decomposition, whilst still protecting it from animal disturbances.
  2. A biodegradable and sustainably sourced shroud or casket. As these biodegrade they allow the body to naturally decompose, eventually leaving no foreign items in the earth.
  3. Clothing made of natural fibres. Clothing is often made from non-biodegradable fabrics, only natural fibres biodegrade effectively.
  4. No embalming or chemical materials used. Avoiding unnecessary chemicals protects the soil and plant life.
  5. No large or imported headstones. Headstones are rarely used in green burials, graves are marked with a GPS location and a communal monument. Some cemeteries use small rock or timber headstones that can be reabsorbed into the environment.
  6. No non-native plants or faux floral decorations. Native plants do not generally require pesticides or herbicides and they benefit local fauna and insects.

Many Australian cemeteries facilitate green burials, lists are available online although they are not necessarily comprehensive. We recommend contacting local cemeteries to see which ones will honour ecologically sustainable burials. Green burial plots and products can be pre-purchased which would highlight interest in the movement and hopefully encourage other funeral professionals to provide green options. Sharing this information with friends and family and encouraging them to consider the impact of end of life choices may help them to alter their current death plans. For example, even if someone wishes to be cremated they might consider the benefits of a shrouded cremation, including a faster cremation and no hardwood casket. We also recommend attending death cafes which are wonderful places to ask questions, share experiences and have a safe place for open discourse.

Conventional burials and cremation practices have lasting impacts on the environment, however, armed with knowledge of green burial options, environmentalists can plan to be post-mortem eco-warriors! Benefiting the Earth and protecting habitat long after they are gone.

Written by Tamsin Ramone

Tamsin Ramone has lived most of her life in outer-eastern Naarm/Melbourne. She was raised to care about the environment and encouraged to embrace a feminist values. Along with her sister, Alyssa Wormald, she used these values to create Heaven and Earth Eco Burial Products, creating sustainable and biodegradable burial shrouds and accessories, and conducting free community death education. Tamsin and Alyssa, both working mothers, are passionate about supporting other women in business, and love employing working mothers as our manufacturers and associates.