What is ‘green burial’ and does the Catholic Church allow it?

Cross grave Credit Sarah Marchant Shutterstock CBA Credit: Sarah Marchant/Shutterstock

In an era of increasing environmental consciousness, the practice of “green burials” is growing in popularity — including at numerous Catholic cemeteries throughout the United States. 

The funeral and burial economies in the United States — commonly grouped together as the “death care industry” — are both financially lucrative and highly resource-intensive. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) says on its website that the death care industry as a whole generated about $16 billion in the latest annual data.

Just over $3.3 billion of that amount is linked to “cemeteries and crematories.” Industry estimates, meanwhile, indicate that cemeteries bury tens of thousands of tons of steel coffins every year, along with several million gallons of “embalming fluids” such as formaldehyde and methanol.

The significant environmental costs of those materials has led many to seek alternative forms of interment, such as “green” or “natural” burials, which use considerably fewer resources and are more environmentally friendly as a result.

‘The original form of burial’

Cathy Vail, the executive director of the Catholic Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York, said green burial is “a process that returns humans to earth as simply as possible.”  

“The main difference from common burial practices is the interment process,” Vail told CNA. 
In green burials, she said, caskets are placed directly in the ground rather than in a poured concrete “vault.” 

The body, meanwhile, “must be in a biodegradable container (casket/urn) or shroud,” rather than the more common steel-fabricated coffins.

“Each cemetery may have different ‘levels’ or certification of green/natural burial,” she said. “These will determine the level of maintenance of the section.”

The Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, she said, is certified via the Green Burial Council, which requires a certain level of upkeep in the cemetery’s green burial sections. Uncertified cemeteries, she noted, can let their green plots grow more wild if they so choose.

At the Rochester facility’s newest burial section, green burials account for “44% of all graves purchased,” Vail said. The Green Burial Council says on its website that surveys show a “growing interest” in the practice.

Deacon Ed Handel, the director of the Office of Cemeteries and Funeral Services at the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, told CNA that the diocese offers green burials at one of its cemeteries, located at the city of Roanoke in the western part of the state. 

“It’s becoming a more popular request,” Handel said. The diocese has sold several burial spots in the green section, he said, though they have not yet buried any bodies there. 

Perhaps the most notable difference in green burials is the absence of embalming fluid in the preparation process. The vast majority of burials in the U.S. include embalming, in which the body is preserved using numerous chemicals to allow for viewings and wakes. The practice became widely used during and after the U.S. Civil War.

In addition to the lack of embalming, Handel said, a green burial casket is a relatively simple receptacle. The body is “placed in, for lack of a better term, a plain pine box,” he said. “There’s nothing artificial — no metal, no varnish — so that it naturally decomposes.” 

“Instead of six feet deep, the burial is actually done in the three- to four-foot-deep range, because that’s optimal for body decomposition,” he said. 

The lack of a concrete vault in green burials, Handel said, does present some structural challenges. A vault “keeps the grave from caving in when the casket breaks down,” he said. 

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“With green burial there is no vault,” he noted. “Obviously in those areas there will be more backfill required as time goes on, because the body will decompose and the casket will cave in.”

The Roanoke facility isn’t the only Catholic green burial option in the state: Several years ago Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville began offering green burials

The abbey on its website says that, in its green burial process, “the body [is not] embalmed,” the casket is not made of metal, and there is no concrete vault. 

Graves, meanwhile, “are marked with simple engraved stones obtained from these same sacred grounds.”

Not all green burial methods ‘manifest respect’

Other environmentally friendly forms of burial have been the subject of debate in recent years, and the Church has declared some of them unsuitable for Catholics. 

Some environmental advocates have argued that “human composting” offers a solution to resource-intensive burials. In that practice, a human body is placed inside a reusable container where deliberately seeded microbes and bacteria break it down into soil. 

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year said that human composting, along with the chemical-based process of alkaline hydrolysis, “pose serious problems in that they fail to manifest the respect for last remains that Catholic faith requires.”

Green burials, in contrast, are permitted by the Catholic Church, Handel said, reiterating that the practice is perfectly in line with Church teaching.

“From the Catholic perspective, I don’t see why we shouldn’t promote green burial,” he said, “because it goes back to our tradition that the preferred method of disposition at the end of your life is a full body burial, not cremation.”

Vail echoed those remarks, calling green burials “the original form of burial.” 

“The final act in the Catholic rites of burial is the committal in consecrated ground,” she said.  “Therefore, this type of burial is in line with Catholic teaching.”

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