Home Columns Opinion OPINION: It’s Time for ‘Green Burials’ in Vermont

OPINION: It’s Time for ‘Green Burials’ in Vermont


by Claudia Ines Pringles, attorney, Montpelier

Did you know that Tony Soprano has a better chance at a green burial than we do here in Vermont? It’s time for Vermont to catch up to New Jersey on the issue of environmentally conscience burials, and, as has been evident with recent legislation, Vermont proponents of eco-friendly burials have been working hard to do just that.

In 2015, the Natural Burial Ground Act became law and laid out much of the groundwork for ecological burials by allowing the creation of natural burial grounds. Even before The Natural Burial Act, most of the elements of green burials had already been permitted by Vermont law — bodies could be interred without embalming, without a vault, and without a steel coffin. In practice, however, individuals who would have liked to exercise this option at their demise would hit a dead end as there was no designated place to accept their bodies in this manner. Although state regulations already allowed backyard burials, burials on private land were limited to property owners and their immediate family members only.

With the first legal barrier laid to rest, proponents of Green Burials wanted to dig deeper into the subject by advocating for a change in the law to reduce the minimum required burial depth. Currently, only three states have a minimum burial depth requirement: New Jersey (4 ft. top to surface), Vermont (5 ft. bottom to surface), and New Mexico (6 ft. bottom to surface). House bill H.3 would reduce Vermont’s minimum required burial depth from 5 feet to 3.5 feet. At this depth, bodies would still be protected from scavengers, but it would allow those who choose to be buried in a manner consistent with a true green burial. Proponents in favor of this change argue that at this active level of soil there would be enough heat, oxygen, root structure and  … well, tiny critters to help process the body and thus create a more natural and expedient decomposing process.

H.3 has passed the House — almost unanimously — and is now in the Senate.

If the bill is successful and gets signed into law, more advocacy would need to take place for Vermonters to have meaningful access to green burials. By Vermont law, cemeteries must be managed by municipalities, nonprofits or religious organizations. Although cemetery administrators must comply with state laws, neither of the new laws would require that existing or new cemeteries set aside green burial plots or change their own rules regarding burials in general. For example, most cemeteries require the use of a cement vault over a coffin for the purpose of ground stabilization and to support heavy lawn maintenance equipment. From a green burial perspective, a cement vault would prohibit the natural decomposition of the body and would not be consistent with the intent of a green burial. This is where community members would need to reach out to their cemetery commissioners and find common ground.

With the passage of the Death with Dignity Law and increasing public acceptance of greener burials, we are clearly moving towards extending greater personal choice over one’s end-of-life and post-life options. These are choices available for those who are interested, while not removing or interfering with other options that others may have grown accustomed to. Whether a person chooses cremation, a traditional burial or a green burial, the appropriate legal document where this choice should be memorialized is in an Advance Health Care Directive, which gives the named agent of disposition the legal authority to honor the wishes of the individual.

The author is a Montpelier based attorney with a primary practice area in estate planning, wills, trusts and probate.