For Vermonters who want to be laid to rest in an environmentally friendly way, natural burials— the burial of an unembalmed body in a shroud or a biodegradable casket or container—are on the rise. Also known as “green burials,” the increase in popularity may be due, at least in part, to a growing awareness of the harmful environmental effects caused by cremation.
“Right now, about 80 percent of Vermonters choose cremation. It’s about 70 percent nationwide,” said Funeral Director Michelle Acciavatti of Guare and Sons Funeral Home in Montpelier. “They choose cremation because they had environmental concerns about the impact of burial.”
But despite its eco-friendly reputation, according to National Geographic the cremation process typically requires heating a body to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit or more and produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. End-of-life awareness website Talk Death claims North America uses enough fossil fuels for cremation each year to drive someone halfway to the sun.
“Cremation at this point is our greatest concern because of the amount of fossil fuels that it consumes and the amount of greenhouse gases it releases,” Acciavatti said.
But while green burials might seem to some like a new trend, throughout history most humans were buried naturally, Acciavatti said. It wasn’t until the 1800s that burial practices in the United States started to change.
“We went from using very simple biodegradable materials like pine boxes—to hardwoods— and then metal caskets became very popular, so we were no longer allowing the body to come into direct contact with the soil,” Acciavatti said, adding that the shift away from natural burials had to do with growing fears surrounding dead bodies. In the 1800s, when there was little information about disease transmission, metal caskets were used as a safety precaution to protect the living from the dangerous miasmas of the dead, she explained. To this day, the idea that dead bodies are dangerous persists.
“There are very few diseases that are actually communicable after death,” Acciavatti said of the myth. “Most things that make us sick require oxygen and oxygenated blood to survive and living cells to replicate.”
Another burial practice that gained prominence in the 1800s was grave vaults, which were originally designed to protect against grave robbers.“These are still used today and they are, for the most part, concrete boxes,” Acciavatti said. “Those go into the ground, the casket is lowered into the concrete box, and the lid goes on top.” Even after grave robbers were no longer a concern, the practice of using the vaults remained because “they do help to maintain the integrity of the grave,” Acciavatti said.
Patrick Healy, director of the Green Mount Cemetery on lower State Street, has a lot of experience with grave integrity. Vermonters have been buried at Green Mount Cemetery since 1853, and, according to Healy, concrete vaults became common there during World War II when the vaults allowed more bodies to be buried in one area “so they could go next to each other.” The vaults also protected graves from being accidentally disturbed when digging new graves. “You have equipment driving over [the graves], so it was a safety concern,” Healy explained.
While concrete vaults might assist in keeping graves intact, their environmental drawbacks are hard to ignore. Concrete prevents the body from decomposing naturally, Acciavatti said, and leaks leachate into the soil. “Concrete is actually a huge environmental risk,” she noted. “Concrete creates a leachate that soil has a very hard time fixing. Concrete runoff can travel quite a distance away from where it’s put in the ground.”
Recently, Green Mount Cemetery established a natural burial area, but Healy claimed natural burials have taken place there since the cemetery opened in 1853. “Most of the burials between 1853 and 1910 to 1920 were probably just in a pine box without embalming, so they were natural burials then,” Healy said.
Healy and the employees at Green Mount Cemetery, who oversee and maintain approximately 4,000 gravesites, have been preparing the section for natural burials. “We’ve done a few (natural burials), and we’ll be getting the section planted with apple trees and flowers and grasses. It’s not going to be mowed,” Healy said. “There aren’t going to be lawnmowers.” The natural burial area will also forego traditional gravestone monuments. “It will just be flat markers,” Healy said.
While natural burials may be more environmentally friendly than other burial options, they are not completely without risk. Acciavatti stressed that when choosing a natural burial site it’s important to avoid groundwater sources because bacteria are released into the ground during decomposition. Another important consideration of natural burial is burial depth. The average vault requires the grave to be dug approximately five or six feet deep, which further impacts the decomposition process.
“The process of natural decomposition, which is a partnership between the bacteria in our body and those micro-organisms, heat, and oxygen, is going to change dramatically at that depth,” explained Acciavatti, who in 2017 spearheaded an effort to change the minimal burial depth. The effort succeeded in changing Vermont’s minimum burial depth from 5 feet to its current depth of 3½ feet.
At Green Mount Cemetery, natural graves are dug to be about 4½ feet deep. “The questions that we had were, ‘Will animals dig it up?’ That’s why we’re not going 3½ feet,” Healy explained. Another challenge has been dealing with Vermont’s soils, terrain, and climate. “In the wintertime, we’ll cover up the grave with a couple of bales of hay and try to keep the ground from freezing to get that decomposition process going as fast as possible,” he said.
Acciavatti hopes that by offering natural burials, cemeteries can begin to transform from manicured spaces to places where our bodies can nurture the local environment. “When we think about cemeteries, we think of them looking a lot like golf courses with very well-manicured lawns,” Acciavatti said. “But if we’re managing them in an ecologically sound manner, hopefully, we’re using them to restore and recreate things like wildflower habitats. We’re going to have [cemeteries] that look more like meadows.”
Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier, Robinson Cemetery in Calais, Hazen-West Cemetery in North Hero, and Meeting House Cemetery in Brattleboro all have established natural burial areas.