More people have heard of green burial today, but many aren’t exactly sure what the process entails once the burial is complete. If you’ve read about the history of green burial, then you already know the earliest burials were extremely natural. Green burial today isn’t all that different, but there are a few more regulations that limit where and how a green burial is conducted as well as how natural gravesites are maintained.
Green Burial Gravesite Maintenance
There are many differences between green burial and traditional burial, and maintenance is one of them. Families choose burial for a loved one partly because they want a final resting place that they can visit. The gravesite isn’t just a place where the burial happens. It’s a place where the family will spend time over the course of many years.
For that reason, families should understand the maintenance needs of a green burial gravesite before making a final decision. While natural burial tends to result in less maintenance, there are very specific requirements in place to keep the process natural.
Managing the Burial Site Mound
If you’ve been to a green cemetery you may have noticed some or all of the graves have mounds of dirt on top. Some green cemeteries choose to build mounds as a way to mark gravesites, but there’s also another purpose.
The grave will begin to cave in soon after burial, and the soil on top will settle down into it. The mound may need to be patted down periodically, which can be done by the cemetery groundskeepers or family. More soil may also need to be added from time to time until the decomposition process is complete.
Decorating a Green Gravesite
In general, green cemeteries forbid any gravesite adornments that aren’t made of natural materials that will decompose. That said, there is generally some leniency. For example, a handwritten letter on colored paper may be fine even if the dyes aren’t natural since the paper will disintegrate. But items like polished pebbles that are common in the Jewish faith and coins that are often mementos left for a fellow military servicemember may or may not be allowed.
Before leaving anything at a green gravesite it’s best to ask the cemetery staff if an item is allowed since a lot of discretion can go into the decision.
If you plan to leave flowers, whether they are in a bouquet or in a pot they must be real not artificial. Potted plants must be in a container made of biodegradable materials like wicker or newspaper.
Understanding the Soil at a Green Burial Site for Planting
One of the greatest benefits of green burial, both with or without cremation beforehand, is that instead of harming the environment it can actually promote plant growth. But it isn’t as simple as picking your loved one’s favorite tree and planting it once the grave is filled in with soil.
To understand the gravesite’s soil and its special needs for growing plants after a green burial, it’s helpful to understand the decomposition process.
The Decomposition Process
Decomposition is inevitable after burial. Even in a casket after a traditional burial, the decomposition process is already underway. However, with green burial decomposition is one of the advantages.
The surrounding soil is heavily impacted by the decomposition process, which is part of the reason traditional burial is so bad for the environment. Some aspects of how green burial is conducted are directly for the purpose of aiding decomposition that improves the soil.
Without embalming and an airtight casket, the decomposition process is actually fairly quick. Typically, the entire process takes just 3-9 months after the green burial depending on the acidity of the soil. After about four months most soft tissue has decomposed leaving only the bones.
Why Are Green Graves Three Feet Deep?
Many people wonder why green graves are just three feet deep. What they don’t realize is that the whole six feet deep rule isn’t a rule at all. Graves weren’t dug that deep until the Victorian era, and even then it was only done in an effort to prevent the spread of the plague.
Today, most of the graves for many traditional burials are just 4-5 feet deep. In Texas, traditional graves must be at least 18” deep. For a natural burial the grave has to be 24” or more.
Green cemeteries choose to make graves 3-3.5 feet deep for the precise purpose of enabling decomposition that will provide nourishment for plants. This is the microbe-rich level where a body will provide the most nourishment within the soil.
At three feet deep there’s also no concern about animals disturbing the grave, even at a conservation cemetery out in a state park. Animals don’t dig that deep for food, and even if they did there are much easier ways for them to eat.
Timing Your Planting Right at a Green Gravesite
Timing is everything if you plan to plant a tree, bush or flowers at a green gravesite, and it also hinges on the decomposition process. During decomposition, the temperature of the body rises and elevates the temperature of the soil around it. That can be detrimental to any plants within the soil.
The first three months there should be no planting. During this period the soil is at its warmest and not ideal for growth. The longer you wait past three months the better the outcome will likely be,
Some families choose to have a tree planting memorial service on a special day, such as the deceased’s birthday or a year after their death. It’s a great opportunity for friends and family that weren’t able to attend the burial to gather together in remembrance.
Using Native Plants
Keeping the gravesite as natural as possible includes the greenery that’s put in place after the burial. Many green cemeteries require that all plants, including trees, must be native to the area. Native plants are often recommended anyhow since they have the best chance of growing and flourishing with little maintenance.
Burying Cremated Remains
Over a third of families choose to bury the cremated remains of a loved one. They do so for a variety of reasons, but many choose burial because they want to plant a tree or a bush using the remains. Specialized bio urns make that easier to accomplish, however some are not acceptable at a green cemetery. Families must verify that the urn is made of biodegradable materials and that there’s no internal plastic bag holding the cremated remains.
Taking Care of a Gravesite at Different Types of Green Cemeteries
It’s important to understand that while cemeteries follow many of the same practices that are acceptable for green burial, each one has their own unique set of rules for maintaining gravesites and visiting the cemetery. Often the guidelines depend on the type of cemetery where a loved one is buried.
In a hybrid cemetery part of the grounds are for traditional burials and another separate section is used for green burials. When it comes to maintaining and decorating a green burial site at a hybrid cemetery it tends to be a little more lenient. While only natural, biodegradable materials can be put in the ground, what’s above it adorning a grave is a little less regulated usually.
It’s also typically easier to get out to the grave site to maintain it since most hybrid cemeteries have roads throughout the grounds. There may be access to running water nearby as well. Most hybrid cemeteries have dedicated groundskeepers that maintain the property so you may be able to arrange maintenance for an additional fee.
Example: Mountain Creek Cemetery in Fort Worth, TX
Conservation cemeteries can be appealing because of how little maintenance is needed. These cemeteries are treated like conservation land. The land is purposely left unmaintained as it would be if humans weren’t around.
Lack of maintenance has actually been a hindrance for conversation cemeteries in some areas. There are states and local governments with cemetery regulations that were written decades ago that require certain maintenance measures. For traditional cemeteries those regulations are beneficial, but many of the required measures are in direct conflict with the mission of a conservation cemetery to minimize impact.
Example: Countryside Memorial in La Verna, TX
Religious Green Cemeteries
Most green cemeteries are open to people of all religions and faiths, even those who don’t identify with a specific church. However, some do provide specialized services for specific religious groups.
It’s not uncommon to see green cemeteries that offer services for Roman Catholics, particularly green cremation burial. Cremation is acceptable in the Catholic Church, but the remains must be kept in a “sacred place” such as an approved cemetery. In areas with a large Catholic population it makes sense for green cemeteries to provide services that meet the requirements for religious ceremonies and burials of any kind.
Example: Our Lady of the Rosary in Georgetown, TX
Opening, Closing, and Maintenance of a Green Burial Grave. 2016. Green Burial Council. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/uploads/1/2/4/2/124231485/opening_closing_and_maintenance_of_a_green_burial_grave.pdf
The Science Behind Green and Conventional Burial. 2016. Green Burial Council. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/uploads/1/2/4/2/124231485/the_science_behind_green_burial.pdf
Why does grave depth matter for green burial? March 2, 2017. Green Burial Naturally. https://www.greenburialnaturally.org/blog/2017/2/27/why-does-grave-depth-matter-for-green-burial
Cremation is Here to Stay: Aging Baby Boomers Proved Catalyst in Shift Beyond Traditional Burial. July 15, 2019. National Funeral Directors Association. https://nfda.org/news/media-center/nfda-news-releases/id/4395/cremation-is-here-to-stay-aging-baby-boomers-proved-catalyst-in-shift-beyond-traditional-burial
Vatican issues guidelines on cremation, says no to scattering ashes. October 25, 2016. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/25/europe/cremation-vatican-scattering/index.html