Eco-friendly burials gain favor among baby boomers

At eco-friendly sites, families often dig graves themselves.
Farley Center via Associated Press/2013
At eco-friendly sites, families often dig graves themselves.

Some people take their principles to their grave. And for some baby boomers, that means planning their funerals, or their parents’ funerals, in an eco-friendly way.

Shedden Farley’s mother, Linda Farley, was passionate about a lot of causes, including the environment. When she died of cancer in 2009 at age 80, the family knew they wanted a natural burial that would have a minimal ecological impact, said Farley, a general contractor in Fort Collins, Colo.

Many traditional cultures practice natural burials that don’t interfere with the organic process of decomposition. In modern North America, however, it is common to place an embalmed body in a wood or metal casket and inter it in a concrete vault.


Because there were no ‘‘green’’ cemeteries near Linda Farley’s home in Wisconsin, the family got permission to bury her on their property. ‘‘Not only did we dig the grave, but we put her in the grave, and we filled the grave — and it was an amazingly cathartic thing to do,’’ said Farley, one of five sons. ‘‘It was a way of being intimate with our mother right up until we would never see her again.’’

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The experience spurred his father, Gene Farley, to suggest that the family set aside 25 acres, which has become the Natural Path Sanctuary, a nature preserve burial ground, near Madison, Wis.

The environmental burial movement is mostly a recent phenomenon. Ramsey Creek preserve opened as the country’s first ‘‘green’’ cemetery in Westminster, S.C., in 1998. Seven years later, the Green Burial Council, a California-based advocacy group, was formed.

Today, there are more than 40 certified green cemeteries in North America, said Joe Sehee, the council’s founder.

‘‘When baby boomers start to die, I think you’ll see a lot more of it. They have a keen interest in environmentalism,’’ said Sehee, 53, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.


Green burial practices vary. Some families dig their own graves; others have it done for them. Some cemeteries only allow shrouds, while others permit an unfinished coffin made from sustainable wood. Cremation is accepted at some but not all because of the fossil fuel burned and the pollutants that may be released from dental fillings and artificial joints. Some eco-friendly cemeteries permit grave markers; others provide GPS coordinates.

The council has four goals for an eco-friendly funeral:

 Conserving natural resources by eliminating the need for watering, mowing, fertilizers, and pesticides.

 Reducing carbon emissions by avoiding the use of concrete burial vaults and metal caskets.

 Protecting workers’ health by preventing their exposure to toxic chemicals in embalming fluids, adhesives, and finishes on coffins.


 Preserving habitat by creating burial grounds that function as permanently protected natural areas.

Natural Path Sanctuary, which has not sought council certification, opened in 2011 and has about 30 people buried there, including Gene Farley, who died last year at 86.

About 50 others have made pre-arrangements, which involved making a $2,500 donation to the nonprofit Linda & Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability and paying $1,000 for burial rights, said Kevin Corrado, who runs the sanctuary’s burial program. The fee doesn’t include funeral home costs.

Still, it’s a deal compared to conventional burials. The national median cost of a funeral was more than $7,000 in 2012, plus an additional $1,300 for a vault, according to the National Funeral Directors’ Association. That’s in addition to the cost of burial rights, which are typically more than $4,000, according to eFuneral.

Sehee recommends that consumers ask any cemetery operator offering green burials if there is a conservation easement or restricted covenant in place to uphold long-term ecological promises, in case the property is sold.

At Natural Path, visitors walk along paths covered in wood chips. ‘‘You walk through there and you may notice the two freshest [graves] that are maybe a couple of weeks old. Otherwise, you have no idea’’ it’s a cemetery, Farley said.

And when he dies?

He’d like a natural burial, ‘‘if anybody loves me enough to go through that effort.”