Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The third section, Part Three, focuses on burial containers.

Burial Containers

 One character defining feature of green burials includes the use of biodegradable caskets, urns, and shrouds. These can be made locally, which can result in a smaller carbon footprint. Additionally, coffins that are made exclusively out of a simple biodegradable wood from a renewable resource, such as pine, or the use of a cloth shroud can have financial benefits. Locally sourced wood is more sustainable because the wood does not have to be imported, which saves energy and reduces our carbon footprint because less fuel is used to transport the wood. Using locally crafted wood also financially supports local communities and craftsmen. Sometimes, people make their own caskets. For example, cardboard caskets or caskets made out of recycled paper are able to be used at some green burial grounds, including at Congressional Cemetery, as long as the caskets are sturdy enough to support the weight of the corpse. Some people choose to purchase carbon credits to offset the environmental effects of the selected container.

Forgoing a concrete vault is an opportunity to be more sustainable for coffin burials. A concrete vault is used to help maintain a level ground for mowing, minimize soil settlement, and prevent the grave from collapsing. Instead of using a concrete vault, extra dirt can be placed on top of the ground to help level out the soil, which makes lawn mowing easier and quicker. While concrete is made from natural resources, the mining, manufacturing, and transporting of concrete can result in environmental harm due to carbon emissions and because the production of concrete requires a lot of energy. Additionally, vaults create a barrier between the casket and the earth, which can extend the amount of time it takes for a body to decompose. While some people have expressed concerns about the health ramifications of forgoing the use of a concrete vault, there has been no evidence of any negative health consequences for coffin burials that do not have a vault. Additionally, green burial cemeteries undergo scientific tests and enforce parameters to ensure that water sources and surrounding infrastructure do not get contaminated. The soil itself also serves as a natural filter. On the other hand, cement is impermeable, and cement vaults were never intended to contain germs or chemicals.

Some people choose to minimize the use of heavy equipment, such as metal lowering devices. Bodies can be lowered to the ground through the use of straps or ropes, instead of using heavy equipment.

In a true green burial, casket and urn decorations should be biodegradable. Additionally, caskets should not be coated in polyurethane or stained with any petroleum-based product. The preferred natural darkening agent is linseed oil.

In a green burial, emphasis is placed on shrouds, urns, and caskets that are plant-based, recycled, natural, animal, or made out of unfired earthen materials. This includes the shell, liner, adornments, fasteners, and handles. Consumers should be mindful of finishes and adhesives on coffins and urns that can introduce toxic by-products into the ground. Many of these finishes and adhesives contain plastics, acrylics, and other synthetic polymeric materials. Look for products that have some form of green certification that backs up the claim to very that the product is truly environmentally friendly. Be mindful of greenwashing, which can have false misrepresentation or contain misleading information to consumers. The Green Burial Council created a verifiable set of eco-standards for cemetery operators, funeral homes, and product manufacturers. Material data sheets and life cycle analysis can also be used to verify the environmental benefits of various products.


The diagram illustrates the difference between a conventional coffin burial and a green coffin burial. Image courtesy of “Green Burial.” A Sacred Moment. Accessed September 28, 2017. https://www.asacredmoment.com/green-burial/.


Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.