Q

What is a green burial?

A

A green burial is a natural burial process that conserves and replenishes the environment.

Nupur Gambhir

By

Nupur Gambhir

Nupur Gambhir

Life Insurance Expert

Nupur Gambhir is an insurance editor at Policygenius and licensed Life, Health, and Disability agent in New York.

Published March 8, 2021|10 min read

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End-of-life planning protects the financial future of your loved ones. It is also a deeply personal choice that involves not just cost, but the legacy you want to leave behind. 

As environmental concerns grow, so does the demand for a more sustainable funeral option: a green burial. A survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association showed that over 51% of its respondents would opt-in for an eco-friendly burial option to either reduce their carbon footprint or save money.

You can prepare for a green burial by laying out your final wishes for your loved ones and leaving behind savings or a life insurance policy to cover the funeral costs.

Key Takeaways

  • Green burials use biodegradable materials and forgo toxic chemicals, such as embalming fluid

  • Having a green burial is good for the environment and can also be cost-effective

  • Life insurance can cover the costs of a green burial while also supporting your loved ones financially if you die prematurely

The environmental impact of death

With burgeoning concerns about the environment, more people are opting for green funerals to minimize their carbon footprint not just in life, but also in death.

Traditional burials are energy-intensive and can have a significant impact on the environment. Toxic chemicals used to embalm the body pollute the environment and seep into water supplies. Additionally, the resources and materials used for caskets — a staggering 30 million pounds of hardwood, 2,700 tons of bronze and copper, and 104,272 tons of steel per year — emit C02 into the atmosphere. And then there is the decreasing amount of available land to consider.

And while cremations use up fewer natural resources, they still emit more than 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

“[Green burials] are more eco-friendly than embalming and burial. We put enough metal [caskets] in the ground every year in the United States to build a Golden Gate Bridge annually,” explains Bob Jenkins, Co-Founder and President of Let Your Love Grow.

“Cremation is a little bit more eco-friendly. However, it does use natural resources and it also emits carbon dioxide, which is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.” 

Carbon dioxide is one of the leading causes of climate change and has increased by 47% since the start of the Industrial Revolution due to human activities.

The environmental cost of dying, plus the increasingly high costs of traditional burials, has led to increased demand for a green burial.

What is a green burial?

Green burials mitigate the negative impact funerals have on the environment while preserving and even replenishing eco-systems. They emphasize sustainability in the burial process by removing chemicals and conserving natural resources. Options are varied, but they generally forgo pollutants and extra material, such as embalming or metal caskets and coffins. Instead, green burial caskets use renewable materials, such as biodegradable shrouds.

Additionally, certain laws bar highways and infrastructure from being developed upon these cemeteries, which aids in conserving natural lands. 

Green burials take place in the following places:

  • Natural burial grounds that are dedicated allotments for green burials that forego embalming and use biodegradable materials.

  • Hybrid cemeteries, which include traditional burials and allotted space for green burials.

The one constant across all green burial types is that the funeral process has some ecological benefit. But the type of green burial you have depends on your preferences. 

For Ed Bixby, President of the Green Burial Council, choosing a green burial makes you a steward for future generations.

“[You’re] basically going back to the earth as we came and really the only way human beings have practiced —  other than cremation — for a millennia. We didn't invent anything new, what we're doing is reintroducing people to what once was,” says Bixby. 

For those who would rather opt for cremation, carbon-neutral cremations are an option. To offset carbon emissions caused by cremations, these ceremonies use cremated remains as a conservation effort. For example, companies like Eternal Reefs repurpose cremated remains as food for coral reef restoration.  

“We refer to the ocean as a nutrient-rich desert. [There are] billions of microorganisms… looking for a place to land and where they can start to grow, develop and propagate. Every single memorial that we place on the ocean floor is a brand new palette for mother nature to start working on,” says George Frankel, CEO of Eternal Reefs. 

Other options vary from biodegradable urns to using cremated remains as food for plant life. 

Using created remains, companies like Eternal Reefs are building new habitats and replenishing previously devastated ecosystems. But these companies can use cremated remains for ecological benefit through ample scientific research and testing. Cremated remains don’t naturally provide sustenance for the environment, so it’s important to work with a reputable provider when setting this type of service up. 

Finding a green burial service

Like all other parts of end-of-life planning, how you plan a sustainable end-of-life celebration is a completely personal choice. Directories like the Green Burial Council can help you search for sustainable end-of-life options. You can also search for a green funeral home in your area: 

Other services like Let Your Love Grow have done the research and development to use cremated remains as food for plant and sea life. Many of these services include a memorial service and incorporate a way for loved ones to celebrate life throughout the process of a natural burial service. 

You can find a list of green burial sites across the U.S. and Canada here.

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The cost of a green burial

How much a green funeral costs depends on where the ceremony is being held and the type of ceremony you have, though according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, it typically ranges from $200 to $4,000. Traditional funerals, on the other hand, cost upwards of $8,000 to $10,000. The simpler the ceremony, the less you will spend. 

However, while a simple green burial can be relatively affordable, more personalized services can cost more. Niche and highly specialized end-of-life celebrations may charge higher prices. 

Planning a green burial

Amidst the grief of losing a loved one and uncertainty about the future, the deceased’s family must make funeral arrangements almost immediately — usually within days.  

Planning for your death is an uncomfortable undertaking, but doing so can ease the financial and emotional burden on your loved ones. And if you’d prefer an environmentally friendly commemoration, a little forethought into your final plans can go a long way. 

There are two main factors to take into account when planning a green burial: 

  1. Laying out your wishes

  2. Financial support

Laying out your final wishes

Bixby recommends planning your end-of-life celebration to save loved ones the additional grief and focus on commemorating a lost loved one. 

“And if you cannot, [then] make sure your wishes are known... with your executor or with an advanced directive. Allow people to understand exactly what you want. If it's left up to the family, it becomes a financial hardship.” 

Planning your end-of-life ceremony may also help your loved ones receive benefits that they otherwise might not have known were available. 

“The one thing a lot of people don't realize [is]... in some states… certain people are entitled to government benefits if they're below income level. [In] New Jersey, for instance, if you're below a certain income level, the state will give you $1500 for a funeral director and $500 for the cemetery. If you are able to match that — they give you additional funds. So it's really about being educated [about] what you're entitled to,” says Bixby. 

End-of-life planning requires accounting for all the resources your loved ones might have at their disposal, and doing so requires research and discussion with your family. 

Financial support

The financial burden of planning an end-of-life ceremony adds to the grief your family members feel from losing someone they love. The costs of a green burial may be low enough that you can use savings to cover the expenses — but there’s another option that can cover the costs of your funeral and then some: a life insurance policy.

Life insurance coverage

Life insurance pays out a tax-free, lump sum to your loved ones when you die. The money comes from the insurance company and means your family won’t have to tap into savings or their estate to cover your funeral costs. 

What’s more, the funds won’t just cover a green burial. Your beneficiaries can use the life insurance payout towards anything from everyday bills to a mortgage. Having a life insurance policy in your financial toolkit protects them from the financial hardship that can accompany losing a loved one — without it, they may become liable for your loans and financial responsibilities after your death. 

Life insurance coverage pays out a minimum of $25,000 for a final expense life insurance policy, though if you want to cover more than just funeral expenses, term or whole life insurance offer higher coverage amounts. 

Term life insurance

Term life insurance is the most affordable coverage option for most people. It lasts between 10-30 years and pays out a lump sum to your beneficiaries when you die. Healthy applicants in their 30s can get coverage for under $30 a month for a $500,000 policy.

Because term life insurance expires, you may need to reevaluate your coverage needs if you outlive your policy. Many life insurance policies will allow you to convert your term life policy into a whole life policy as you near its expiration date. You can also purchase a new policy, though it may be prohibitively more expensive due to age and health. 

Whole life insurance

Unlike term life insurance, whole life insurance coverage lasts your entire life as long as you pay all of your policy premiums. This means there’s a guaranteed death benefit payout to your beneficiaries when you die.

However, the lifetime coverage and a supplemental savings component make whole life insurance five to 15 times costlier than term life insurance. 

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Alternatives to life insurance

Depending on the cost of your green funeral, you may not need to get a life insurance policy. If you have enough savings and no one relies on you financially, you can make sure your funeral expenses are covered with a payable-on-death account. Other options, like taking out a loan or prepaying for your funeral, are high-risk choices that we do not recommend. 

Payable-on-death account

A payable-on-death (POD) account is any traditional bank account, such as a checking or savings account, where you’ve listed beneficiaries. Your beneficiaries collect any savings you contributed to the account after you’ve died and can use the funds however they wish, including your funeral costs. These accounts typically pay out almost immediately after death, after your beneficiary proves their identity. 

A payable-on-death account will only pay out the amount you have in your bank account — no more. 

FEMA assistance

Families who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19 may be eligible to get assistance from FEMA of up to $7,000. According to FEMA, this subsidy can cover:

  • Casket

  • Mortuary services

  • Transportation of the deceased 

  • Two death certificates 

  • Burial plot

  • Interment or cremation

Funeral costs incurred from January 20, 2020 to December 31, 2020 are eligible. Currently, funerals held in 2021 are not eligible.

Learn more about FEMA disaster assistance here.

Funeral loans

Some people take out a personal loan for a family member’s funeral because they are unable to pay for it on their own. These personal loans are unsecured and come with high interest rates, which can lead to an even greater financial burden down the line. If possible, avoid taking out a loan to cover funeral costs. 

To prevent your family from taking out a loan, leave behind a life insurance policy or some savings for them to use towards your funeral expenses.

Prepaid funeral

Some funeral homes sell prepaid funerals, but this comes with its own set of risks. If you die in another state, for example, your family will either need to worry about transporting the body or they’ll need to make other funeral arrangements. Alternatively, if your chosen funeral home goes out of business before you die, you or your family members will need to find another funeral home and make entirely new payments for your final expenses. 

Having a green burial is a personal choice that is determined by cost and the legacy you want to leave behind. If you would prefer to have a natural funeral, make sure to talk to your loved ones about your wishes and make financial arrangements in advance by purchasing a life insurance policy.

FAQ

What is the average cost of a green burial?

A green burial can cost anywhere from $200 to $4,000, on average. Specialized or niche services may cost more.

Where can I be naturally buried?

Natural burial grounds, conservation cemeteries, and hybrid cemeteries all offer green funerals. The Green Burial Council has online resources on where to find natural burial providers in every state.

How do you get a green burial?

You can have a green burial by working with a provider that is certified by the Green Burial Council. A list of certified green burial sites can be found here. The best green burial providers minimize the use of chemicals and list their ecological impact on their website. Pre-arrange your funeral and have your final wishes known so that your funeral goes according to plan.