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Ecological Burial Practices: Overcoming the Myth of the Infectious Corpse

Author Suzanne Kelly discusses the myths that drive many of our standard, environmentally damaging burial practices.

Author Suzanne Kelly discusses the myths that drive many of our standard, environmentally damaging burial practices. (Photo: Graveyard via Shutterstock; edited: LW / TO)

Dead bodies endure as objects of cultural fear, especially in US popular culture, where the specter of their attendant decay is on display in everything from crime scene investigations to zombie sagas. But this threat is not only the stuff of fiction. Over the last 150 years, US funerary practices have spun a similar story in which humans, as well as the whole of nature, must do its best to guard against the dangerous wrath of the corpse.

In her new book Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, author Suzanne Kelly explores the myths that drive many of our standard, environmentally damaging burial practices.

Kelly unpacks the funeral industry’s environmentally destructive and alienating methods and gives voice to a growing movement seeking to reckon with decay and restore lost knowledge to the living. Detailing how embalming and encasing the dead in caskets and then in grave-lining vaults have little to do with limiting health risks or ensuring adequate sanitation, Kelly argues that these practices are not only destructive to the environment, but worse, they dishonor the necessity of dissolution, while reinforcing human beings’ separation from nature. But this is changing. A movement to green death is gathering momentum, and Kelly is one of its most ardent allies.

Lorna Garano: In Greening Death, you take on the myth of safety and health hazards posed by dead bodies. What are some of the reasons why this myth persists?

Suzanne Kelly: Yes, there is this prevailing social belief that the dead body and its attendant decay are dangerous contaminants that can potentially cause harm to the living. The truth, however, is that most pathogens die with the body. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has been actively trying to dispel this myth of the infectious corpse, particularly in times of natural disaster. Of course, proper precautions must be taken with bodies infected with certain diseases, like Ebola. But apart from such viruses that cause a dead body to be more infectious after death, the dead do not generally pose a threat to public health.

Our standard American death practices, which include the use of chemical embalming, sealed hardwood and metal caskets, and concrete vaults and liners, only reinforce this myth. The reasons for their development and their continued use are more complex than that, but fears around sanitation have certainly fomented their widespread practice. Although there are virtually no state or federal laws or regulations to support them, these practices have become commonplace, stimulating a story about the problem of the dead, more specifically – that the decay of the dead body is something we must guard against. Indeed, the funeral industry has had a heavy hand in this.

How, exactly, are our current burial methods harmful to the environment and what are the alternatives?

The use of hardwood and metal caskets, manufactured burial vaults and chemical embalming fluid all pose environmental harm. Each year 20 million board feet of hardwood and 64,000 tons of steel are buried in US cemeteries. Concentrated levels of iron, lead, copper, zinc and cobalt have been shown to leach from caskets into the silt loam. The funeral industry buries over 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year in the form of burial vaults. But vaults are sometimes also made of copper, plastic and asphalt – a semisolid form of petroleum.

There’s also the matter of embalming fluid, which is mostly made up of the carcinogen formaldehyde. While formaldehyde is biodegradable, it still poses a serious threat to funeral worker health when it’s breathed as a vapor. There’s also the nonrenewable energy it takes to manufacture conventional caskets and vaults, as well as the energy used to maintain a typical conventional cemetery through lawn mowing.

“Green burial advocates steer clear of embalming and burial vaults and opt for biodegradable burial containers.”

The modern crematory is not exempt from this environmental toll, either. The green burial movement largely regards cremation as a greener death care choice, but it still carries environmental risk. Incinerating just one body is estimated to be the equivalent of driving 600 miles. In the process of burning bodies, any number of contaminants eventually make their way into the atmosphere – mercury from dental fillings, surgical devices, radioactive isotopes, prostheses, metal plates, screws and sutures, and silicone from breast implants. Crematories release a range of byproducts via fossil fuel combustion, including dioxins, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride and other heavy metals.

Given such pollution and lack of sustainability, green burial advocates steer clear of embalming and burial vaults and opt for biodegradable burial containers. They also, more or less, tend to the land to which the dead are rendered, conserving and restoring ecosystems and building biodiversity. Cemetery pollution may seem a drop in the bucket in comparison to the really big environmental problems facing the planet, but it’s still a piece of that larger worldview of how we perceive and engage with the earth. If we’re really thinking environmentally, what we see is that conventional death practices reflect our long-standing fractured relationship with nature.

One thing that embalming does is delay the decomposition process so that loved ones can view the dead as they looked in life at wakes, funerals and other memorials. If we no longer embalm bodies won’t that interfere with many common death rites?

Each death is unique, but in many – if not most – cases a dead body can be cared for and preserved for viewing through far less invasive and toxic methods like refrigeration and dry ice. There is a growing movement of home funeral guides that’s been rising in tandem with the green burial movement – predominantly women – who’ve been advocating for these methods. In fact, if anything, the green burial movement is about bringing the dead back into the circle of our grieving. Indeed, for many communities the presence of the dead body remains a crucial aspect of the funeral, something the green burial movement is in step with.

You weave together a really fascinating history of how our current burial practices came to be. It begins with the Civil War. Can you give a sketch of how we came to bury our dead in the way we do?

It actually began before the Civil War, around the 1830s when a growth in population was coupled with the quick spread of diseases like cholera, yellow fever and measles. This gave rise to new fears around the dangers of filth. On the heels of sanitation reforms in Europe, especially around garbage and sewage, US cities and towns began their own war on the dirty aspects of life. And that war soon came to land on the dead.

Up until then, bodies were buried on the farm, family plots or church graveyards. Church graveyards were often unkempt, overcrowded and smelly places that only worsened the social panic over filth. This was before it was fully understood how diseases actually spread and what, if any, role the dead actually had in it. Cities responded by placing bans on burial within city boundaries. In many places, community cemeteries were established to accommodate the dead – built on the rural outskirts of municipal areas. While these “rural cemeteries” were bucolic oases designed to relish the natural in nature and where the living were invited to partake in their pastoral beauty, the truth remains that the dead were initially sent there so as to protect the living from their potential wrath.

These same fears around sanitation would only snowball with the Civil War, finding voice in the practice of embalming. If soldiers were to be sent back home for burial, they would need preserving. Embalming came into public acceptance after the war, but preservation was only one argument used to sell it. Sanitation was another. Chemical embalming does preserve bodies really well, but it does not in any way function to decontaminate them. But the twin aims of preservation and sanitation grew the practice, as well as a new trade – funeral directors. Casket and vault companies developed to meet the growing trade as well as the highly mechanized and manicured cemeteries that eventually came to populate the American landscape. Interestingly, one of the early arguments for the modern crematory was fueled by sanitation arguments, too – that cremation would make pure what could never be made clean through earth burial. In the end, these sanitation fears have not only perpetuated false stories of the dead body, but have also worked to thwart the direction and flow of dissolution itself.

It’s easy to see the practical benefit of shifting to more environmentally sound burial methods, but in much of your book you discuss how greening death can help us reclaim our connection to the earth. How so?

In the West, there is a long history of separation from nature – one rooted in Greek and Christian thought and fiercely exacerbated by Enlightenment thinking that turned the earth into a machine with disparate parts to be managed and something humans are figured to have control over. By the 20th century, there were growing American environmental voices decrying this separation. Thinkers like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson were all too aware that this ever-deepening chasm was responsible for the harm we do to the earth. We are in need of ways to imagine ourselves in connection to – in relationship with – the planet. As meanings of earthly connection abound in green burial, its practices offer one way for us to do this. At its most basic, green burial literally ties the fact of our humanness to the earth, reminding us that this green planet is home to us all.

One of the many texts you refer to in Greening Death is Jessica Mitford’s muckraking book, The American Way of Death. While you recognize Mitford’s contribution, you also have some reservations about her approach. First, can you give us a quick refresher on what this book was about and the impact it had, and then explain why you have such a mixed view of it?

Mitford’s book The American Way of Death was an exposé of the funeral industry that tapped into what many Americans had already been feeling for a long time, that our funerary care was made up of over the top rituals and flowery sentiment which only aided to pad funeral directors’ pockets. Mitford’s book came out in 1963, at a time of economic growth, but also at a time when many American institutions were being questioned, especially around race, class and, eventually, gender. And so, challenging business as usual was certainly in the air. And to these ends, Mitford’s book has been important – Americans began to see the unruly power of the industry, which activated reform.

What’s now known as the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) has been at the forefront of this reform, doggedly fighting against funeral industry control. This has been good and important work. But, unfortunately, the Mitford critique has done little to help us see ourselves as more than consumers of death care, and her cynical approach has left little space for re-meaning our death practices. While the rise in cremation rates can largely be traced back to Mitford – now hovering at nearly 50 percent nationwide – this move to cremation hasn’t done much to tie human death to the more meaningful stuff of living. With its focus on simplicity and cost, the Mitford approach has taken us as far as we can go.

Throughout the book you refer to a number of environmental thinkers, including Aldo Leopold, Neil Evernden, Rachel Carson and Val Plumwood. Plumwood’s work figures prominently, as you use her philosophy as a framework for your critique. Who was Plumwood and how does her work help us to see the drawbacks of our current burial practices?

Plumwood was an Australian environmental feminist philosopher and the author of two important books that provide frameworks for understanding human separation from nature and the seeding of a worldview since the 17th century that places humans over, above and beyond nature. I use her work to help us see that the standard American burial practices that have turned the dead body into a contaminant and separated it from the earth have not taken place in a vacuum, but within a history of ideas that have long denied humans’ tie to nature. That history is rooted in a view of nature that is separate from human culture, where reason, itself, is attributed only to the human world (some humans more than others), and where nature is thoroughly stripped of any reason, agency and intelligence of its own.

Plumwood said that we talk a lot about the environment being the crisis of our time, but that the real crisis facing us is not fundamentally one of the environment, but one of reason. Our worldview must shift to give a sense of reason back to nature. What’s also important about Plumwood’s work is that she was mindful of the fact that within this worldview where death is stripped of reason and humans stripped of nature, human death becomes “a nothing, a void, a terminus, whose only meaning is that there is no meaning.” Not long before her own death in 2008, Plumwood began to take on the polluting funerary practices of her homeland, to think about our place in the order of things, to begin to reimagine of our own “foodiness.” In the end, her friends honored her life with a green burial on the land she loved and called home.

One of the really fascinating bits of history that you reveal is that women were once the primary preparers of dead bodies for burial. You draw a parallel between this and how they were once the keepers of knowledge about birth and midwifery. Just as birth became the purview of modern medicine, death also became “professionalized” by the funeral industry and was removed from the control of women. What lessons can we draw from this?

The second-wave feminist Mary Daly, in her groundbreaking work Gyn-Ecology (1978), said that the key struggle for women in taking back birthing practices, or any wisdoms seized through the rising powerful alchemy of new science and patriarchy, was not only a struggle for access and practice, but for knowledge. Whose knowledge was undermined in that exchange from midwife to physician, from women to men, from informal to institutional care? Whose knowledge was valued? The same is true for green burial. The key lesson is that the struggle for green burial is not simply about reclaiming practices, but about restoring knowledge. The good news is that certain knowledge that is too elemental to the human spirit and experience never goes away for good; it lingers just beneath the surface. The 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault called these subjugated knowledges – ways of knowing made unimportant by the dominant worldview and relegated to the margins. Once the funeral trade took the reigns of caring for our dead, such elemental knowledge about dead bodies and human decay quickly disappeared from sight. What we’re now witnessing with our burial practices is a resurgence of such knowledge. The green burial movement is about reckoning with those realities, those truths, and ultimately about re-meaning our experiences of death.

You say that people are “waking up” to the problem of polluting death care and searching for greener ways of caring for our dead. What are some signs of this awakening?

Of course, the most obvious is the development of green burial grounds, the first of which opened in 1998 – Ramsey Creek in Westminster, South Carolina. Since then, it’s estimated that over 100 green burial grounds have sprouted up in varying forms throughout the states. Green burial advocates (GBAs) themselves will often say that they had always wanted something more natural in terms of their own death care but thought it was illegal or unsanitary – or just simply impossible. Some GBAs talk about green burial as practices that “just make sense.” This sense making is about more than practice. It’s about giving a sense of direction and intelligence back to the matter of death itself, one the dead body’s been stripped of for too long.

Who regulates green burial? How do we know if a burial is, in fact, green?

Each state in their own way regulates the establishment of cemeteries, conventional or green, but there is no national government body that regulates green burial specifically, though some states have more recently sought to implement such language into their laws. Since 2005, the standard bearer of green burial certification has been the Green Burial Council (GBC) – a not-for-profit, third-party verification organization. The GBC functions in much the same way that the Green Building Council operates for LEED standards for green building. And like LEED standards, the GBC’s program is voluntary. Green burial grounds can choose to be certified or not. The value of certifiable standards has been the brainchild of GBC founder Joe Sehee, who early on recognized the threat of greenwashing in the movement. He also saw the value in establishing some kind of shared language around emerging green burial. Without certifiable standards, consumers would be less likely to understand the differences between green cemeteries (and there are differences). Ultimately, standards help consumers in making informed choices about green death care.

Talking about death is difficult, particularly in American culture. How does this affect your work as a green burial advocate? What other obstacles do you face?

Yes, talking about death can be difficult in a culture that seems to deny it at every turn. But the green burial movement is riding a wave of renewed death awareness that began many decades ago with hospice and palliative care, elder law matters around advanced care planning and more recent death with dignity legislation. Today, the work of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in combination with more DIY efforts like Death Café and The Conversation Project, as well as the sophisticated organizing and advocacy of the home funeral movement, are all making death conversations much, much easier. This awakening is happening on many levels, but, of course, challenges persist. Although there are funeral directors who are embracing greener death ways, many more in the industry still regard it as a green fad that could just as well fade away. The challenge to the movement is not to face down such naysayers, but to prove them wrong as we work collaboratively toward greener and more meaningful ends.

Still, the green burial movement faces some other obstacles. For instance, for economic and legal reasons, green burial grounds are often tough to get off the ground. There’s also the challenge of making the case for certifiable standards to fledgling green burial grounds just finding their footing. Beyond economics and laws, there’s the matter of language too – as consumer choice rhetoric threatens to engulf deeper meanings of the movement. Perhaps most importantly, there are crucial questions of environmental justice that the movement needs to contend with. If the earth is indeed home to us all, who is green burial reaching? And who is being left out?

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