Planning a Green Funeral at Home

Plan a green funeral at home providing your loved one a dignified passing, includes step-by-step instructions and green methods for burial.

Mildred, age 86, wanted a home funeral, just like her folks back in Iowa, so her children obliged. Mildred's decorated casket rode to the crematory in the family's camper van.

Mildred, age 86, wanted a home funeral, just like her folks back in Iowa, so her children obliged. Mildred's decorated casket rode to the crematory in the family's camper van.


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Learn how to plan a green funeral at home that provides a dignified passing and an earth-friendly burial for your loved one.

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Here's how to ensure your final resting place is earth friendly and priced right.

A typical, no-frills funeral and burial in the United States costs from $6,000 to $10,000, uses formaldehyde in embalming, non degradable steel caskets and concrete vaults placed shoulder to shoulder in established cemeteries.

Burial in a green or natural cemetery, on the other hand, can cost half as touch, and embalming mortal caskets and concrete burial vault's are prohibited. Instead, biodegradable caskets, usually made of wood or cardboard, or burial shrouds of natural fibers are used. Green cemetery graves are placed randomly throughout a woodland or meadow, and marked only in natural ways, with the planting of a tree or shrub, or the placement of a flat indigenous stone, which may or may not be engraved. Burial locations are mapped with a GIS (geographic information system), so future generations can locate an ancestors final resting place.

There are more than 200 green cemetery its in Great Britain, and the idea is beginning to catch on here in North America. Lisa Carlson is executive, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vermont, and author of Caring for the Dead , which tackles the topic of funeral law state by state. She reports embalming, expensive caskets anti concrete vaults are: not required by law in any state. Bodies can be kept cool until burial rather than being embalmed and cemeteries require vaults only to prevent soil settling and facilitate grass mowing.

The leader in the emerging green-cemetery business in this country, Carlson says, are Dr. Billy and Kimberley Campbell of Memorial Ecosystems, founded in 1996 in Westminster South Carolina. Their idea is to Use green cemeteries to preserve open space. You can be buried at the Campbells first green cemetery, Ramsey Creek Preserve, in Westminster, and visitors can walk on trails through 32 acres of mixed Woodlands and open fields there.

In Florida, a green cemetery called Glendale Memorial Preserve is being established to save a 350-acre family farm from development. And groups in several other states, inducting Colorado, California, New York, Washington and Wisconsin, have efforts under way to established green cemeteries that center on land preservation. In Canada, the Memorial Society of British Columbia also has a formally funded green-burial initiative under way.

The first burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve occurred in the fall of 1998; to date, 17 more have taken place. Another 50 persons have purchased sites. A casket burial there costs about $2,500. Burial of cremated remains is only $500; scattering of cremated remains is $250. Stone grave markers and engraving are optional; the stones are $25; engraving ranges from $125 to $300. Caskets are not included. (For instructions on building your own casket, see Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.)

Dr. Campbell says people seem to want to be buried there because of the site's natural beauty, the lower cost and the land preservation effort. Bodies usually arrive for burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve via a local, independent funeral home, whose owner has agreed to hold them under refrigeration until delivery to the preserve. The nature of any graveside ceremony is determined by the families. "Whatever spiritual bent you bring to the preserve, our natural landscape is very healing," Kimberley Campbell says. "What we do is very simple, but there is something very, very special about the simplicity of it."

Sherrill Hughes buried her husband, Roland, at Ramsey Creek Preserve. She says she knows without a doubt that was what he would have wanted. His body was placed in a simple pine box — a preference he had expressed — and buried under a dogwood tree; her grave site is right next to his, and she says her children all want to be buried there, too. "Roland's funeral was so personal. In most funerals there's no emotion, but at Ramsey Creek, you can do what you want." She played his favorite songs, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" and George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" — and placed the first spade full of dirt in his grave.

Following her lead; their children shoveled too, "and before we knew it, the boys-my two sons-in- and nephew - had nearly finished tilling in the grave."

Hughes, who lives in Atlanta, says she wouldn't describe herself or her husband as environmentalists. Rather. they always just tried to take care of what God had given them, "and that included the Earth." She plans to move to the Westminster area soon, where most of her family already lives, and she plans on building her own casket and helping out as a volunteer at the preserve.

Dr. Campbell says folks buried there so far fit a range of descriptions, and the majority are not environmentalists — which is exciting to him. Going through a green burial process helps people get beyond the "nature as wallpaper" mentality, he explains. The only medical doctor in Westminster, he has a longtime interest in the environment (in 1986, he helped found the South Carolina Forest Watch, a group that monitors the well-being of the state's forests) and he has been dealing with death since his medical school days; his wife thinks it's a reassuring combination to their patrons. She also says Atlanta's suburban sprawl is fast encroaching on their area, so they feel a sense of urgency.

Dr. Campbell says, "My idea is that we need to link land conservation with ritual and with people in a very fundamental way. When the economy is not quite what it should be, money is a problem (for groups dedicated to land preservation), but if Mamma and Grandmamma are buried some place, you might look at it differently."

Establishing the preserve seemed simple, but it proved a daunting task, according to Kimberley Campbell. In 1992, the state cemetery board was legislatively disbanded; as a consequence, determining which authorities to contact about the project proved a challenge.

To help build the site's status as a nature preserve, an inventory of plants has been taken, and Dr. Campbell says a "site appropriate" native plant — the smooth-leafed coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) — is being planted on some of the grave sites to take advantage of the disturbed soil. Tripartite violets and the crested coral root, uncommon native plants, also have been found.

A visitor's center, staffed by Kimberley's parents, sits near the entrance, and an old chapel has been moved onto the grounds to be restored for use by people of all faiths. Life histories of those buried at the site will be archived there.

The Campbells also have provided assistance to others interested in following their example. Dr. Campbell says he is willing to work with any entity with large land holdings that might want to set up a similar preserve — complete with ethical oversights in both financial and environmental areas. "We're building a socially responsible for-profit business," he says of Memorial Ecosystems.

Of the other green burial initiatives under way in the United States, the closest to being operational is the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve near Glendale, Florida. It is owned by brothers John and Bill Wilkerson, and now can accept burials but not yet legally charge for them. John, the family's spokesperson, says that's because he and his brother still are negotiating with the state of Florida over a $5,000 nonrefundable cemetery application fee, plus a $50,000 trust fund required to ensure maintenance of the nature preserve but which duplicates a fund to be established under Memorial Ecosystems guidelines. Until an agreement is reached, in lieu of a formal burial fee, donations were being accepted; as of early 2003, no burials had taken place.

The Glendale preserve was established, John says, because he and his brother took their father seriously when he said, "Boys, this is a beautiful piece of property. It would be a shame to turn it into a mobile-home park." The entire 350-acre farm, where the elder Wilkerson grew peanuts, corn and soybeans, and his sons now grow chufa, a specialty wildlife seed crop, will be the preserve.

In addition to providing grave sites, the Wikersons make simple coffins from native woods, using an on-farm sawmill, and have gathered a selection of flat indigenous stones, which a local stonemason has agreed to engrave.

John says he and Bill handled their own parents' burials, including making the coffins — pine for Dad; poplar for Mom — and digging the graves. Their father died in 1996 and their mother, who wanted her funeral and burial to be a simple affair, "and never missed a chance to remind us of that," died in 2000. The couple is buried in a little church cemetery that lies adjacent to the farm, on land they donated earlier to the church. Digging those graves was "a very powerful thing to do," John says. "It really facilitated the grieving process."

Dr. Campbell, who is on the Glendale Preserve's board of directors but not involved financially in the project, has attended meetings between the Wilkersons and Florida state officials to help explain the memorial preserve idea. He says he thinks Florida's financial requirements are "oppressive" and notes an Ohio group also trying to establish a memorial preserve is dealing with a similar situation. Such fees are designed to help ensure "perpetual care" for grave sites in a new cemetery, says Carlson, but in a green cemetery, traditional maintenance practices, like large scale lawn mowing, do not occur.

The rules at both Ramsey Creek and Glendale Preserves are simple: No embalming, no casket unless it is biodegradable, no vault and no stone that that can be pushed over. Kimberley Campbell says they advocate natural burial as the best choice and cremation as the second best because cremation uses energy and re leases toxins into the environment. Natural burial really isn't a new idea, she adds. "It's thousands of years old, and the reason is, its a very natural effective way to dispose of a person's remains. And wouldn't it be wonderful to visit a loved one's grave site along a beautiful prairie trail, in a towering England forest or other quiet place of natural beauty?

Read more about building a casket: Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.

Funeral Statistics: Each year in the U.S. we bury:

• 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde
• 180,544,000 pounds of steel, in caskets
• 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze, in caskets
• 30 million board feet of hardwoods, including tropical woods, in caskets
• 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete in vaults
• 28,000,000 pounds of steel in vaults

Statistics compiled by Mary Woodsen, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society of Ithaca, New York, and a science writer at Comell University.

Join the Green Funeral Experts Online

Learn more about green burials and home funerals, and chat with guest experts Dr. Billy and Kimberley Campbell, Lisa Carlson, John Wilkerson, Mary Woodsen and Jerri Lyons on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS website at

For More Green Funeral Information

Funeral Consumers Alliance
Lisa Carlson
South Burlington, VT

Final Passages
Jerri Lyons
Sebastopol, CA

Memorial Ecosystems, Inc. and Ramsey Creek Preserve
Dr. Billy and Kimberley Campbell
Westminster, SC

Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve
John and Bill Wilkerson
DeFuniak Springs, FL

The North American Woodland Burial Society
An information exchange:

The Memorial Society of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia V6J 1Y6