As with so many elements of environmentally friendly lifestyles, green burials hark back to practices that were simpler and gentler on the earth. Green burial is all about developing funeral methods that support and heal nature, rather than disrupting and harming it. Town churchyards and family plots once held bodies buried in shrouds or biodegradable boxes. Nowadays, cremation and green burials are increasingly popular alternatives to conventional embalming and large, non-degradable caskets. Green cemeteries are becoming more common, and many folks are interested in returning to family plots on private land as well. The practice enjoys a long tradition in America; entire generations of families are buried on the properties where they lived.
What Is a Backyard Burial?
A “backyard burial” involves burying a person on residential property, or on land that’s privately owned and hasn’t been endorsed as an official cemetery. Laws regulating backyard burials vary not only state to state, but also county to county. Laws permitting burial on private property, rather than in an established cemetery, tend to be more common in rural areas.
If you’re considering a backyard burial, think carefully about what it may mean for the property itself and the owner. Burying someone on private land does affect the future sale of that property. In addition, however remote the concern may be, you should consider how you’d feel, and what you’d do, if you sold the land and your deceased loved one’s resting place were on property you no longer owned. Depending on the type of property, the land could become fundamentally unmarketable to buyers if an interred body isn’t relocated, and even then, a stigma might remain that makes selling the tract difficult. Not only that; exhuming and transferring a body is expensive. Say the property is sold without a requirement for the body to be moved: Family members and friends won’t necessarily have access to the gravesite anymore. Sold property could also be developed for a different use, which might affect the character of the site.
Don’t let these cautions discourage you if you wish to be buried, or bury someone you love, on family property; simply reflect on all the possible outcomes before you decide. Further, don’t make your decision without legal guidance and consultation, and begin the planning process well in advance, because it can involve a lot of paperwork. Careful planning will ensure a smooth interment, and many families I’ve helped through this process wouldn’t have chosen any other way to lay their loved ones to rest.
The legality of backyard burials is governed by local laws, so consult with your local health authority prior to planning a home burial. I run every potential client’s address by my county’s zoning and planning department, just to make sure the burial will be permitted. It’s hard to generalize what to check before planning a home burial, because the rules vary by county and town, but in essence, private property burial is often allowed under slightly different requirements in each area.
For example, home burials in Oregon must meet certain environmental standards. Land in which surface water or ground drainage enters other water sources — such as a pond, stream, well, or tributary — cannot be used for burial purposes without written approval from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. I’ve read other regulations that stipulate that private burial sites “should be 150 feet from a water supply, 100 feet from a drilled well, and 25 feet from a power line. ... It’s also a good idea to bury at least 20 feet from the setback on your property.” Finally, you can’t charge money for burial rites on private property. Most people wouldn’t, but such rules are a good demonstration of why checking your local ordinances before planning a backyard burial is important.
No matter whose name is on the property’s deed, you must get the written consent of any mortgage or lien holders. You must also meet all state requirements for the completion of the death certificate, and acquire all transport permits or other required documentation. Mother Nature Network [www.MNN.com] offers this excellent advice: “If you bury a body on private land, you should draw a map of the property showing the burial ground and file it with the property deed so the location will be clear to others in the future.” If the property is to be sold, the property owner must disclose if human remains are buried anywhere on their land. The owner must also maintain and provide records of the disposition of human remains on the property, and agree to disclose these records upon sale of the property.
Basic Gravesite Preparation
Traditionally, the church sexton would dig and prepare the gravesite at a cemetery. This was part of the sexton’s overall duties to maintain the church grounds and buildings. Today, cemeteries usually hire a crew to help with these responsibilities. If you’re undertaking your own backyard burial, you’ll need to plan to dig and prepare the gravesite yourself.
Choose a gravesite that’s clear of obvious boulders and tree roots, and pay attention to the type of soil you’ll be digging in. Heavy clay soils will be harder to excavate than lighter loams or sandy soils. If your desired site is too sandy, though, the grave may collapse as you dig it; in such cases, it’s safest to choose another site with firmer soil.
You won’t need to dig “six feet under” — graves only need to be 3 to 4 feet deep. Cemeteries only dig graves that are 6 or 7 feet deep when they plan to place two bodies in the same location. As in choosing a location, check your local laws for the required depth of a grave for human remains before you start digging.
Digging a Grave
Digging a grave is hard work. The gravedigger will be moving hundreds of pounds of earth, which takes a lot of time and energy. On average, two or more people digging with shovels will need about three hours to dig a 4-foot-deep grave that’s 3 feet wide by 7 feet long. For a backyard or green burial in which a standard grave liner or casket won’t be used, measure the coffin or container to be buried before you begin digging. As much as you don’t want a grave that’s too short or too narrow, there’s no need to dig a grave that’s vastly bigger than what’s required. Backyard burials offer the flexibility to create a custom-sized grave, as long as the chosen burial container will rest comfortably inside the space.
You can dig a grave with a backhoe or a shovel — two different methods, and two completely different experiences and time frames. Your choice may also be influenced by whether you’re planning a green burial or not. Most green burial sites discourage heavy machinery to preserve the natural setting as much as possible.
If you’re digging by hand, use a long-handled steel shovel to minimize back pain and strain from standing, bending, and shoveling for a long time. A square-bladed shovel is ideal for moving dirt and small rocks, and for creating a grave with square corners, walls, and floor. Begin your dirt pile far from the hole, and bring a ladder to climb out of the grave.
If you plan to use a backhoe, I recommend a small, rubber-tracked excavator with a backfill blade on the front. Small earthmovers can rotate 360 degrees, and can usually handle a bigger bucket than a compact-tractor-mounted backhoe. You can even buy a specialized grave-digging bucket to simplify digging a square-sided grave. If you need to dig a deeper grave, you might want an extended hoe for extra reach and depth.
Interment and Closing the Grave
Most folks won’t have a professional lowering device on hand for the interment, which means you’ll need to arrange ropes or straps and enough people to lower the container smoothly. In general, 6 to 8 physically capable people, each with their own strap or rope, should help with the lowering. If you’re concerned about weight, use more handles or ropes and more attendants. It’s better to have too many helpers than too few, and remember: Lower the deceased slowly and steadily.
If the deceased is being buried in a shroud or nonrigid container, consider placing the body on a wooden board to distribute the weight more evenly. You might also sew a 2-by-4 into a shroud, to serve the same purpose in a subtler manner. Whatever you choose, deal with the practicalities before the funeral day, and be sure the pallbearers are prepared as well.
After the service, the grave will need to be closed. Replacing the dirt is often incorporated into the funeral ritual itself. Mourners might toss handfuls of dirt over the body ceremonially, or take turns returning whole shovelfuls of earth.
To complete backfilling and closing the grave, return all the previously removed soil. Leave the grave somewhat rounded on top to allow for settling as the container and body decompose. You can restore the pieces of turf that were removed, or plant native species over the grave.
These tips are adapted from advice given by Jonny Yaxley, England’s 2014 Gravedigger of the Year.
• Use sand, string, or another organic material to outline the grave.
• Cut along the outline with a spade, and then carefully remove strips of turf and arrange them like puzzle pieces on sheets of plywood nearby, to simplify replacing them later.
• When the grave is deep enough, level the bottom with a shovel. Stand on the rim and smooth the side walls, too.
• Line the bottom of the grave with sawdust, twigs, or leaves.
• Position wooden boards along the edges of the grave to ensure firm footing for the pallbearers.
• Use rolls of artificial turf, canvas, or upcycled carpeting strips to cover any dirt or areas around the grave that might be unsightly to mourners.
• Arrange two wooden beams, on which the coffin or shroud will rest, in front of the grave. Lay out the webbing, ropes, or straps you’ll use to lower the deceased into the ground on the beams.
Burial Ground Types
Conventional cemeteries usually require a vault to keep the graveyards from developing depressions where the soil over biodegradable caskets has settled. They also permit embalming. If you or your loved ones are interested in minimizing the ecological impact of burial, look into one of these other types of burial ground.
Hybrid burial grounds are conventional cemeteries that offer the option for burial without the need for a vault, vault lid, concrete box, slab, or partitioned liner. They also don’t require embalming, and they allow for any type of eco-friendly burial container, including shrouds. Conventional cemeteries all over the United States are considering — and opening — sections for natural burial, so don’t hesitate to ask.
Natural (or green) burial grounds require the adoption of energy-conserving, waste-minimizing practices, and prohibit the use of toxic chemicals. They require burial containers made from natural or plant-derived materials, and typically perform burials without any type of vault or concrete slab. They have pest-management programs and are designed and maintained with a naturalistic appearance, using native plants and materials and landscape patterns similar to regional ecosystems for minimal ecological impact.
Conservation burial grounds add land conservation goals to the requirements for natural burial grounds. They must protect conservation land in perpetuity, and must involve an established conservation organization that holds either a conservation easement or a deed restriction guaranteeing long-term stewardship.
Elizabeth Fournier owns and operates Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation outside of Portland, Oregon, and serves on the Advisory Board for the Green Burial Council, which sets the standard for green burial in North America. She lives on a farm with her husband, daughter, and many goats. Find her online at The Green Reaper.