Simple burial, cremation, or green burial? As you make estate planning decisions, it’s common — and prudent — to start discussions around your future funeral and burial, too.

For centuries, simple burial was the go-to option with burial methods becoming more complex through the years. Prior to the late 1800s, funeral and burial preparations took place primarily at home with women in charge of preparing the dead. Eventually, embalming grew in popularity after Lincoln’s assassination, and by the end of the 19th century, the funeral “industry” was established. By the 1920s, vaults increased in popularity, and fancier caskets replaced simple six-sided caskets or shrouds.

Burial continued to be the most popular option in the United States for almost another hundred years.

Starting in 2015, however, cremation began to outpace burial. For some, this change was due to cultural and religious shifts, leading to a break from tradition. With families living spread out around the country and world, cremation also offers more freedom and flexibility: a single-family plot in the hometown cemetery no longer makes much sense.

Another driving factor behind this shift to cremation is cost. In 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost for a funeral with burial was close to $8,000. The median cost for a funeral with cremation was around $7,000, but that cost also includes preparation of the body and a viewing. Direct cremation without the ceremonial services can be even cheaper.

Traditional burials don’t just have a higher financial price tag; they also have a hefty cost for the environment. According to the New York Times, traditional burials put “20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel” into the ground each year. That’s a lot of land use!

Cremation, however, still isn’t the most environmentally friendly option. The required burning of at least three hours “releases almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide,” according to the Huffington Post. For reference, that’s the same as taking a 500-mile road trip. On a worldwide scale, that amounts to millions of metric tons of emissions a year.

While that might not feel like a Bigfoot-sized carbon footprint, as more people globally choose cremation, the toll on the environment will increase. And unfortunately, there isn’t much current research being done to determine the long-term consequences.

These environmental challenges of traditional burial and cremation — traditional burial because of land use and cremation because of the carbon footprint — have led to a growth in green burial options.

“Green” burials, also known as natural burials, differ from conventional burials because of their focus on simplicity and sustainability. Interest in these practices has grown exponentially in recent years with almost 54% of Americans considering a green burial, according to a survey from the NFDA.

The specifics of green burial can vary vastly, but the main goal is minimizing the impact on the environment. That can mean bypassing embalming, skipping concrete vaults, and foregoing fancy burial containers. This kind of burial can take place in a separate green-certified cemetery or in a certain section in a majority of U.S. cemeteries. Additionally, green burial sections use flat markers of native stone rather than upright monuments. (It’s important to note that certain states allow for home burials. Minnesota requires a body to be buried in a legally registered cemetery, but you can take steps to create your own family cemetery on private land.)

The narrative around embalming is slowly shifting. Contrary to popular belief, embalming is not necessary and is done merely for cosmetic purposes. Embalming chemicals don’t stay in the body and are essentially “flushed down the drain when they are let back out of the body’s arterial system,” according to reporting for the New York Times. Using other methods to keep a body cool for up to one to three days can replace embalming, and in some cases, families find more “room for closure” without the chemical process.

While some opt for a green burial because of the financial or environmental benefits, others choose it because they like the idea of “returning to nature.” According to the Green Burial Council, complete decomposition after a green burial can take up to two years compared to 50 or more years inside a traditional coffin, illustrating Shakespeare’s meaning of “food for worms.”

Other greener options making headlines include aquamation (aqua cremation), mushroom burial suits, and human composting. Just as cremation outpaced traditional burial, perhaps one of these innovative methods will become the more popular choice in the future.

No matter what decision you and your loved ones make about your funeral and burial options, please know that Schromen Law, LLC is here to support you during these challenging conversations and life transitions and ensure your wishes are clear in your estate planning documents.

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