The practice of burying bodies without embalming with toxic chemicals, encasing in metal or rainforest wood caskets, or cement or plastic outer vaults—truly body to earth—is timeless, interrupted only over the past century. Efforts to return to these ancient, eco-friendly ways are gaining momentum across the country and the few places elsewhere in the world that recently adopted American burial practices.
Link to printable resource:Hospice Home Funeral Resources
There are no impediments to green burial in New Hampshire other than local cemetery bylaws. NH mandates that each town provide burial space for its residents, so local cemeteries are opportunities for green space. Meet with your elected cemetery trustees to ask that they relax policies that require outer burial vaults. Some of the written materials below may help build your argument that there are greater ideals for our local cemeteries beyond making lawn mowing easier.
To locate green burial cemeteries in NH, check out our comprehensive list of Green Burial Cemeteries in the US and Canada which is updated regularly and shared with various nonprofits throughout the country. Note that some of NH’s cemeteries are vaultless because they never adopted the policy of requiring them.
Ensuring Worker Safety
One particular environmental and health concern is embalming, an invasive process with no lasting benefits beyond the cosmetic. It poses a major health hazard to embalmers who reportedly have an 8-times greater chance of contracting leukemia, are at a 3-times higher risk of contracting ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and a 13-times higher risk of dying earlier than the standard cohort due to COPD, neurological diseases, and cancer. While speaking with your trustees, you may also be able to discuss the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which pose a significant health hazard to cemetery maintenance employees, all of which are used sparingly, if at all, in green burial space.
Burial depth of 3.5 -4 feet is recommended for creating the optimum conditions for rapid and efficient decomposition. This is where microbes and insects do their best work. This leaves a smell barrier of 18 to 24 inches above the body; the deepest any animal will dig is 12 inches, so nuisance animals are not a problem. Soil is not removed, but layered on top of green burial graves to settle as the body space is displaced.
Protecting New Hampshire Spaces
Natural burial is being welcomed on conservation lands, providing families pristine, natural environments in which to remember their loved ones while supporting the preservation of intrinsically valuable lands in perpetuity. By reducing the amount of steel, copper, and exotic woods that are housed in concrete in the ground through conventional burial, and doing so on lands dedicated to responsible stewardship, burial moves from a dead end to a win/win.
“It is sort of, in a way, a foreign concept to do a natural burial even though this is how burials were done hundreds of years ago for hundreds of years,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“People are really hungry for this,” said Lee Webster, education vice chair and former president of the, Green Burial Council International. They recognize that the way we’ve been doing things for the last hundred or so years is not really meeting their standards now for the environment for their family life and honoring their own sense of what is right.”
Green burials, which are already allowed in a handful of cemeteries in the Twin States, are said to allow a body to decompose naturally, rather than being prepared with chemical preservatives or embalming fluids. No flowers or plantings are allowed, and graves are to be marked with a flat stone memorial, she said.
The practice usually involves the use of a simple biodegradable coffin, casket or shroud, and graves are dug shallow enough for microbial activity to aid decomposition. Advocates say green burials keep chemicals out of the ground, promoting a healthier soil and allowing the land to someday be reused. In Grafton, new rules call for those seeking a green burial to be buried either naked or wrapped in a biodegradable cloth. Only soft wooden boxes and biodegradable urns are allowed beyond that, said Cindy Kudlik, a cemetery trustee who also serves on the Lebanon’s town Selectboard.
Because of COVID, she says facilitators are also taking extra safety precautions, including covering the mouth of a corpse to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The biggest challenge is getting people comfortable with performing the burials and addressing “fears or misconceptions that might come up along the way.”
“I would have a hard time getting to a point where I would think the board wouldn’t recommend this,” she said. “I just think it’s a matter of figuring out the logistics.” Family members would be responsible for maintaining the graves — mowing the grass and pruning nearby bushes — and burials would require the signature of a licensed New Hampshire funeral director. Sarah Riley, an advocate for green burials and a member of the Lebanon Conversation Commission, said she was “excited” to see the draft. However, she pressed the cemetery trustees to take more public input in the matter. “I understand that everybody wants to be cautious and we want to make sure that everything is safe for workers and visitors,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot more than just caution.”