Death au Naturel: Exploring Natural Burial and Cremation
Losing a loved one is tough. Families are usually tasked with making end-of-life arrangements and other not-so-fun decisions as they’re grieving and mourning. A good number of funeral service businesses encourage people to fill out their end-of-life requests and wishes before they die to help make the process easier for all parties involved. But, death can happen unexpectedly, or financial situations can change, which can impact the amount of money someone wants to—or can afford to—spend on funeral and burial services.
The price tags for funeral services can be alarming for those who aren’t aware of average costs. A traditional funeral in the U.S., which usually includes funeral home services, burial, and a headstone, costs between $7,000 to $10,000, according to Parting.com. The average cost of a direct cremation, which doesn’t include funeral services, runs between $600 and $3,000.
Factoring in all those expenses can be alarming for a person who is still alive, or for families who are left to pay the funeral bills. On top of it all is a growing, alternative trend: natural burial and cremation. To be buried “naturally” typically means that a body doesn’t go through the embalming process and that the casket, urn, or vessel for the body or cremated remains is placed in the ground without a vault or grave liner.
The costs of a natural burial or cremation can run you about the same amount of money as a traditional burial, according to Rachael Folger, one of the friendly funeral directors at McHenry Funeral Home in Corvallis.
“A regular burial is about $3,000, which is what you’d pay for a casket and vault,” Folger said. “There are a lot more ‘green’ cremations than ‘green’ burials.”
Burial vaults surround a casket or urn in the ground or in a tomb, and are made of concrete or other materials. The vaults are used in most “traditional” funerals, according to the Federal Trade Commission. While some cemeteries may require vaults or grave liners to be used, they’re often not required by state laws.
Burial methods using wooden coffins or urns made of natural materials, for example, are “more nature-friendly,” according to Folger.
McHenry Funeral Home offers a selection of natural coffins and urns to clients. And funeral directors can help families find cemeteries and memorial parks that permit natural burials, like Oaklawn Memorial Cemetery in Corvallis, in certain areas of the cemetery.
Natural coffins vary in price, but, according to a quick Google search, you can buy a simple and natural pine box on Etsy for around $625.
“There definitely are a lot more options, even with ‘green’ burials and memorial parks, since the mid-2000s,” said Folger.
Another option for those who are into the “natural” way of passing is to forego the placement of a headstone at a gravesite and place a rock, tree, or flowers near the grave instead.
Cynthia Beal, the founder of the Natural Burial Company, located here in Oregon, says the choice to be buried or cremated is a personal decision. She has worked in sustainable agriculture and natural foods all of her life, and said it was a natural next step to enter the trade of burying people naturally, the way they were born.
People can choose from a wide selection of products on the Natural Burial Company website. A shroud, for example, is a frugal and simple alternative to an urn or coffin. The Natural Burial Company sells an organic cotton shroud for less than $300 at funerals.naturalburialcompany.com. There are also biodegradable urn options for those who choose the cremation route. You could go with a Himalayan salt urn, a box made from pressed recycled paper, or an urn shaped like an acorn made from recycled paper and other natural fibers. Once buried, the fibers decompose rapidly. The salt urn is supposed to dissolve within four hours when placed in water, and the cremated remains are dispersed according to the product description.
In addition to founding the Natural Burial Company, Beal operates Rest Lawn Memorial Park. She’s also working on a program for sustainable cemetery management with Oregon State University. The program, which Beal says is the first of its kind in the world, will help to address the complex issues of cemetery management in the 21st century. Beal works with students and researchers at the university’s Sustainable Cemetery Studies Lab.
“There’s a scientific way to answer questions about bodies being checked for contaminants, chemicals, drugs, etc.,” Beal said. “I would say that the goal of the lab at OSU is to identify the questions [to ask] and to interest researchers into looking into answers, because we have not yet asked the most important questions.”
With so many options for natural burial and cremation at one’s fingertips, it seems like a nice thought to leave this world naturally, which could in turn help out the Earth and our environment, and ease pressures like the need for more property for living populations. But it’s your death, your funeral, and your burial—or lack thereof—so do it your way. (Come on. We know you’ve been eyeing that biodegradable, handcrafted turtle vessel made from recycled paper …)