Sustainably saying goodbye through home and green burials (2024)

This story was originally produced by the Concord Monitor. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

Planning a funeral doesn’t always have to mean a traditional cemetery burial with an expensive metal or wooden casket lined with luxurious fabrics.

In many New Hampshire towns, you can choose a more personal and environmentally conscious farewell through home burials or eco-friendly green burials.

While home burials are still catching on in the state, green burials are becoming increasingly popular. This environmentally friendly alternative allows bodies to return to the earth naturally.

One town exploring this option is Andover.

Cheryl Swenson, the cemetery trustee there, said the town began researching green burials when a resident approached her about the possibility. In March, the town hosted a presentation explaining green burials, and 50 people attended.

“Quite a few of them were very surprised by how easy it seemed to have a green burial,” said Swenson.

In a green burial, the body is returned to the earth in the most natural way possible. Instead of traditional caskets, biodegradable materials such as simple shrouds or caskets made from pine or bamboo are used, ensuring no metal components like nails are included.

In some cemeteries, bodies are even laid to rest without any burial container at all.

Although still in the early stages, Andover plans to survey on election day to gauge community interest before putting it to a vote at the next town meeting. While most seem intrigued by the idea, Swenson acknowledged that not everyone is enthusiastic.

“What can we do to meet the needs of some of our residents?” Swenson said about the option of green burial. “Just because not everybody wants to be buried in the traditional way doesn’t mean that we can’t provide something for somebody else. So we’re trying to be open here”

Currently, in New Hampshire, there are 17 towns offering green burials to their residents.

Having facilitated a green burial herself, Margaret Drye, a cemetery trustee in Plainfield explained that an increasing number of people are choosing this eco-friendly option to minimize their environmental impact after death.

This growing interest is sparking curiosity in other towns, with many reaching out to learn more about adopting the sustainable practice.

“People are really interested in the idea of not embalming and not being encased into a lot of extra material,” said Drye. “To mean ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ kind of rings true with a lot of people.”

A crucial aspect of green burials is avoiding embalming fluids such as formaldehyde, which can contaminate groundwater and degrade soil quality.

Lee Webster, director of NH Funeral Resources and a resource for many communities exploring green burials, said the harmful effects of embalming chemicals extend beyond environmental impact.

Embalmers who are regularly exposed to these strong chemicals face an increased risk of various diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s.

The primary purpose of embalming is to preserve the body for an open casket viewing at a funeral home. However, Webster believes this practice is becoming less necessary.

“If more people say no, we don’t need to do that, it’s okay for people to look the way they look, we can stop adding all of those chemicals to the world,” said Webster.

A common misconception surrounding green burials is that deeper graves are required to prevent odors and prevent animals from disturbing the grave site. But Webster suggests that a depth of three and a half to four feet is ample.

“What we find is that it’s pretty much like any other feature in a piece of real estate. It’s a matter of choice.”

Lee Webster, director of NH Funeral Resources

Green burials have a lighter touch on the earth because the grave is dug by hand rather than with heavy machinery.

Cost considerations

People are increasingly drawn to green burials for their environmental benefits and cost-effectiveness.

Avoiding the expense of a luxurious casket made from costly woods like mahogany and lined with fabrics such as silk can make green burials more affordable. However, this isn’t always the case.

Arthur Phaneuf, president of Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, which has a location in Boscawen, notes that green burials can sometimes be more expensive than cremation.

“While it’s definitely going to save the family money compared to a full traditional service — having a wake, a nice casket, a church service, and a cemetery burial — it’s not always cheaper,” said Phaneuf. “A lot of green burial cemeteries are actually more expensive than traditional ones because of their conservation land and the upkeep for different reasons.”

At Phaneuf Funeral Home, the cost of a basic cremation is under $1,300, while a green burial can reach up to $4,000, excluding cemetery charges.

Many choose to handle green burials without involving funeral homes, but for those who do use their services, the process is similar to a traditional burial. Funeral homes still take the deceased into their care, handle the necessary paperwork, and assist with graveside services.

In New Hampshire, many green burial cemeteries are small, municipal plots that typically don’t conduct burials in winter due to a lack of equipment.

So, Phaneuf often asks families about their backup plans.

While the funeral home can temporarily hold the deceased for a short time like a week or two with refrigeration until the ground thaws, they cannot store a body that hasn’t been embalmed for extended periods, such as three to five months, due to the high rate of decomposition.

The funeral home also assists Islamic and Jewish families with burials.

Phaneuf said that green burials align closely with practices these communities have observed for thousands of years.

“A lot of them think it’s less money than a cremation, which it’s not and a lot of them are doing it for the right reasons — environmental benefits.”

Burying the dead at home

While the method of natural or green burials might seem innovative, they are actually age-old traditions making a comeback. This is true for home burials as well. Before the rise of the funeral industry in the late 1800s, families would care for and prepare their deceased loved ones for burial at home, a practice that funeral homes have since largely replaced.

New Hampshire law permits individuals to bury their loved ones on their own property. Though some might feel uneasy about having a burial site at home, especially near their everyday water source, Webster offers reassurance that it is safe.

“Our bodies are way safer than your septic system every single day,” she said.

Webster explained that body decomposition generally only poses a problem in burial grounds or cemeteries where many bodies are buried and for those areas hydrology studies are conducted.

“So one body is not going to cause a problem,” she added.

When deciding to bury a loved one on your property, it must be on the property of a family member, not a friend’s or neighbor’s house. Some rules include that the burial must occur 50 feet from a known water source, such as a private well, lake or stream. The burial site should also be 100 feet from buildings and 50 feet from a state highway.

Property owners must also disclose on their property deed that a body is buried there and provide a map showing the burial location that gives the right of way.

Even after the property is sold, the property owner retains the right to visit the burial site.

With home burials, there’s always a question of whether having a body buried on-site affects property value or makes it difficult to sell.

However, from her research and conversations with real estate agents, Webster said that properties across the country maintained or even increased in value according to the market.

Some buyers might find that the property has historic value and want to purchase it, while others might feel nervous about the presence of a burial site.

“What we find is that it’s pretty much like any other feature in a piece of real estate,” said Webster. “It’s a matter of choice.”

Sustainably saying goodbye through home and green burials (2024)
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