A Real Return to Nature: Green Burials are Becoming Popular

  • The grave of Gil Allewelt, the first person buried at Penn Forest Cemetery in Verona, Pa. Photo: Ann Murray

  • The Penn Forest Cemetery meadow will be replanted with native wildflowers. Photo: Ann Murray

  • Charlie Aston bought one of the 1,000 plots sold so far at Penn Forest Cemetery. Photo: Ann Murray

April 19, 2013

When Pete McQuillin and his wife decided to think about how they wanted to be buried, they considered green burial—a process that involves burial without formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets, or concrete burial vaults.

The McQuillins, who are Pittsburghers, had to look as far away as New York state to find a green cemetery because there were none in Pennsylvania. “My wife said, 'Why don’t you start a cemetery here?' And I said, 'Why not?'” says McQuillin.

McQuillin’s Penn Forest Natural Burial Park opened in a Pittsburgh suburb in 2011. It’s one of 22 certified green cemeteries in the United States. That means it meets the environmental standards of the Green Burial Council, an independent group that regulates green cemeteries and funeral homes.

The Green Burial Council recognizes three classes of green cemeteries: hybrids, which have green and conventional burials; natural burial parks, which accept only green burials; and conservation burial grounds, which are required to have a conservation easement held by an established land trust.

In all three classifications the idea is to return to the way people have buried their dead for centuries. The widespread use of chemicals to slow down decomposition began here in the United States during the Civil War, when dead soldiers had to be shipped home from the battlefield. Its popularity was sealed when Abraham Lincoln’s body was embalmed.

The preservative of choice then was arsenic. It was eventually replaced by formaldehyde, a compound that was just formally recognized in 2011 as a carcinogen by the U.S. government.

“We have essentially returned to our pre-Civil War traditions of caring for our dead with a few new environmental safeguards,” McQuillin says.

The American Society of Embalmers estimates that it normally takes three gallons of embalming fluid to preserve a body. Nothing in state or federal law requires that bodies be embalmed except in cases that involve rare diseases like cholera.

For some people, like Maria Allewelt and her husband, Gil, the choice of green burial was obvious. When Gil became terminally ill, Maria read about Penn Forest cemetery and contacted Pete McQuillin. The cemetery got its zoning permit just as Gil died. The family was able to prepare Gil’s body and hand build a simple wooden casket.

“The simplicity was to us important because that was the way we lived,” Allewelt says. She says the environmental aspects of the burial also appealed to them.

Charlie Aston, who bought one of the 1,000 plots sold so far at Penn Forest cemetery, likes the fact that costs are kept down by using fewer resources. 

But not everyone is convinced that green burials are always better for the environment than modern burial practices.

Jeff Hodes runs Cemetery Management Solutions, a management consulting business for conventional and green cemetery owners. He has also sat on the board of the Green Burial Council. “I’m not going to down the traditional burial industry,” he says.

Hodes questions those in the green burial industry who contend that formaldehyde used in embalming can leach and cause soil and water contamination. Although he acknowledges that formaldehyde can be a health threat to embalmers who use it, he thinks the science is inconclusive about the movement of the compound from graves.

There has, in fact, been little research. Alison Spongberg, a professor of environmental science at the University of Toledo, has tested chemical compounds in conventional cemeteries. She says it’s hard to prove contamination because formaldehyde breaks down quickly and there’s limited access to graveyards.

“When I did my research, the people who had to give me permission were torn between finding out if there was contamination and their desire to leave cemeteries alone. They didn’t want what they considered desecration of the cemetery for the sake of research,” says Spongberg.

Despite this scientific uncertainty or perhaps because of it, the notion of green burial is catching on. A 2007 AARP survey found that almost a quarter of people who are age 50 and above want an eco-friendly burial.