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Q. Dear Umbra,

At bedtime last night, my significant other remarked that when her time comes she would like to be disposed of in an earth-friendly way, rejoining the soil and not mummified forever in chemical preservatives. Is this even possible and legal? And how about the fiery alternative (no, not the afterlife)?  It seems the carbon footprint could be substantial.

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Washington, D.C.

A. Dearest Jay,

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Grist was at the head of the green funeral journalistic procession and has amply covered the “green burial” trend, so you can find much information about the ecological options for disposal of human remains and how to green your funeral here on this very site. There is also a Green Burial Council, there are pretty, green graveyards, there are coffins made of alternative materials like bamboo and banana sheaves, there are even artificial coral reefs filled with human ashes.

daisies and headstonesA more natural way to go?adamsofen via flickrTraditional cremation is less polluting than modern burial, counterintuitively. Modern burial involves formaldehyde-y embalming fluid, concrete vaults, and lots of lawn mowing and pesticides. Cremation is just the burning with no ensuing cemetery maintenance.

I peeked around a bit despite Grist’s previous thoroughness, as I was curious about whether one even needs to use a “green” burial service. Why not just bury yourself in your own grassy back yard, or surreptitiously sneak out into the nearby woods and dig a fresh trench? In some places, perhaps, you can do the former, though I doubt it is ever legal to do the latter.

States do have burial regulations, especially to oversee the operation of cemetery businesses, but often it is county or town laws that cover the interesting issues of where and how one can actually be buried. (Embalming, for example, is generally not a legal requirement.) Many of the burial laws that appear silly to the modern, sane, non-criminal mind derive from the need to protect graves from looters, or to ensure that no crimes escaped notice via a convenient buried casket.

If your significant other does wish to be buried whole, and has a piece of land, it may be possible for her to be interred there, depending on the laws of the state or district. This is called a “home burial ground,” for your research purposes. Of course it’s easier to find a service that will take care of the whole rigamarole in a green way without any mourners having to exert effort against toxic funerary traditions.

Either way, or if your sig-o chooses to be turned into a diamond, or cremated and thrown to the winds, it’s important to remember that when the time comes to make all the ecologically correct funeral arrangements, the person to whom it mattered most will be dead. Make a will. Leave instructions. And don’t die before your time.