Natural funerals: Saving green by going green

A few weeks ago, I suggested some ways to save money on caskets or by using alternative burial methods. I was impressed by the response to these posts. Many people weren't too excited by the idea of being shot into space or buried at sea, but were very interested in finding ways to pay less for a traditional burial.

With that in mind, I explored a few funerary expenses and found some ways that a budget-minded planner could reduce the price of a traditional funeral. While you probably don't want to skimp on someone else's funeral, you might want to consider telling your family about how some of these methods could save money when it's your turn to go to your eternal reward!

Burial Vaults

One common misconception about traditional funerals revolves around the burial vessel. Most people think that, when it comes to a funeral, you only have to buy a casket. The fact of the matter is that many cemeteries also require the use of burial vaults. These are essentially concrete boxes that surround the coffin. They are usually sealed with plastic and/or metal, and they supposedly protect the casket from the ravages of time and decay. In fact, they can carry warranties of up to 200 years.

The dirty little secret is that cemeteries don't particularly care about the pristine condition of the casket or the hundreds of years that the vaults will supposedly keep the natural decay process from happening. The truth is that vaults are popular because they are extremely convenient. Essentially, they keep graves from collapsing, which usually happens when the casket decays a few months after burial. Also, vaults are much stronger than coffins, which makes it possible for the cemetery to use heavy earth-moving equipment, like backhoes. In both cases, vaults save the cemetery money, as it doesn't have to pay as much for upkeep and grounds-keeping.

As I mentioned, most cemeteries require vaults, but some don't. A little bit of research and pre-funeral planning can ensure that you and your survivors aren't stuck with an unnecessary expense that you might not want.


It's hard to tell when funerals and flowers started their long association, but their heyday probably came during the great age of gangsters. One of the big signs of power in the underworld was a huge funeral cortege, loaded with tons of flowers. Frank Yale, an estranged associate of Al Capone and the first victim of a "Tommy Gun hit," was famous for the size of his funeral procession and the piles of flowers that accompanied him on his final voyage.

Oddly enough, one gangster, Dion O'Bannion, who was big in Chicago, had a very successful sideline business providing flowers for gangland funerals!

Most funerals don't feature the extravagant "floral tributes" that are traditional for a mobster, but even the most austere service still tends to feature numerous sprays of bright flowers. It's easy to understand why people would want to send flowers for a funeral: they're beautiful, they show love, and they are almost the embodiment of life. On the downside, however, they are expensive, they need to be transported to the gravesite, and they end up becoming something of a nuisance. If you want to save the expense of floral transportation, one possibility is to ask your family and loved ones to donate the money to a good cause of your choice. Not only will this save you the fuss of dealing with all those flowers, but it will also enable you to have a more lasting and meaningful tribute.

Natural Burial

Sue Coffin, of Ahead of Your Time, told me about "Green Cemeteries." Tired of the artificial nature of the burial industry, a group in the United Kingdom began pursuing the development of more environmentally sound cemeteries. This movement has spread to the United States; although it isn't available everywhere, it seems to be growing in popularity.

Green cemeteries represent a radical return to the burial methods of the pre-industrial era. They don't allow crypts and frown on wooden coffins. They prefer cloth burial shrouds, as these are more biodegradable and don't use as many resources. Some green cemeteries don't allow embalming, as it introduces a devil's brew of horrid chemicals into the earth. Often, green cemeteries use natural flagstone grave markers or group markers to minimize the human impact on the grave site. Finally, they generally avoid traditional groundskeeping, as it can add tons of artificial pesticides and fertilizers to the watershed.

All of this translates into a far less invasive burial procedure. Natural burial can still retain the ceremony and many of the trappings of a traditional funeral, but it seems to circumvent the artificial nature of most contemporary cemeteries. It also costs a lot less, as you are not paying for the upkeep of a traditional gravesite. For that matter, you aren't necessarily paying for a coffin, embalming, or many of the other services for which morticians charge a premium.

The upshot of all of this is that saving money on your funeral requires a little planning and an honest conversation with your family members. Of course, we all tend to be a little skittish about these sorts of talks, but funeral pre-planning is the only way to ensure that your final desires will be honored. In the end, pre-planning makes it possible for your funeral to be a beautiful reflection of your life, instead of a drain on your family.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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