MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Most people think there are only two options when somebody dies—a traditional funeral or cremation. But a new option is growing in popularity across the nation, particularly with people who are environmentally conscious.

It’s called a green burial, and the idea behind it is to help the body decompose as naturally as possible. As much of a new idea it is in the modern world, it hearkens back to simpler times.

In early U.S. history, there weren’t really any funeral homes. People prepared their loved ones at home.  

Abraham Lincoln was famously embalmed for a funeral march where the public could attend an open visitation.
Courtesy: The Library of Congress

But in the days of the U.S. Civil War, soldiers were dying away from home. Bodies were preserved using chemicals, so that they could be sent home for burial. The process of preserving bodies in this way is called embalming.  

Embalming really took off after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. His body was embalmed and sent to several funeral homes in different cities for 12 days, before finally resting in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Historians say that it was the first time that many Americans had seen an embalmed body before, and they were impressed by the way it looked.  

Today, it’s somewhat rare that a body doesn’t go through the embalming process, especially if the family requests an open casket funeral. But environmentalists are learning that the chemicals involved can be harmful to the environment and mortuary workers.  

One of the biggest complaints—Formaldehyde. The chemical is rather common and is used in more places than just the funeral industry, but the CDC calls it “highly toxic,” and long-term exposure is known to cause cancer. Morticians, the people who prepare the body, must wear protective gear when handling the chemicals.  

Embalming fluid isn’t the only thing that contains formaldehyde. According to the American Cancer Society, trace amounts are found in some of these products as well.

The Green Burial Council is a national certification and advocacy organization centered around supporting environmentally conscious burial practices. In order for a funeral home or graveyard to be certified by the Green Burial Council, they must adhere to strict guidelines. 

There is only one funeral home in West Virginia that is certified by the organization to perform a green burial—Smith Funeral and Cremation Care in Morgantown. The funeral home offers traditional, as well as green funeral options, and green funerals can still have open casket visitations. 

“The chemicals that we would use if someone wanted to still be arterially embalmed and ‘laid out’ traditionally, or have an open casket visitation, these chemicals are made of essential oils that will still cleanse and still disinfect the body, if you will,” said Jason Smith, co-owner of Smith Funeral and Cremation Care, “Now there is also, if somebody doesn’t want to be arterially embalmed, refrigeration can be used, topical sprays, that type of thing.” 

Smith Funeral and Cremation Care in Morgantown, W.Va. is the only funeral home that is certified by the Green Burial Council in West Virginia.

Often times, environmentally friendly options come at a cost, but green burials typically don’t cost any more than a traditional funeral.  

An example of a bamboo casket Smith Funeral and Cremation Care offers for a green burial.

“As far as the funeral home charges, it can be several thousand dollars less. There are other expenses to think about when it comes to green burial, though,” explained Smith, “Cemetery is one of those things that you will have to pay that is out of control of the funeral home. But as far as what we can do for you, most of the time, at least 40 to 50 percent less than what a traditional funeral would be.” 

Someone who opts for a green burial can be buried in a biodegradable casket, such as wicker, or in a cloth shroud. Traditional graveyards often require a vault, kind of like a casket in a casket made out of strong materials like concrete. This is because as decomposition starts, the ground starts to sink where the person was buried. In a green burial, a vault is not allowed, so it can be hard to find a cemetary that will accept a green burial.  

If you choose to do a green burial, you might end up at Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. Smith said that the people they work with often choose a plot here. It’s the closest graveyard that is certified by the Green Burial Council. As of now, there are no graveyards that are certified in West Virginia. Penn Forest was started in 2008 and is the first green burial ground in Pennsylvania. 

“We heard ten years before that down in South Carolina they had opened the first green cemetery in the United States, Ramsey Creek. So we figured by that time, there’d be lots of them,” remembers Pete McQuillin, owner and cemetery manager at Penn Forest Natural Burial Ground, “And it turned out that the nearest one to us was up in Ithaca, New York. Looking at the map, it was almost a six hour drive up to Ithaca.

“I said, ‘I can’t go up there and buy a cemetery plot because no one would come to my funeral, so we need to do something else,’ and I just was feeling bad about it with Nancy [his wife], and I said, “You know, somebody ought to open a green cemetery in Pittsburgh,’ and she looked at me, and said, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And that was sort of what I’ve been doing ever since.” 

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park allows only markers that are flat and native to the environment

Now, Pete helps others open green cemeteries across the U.S. Mary Ann Perry came from Oregon to Pennsylvania to learn about maintaining a green cemetery. 

“I’m part of a group of people who are working to open, it’s called the Forest Conservation Burial Ground and it’s at Willow Whit Ranch which is in Southern Oregon, just over the California border,” explained Perry, “and we don’t have a dedicated burial ground in our state at this time, and I am able to work from home and my husband is from Pittsburgh, so we’re here to spend time with our family and also for me to study here with Laura and Pete.” 

If you take a walk in Penn Forest’s burial groves, it won’t look like the traditional cemetery. A traditional burial site and a green burial site are very different. To start, traditional burials are dug five feet down, while green burials only have to be dug three and a half feet.

Because green burial sites don’t have the vault and are likely to sink down overtime, fresh graves have more dirt on top. After a month or so, the excess is leveled off. Green burials are not marked with tombstones like a traditional burial. If the graves are marked with a stone or wood, it must be flat and native to the environment. Sometimes graves use GPS coordinates. 

“We don’t use any chemical pesticides or herbicides,” said Laura Faessel, assistant manager at Penn Forest, “In order to be designated as a natural burial ground, you can’t use any of that stuff, so we got goats originally to clear out brush and we deal with invasive species in different ways.” 

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park has goats, a donkey, sheep, chickens, and more.

Penn Forest Cemetery is on 35 acres of land, but the land also includes a barn, a couple gardens, a hiking trail, and a wildlife preserve. 

“The flower picking garden was started last year and it was pretty popular so we decided to expand it this year,” said Faessel, “and it’s for whoever comes to visit graves or are here for burials. They can pick flowers to put on the graves, or even just take some home.” 

Laura said people often come to visit their loved ones and to walk the trails. Penn Forest stays active in their community by holding events such as yoga with goats and teaching people to build their own coffin.  

People who come here for their burial come from many different religions. Some like the idea that they are essentially giving back to the earth and some like the idea of being buried in the woods under a tree. Most often, it’s people who love nature. 

We’re a service-based industry. We’re here to do what the consumer asks us to do, whether it’s in line with my beliefs or not.

Jason Smith, Smith Funeral and Cremation Care

“We get a lot of people that have grown up on farms, and they come here to look at lots,” said Faessel, “and we take them over to see the barn animals and they’re like, I’m sold.” 

Both Penn Forest and Smith Funeral predict that we will see an increase in green burials as people learn more about it. Smith said that they haven’t actually done a green burial yet, but they do have several people who have prearranged with them to have a green burial. 

“With being in mortuary school, it was a topic that was only really touched upon so it was really very new, not just here, but in the funeral industry itself,” said Cathy Baker-Smith, co-owner of Smith Funeral and Cremation Care.

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park’s map

“That’s a good point, and that kind of shows the generational gap between us,” added Jason Smith, “She is just getting ready to graduate mortuary school. I’ve been out of mortuary school for 20 years. When I graduated mortuary school, there was little to no emphasis at all on cremation even. Most everything we did, we were geared toward the traditional funeral aspect of everything. Now you have people graduating from mortuary schools that are being trained as a certified crematory operator when they come out of the school.

“And I think you’re probably going to see [green burials] progress now as well. That you’re going to have a growing sect of educators who realize that green burial is going to come around. It’s going to be formidable in our business, and for students and the generation of funeral directors to come, it’s going to be something that you’re going to have to be well versed and educated in.” 

Smith also said that being able to provide more options to people is important to them. 

“We’re a service-based industry,” he said, “We’re here to do what the consumer asks us to do. Whether it’s in line with my beliefs or not. So having the knowledge that you can provide all these services to the public just furthers you as being a good provider of end of life care for people.”