Personal Philosophy Religion Spirituality

Green Burials: Recycling Matter and Spirit

Recently I was talking with some friends and as we are all of a certain age, the conversation came around to funeral service options. For various personal and religious reasons, several different preferences were expressed. Choices included cremation, a launch to sea on a small boat, donation to a medical school, and my offering, a green burial. In a green burial,1 the body receives no preservative chemicals. No permanent vaults or coffins are used in the burial. The body is placed in a biodegradable shroud directly into the ground. There are green cemeteries across the United States. (In addition to the cemetery, the person desiring a green burial needs a funeral service provider that is certified to assure that the body has been prepared properly for a green burial.)

Of course, burial practices vary across different religions and denominations. For example, Islam and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to prefer burial rather than cremation because of the religious belief in the resurrection of the physical body. In Hinduism, the fire God, Agni, receives the bodiless soul of the dead through the funeral pyre; therefore, most Hindus are cremated. Sikhs, as with Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, believe in the reincarnation of the soul, or Atman. Most Sikhs are cremated. Judaism teaches a physical resurrection. Burial is preferred but cremation is permitted among some sects. In Buddhism there is no consensus regarding burial rituals, and Buddhists generally follow the cultural norms of their home country. In recent years, green burials have become more popular among Christians.2

Green, or natural, burials seem particularly appropriate for the quadrune mind model of spiritual consciousness. Green burials offer people an alternative to a religious, traditionalistic, ritual, which may have lost its personal spiritual meaning for them. It also returns intimacy with the burying of a loved one, which has been usurped by the professionalization of the ceremony. Green burials continue the respect toward the environment, which we try to practice during life. And green burials can embody the philosophy of the inseparability of matter and spirit—the essence of the universe—understood as “deeply nondualistic3 

Some people, perhaps especially creationists, seem to believe that a human being is physically conceived and born with a body that had no pre-conception existence, except in the “mind of God.” Consequently, humans have a “special” essence unequalled in the physical universe, including the other creatures we share it with. It makes us feel privileged, but at the cost of a sense that we do not belong here.4 We are left with a longing to “go home” someplace else. This world and everything and everyone in it are not worthy of our full devotion and service—except to be used as our ticket “home,” if we do our work well. (Growing up I spent a lot of time thinking about God. I also watched a lot of television evangelists, who sometimes made statements that still stick with me. One memorable comment was, “Some Christians are so heavenly bound that they are of no earthly good.”)5

From the quadrune mind point of view, we came from the universe (along the way as star dust) and in a green burial we can return to the universe—in our natural state. In the meantime this place is exactly where we belong.

Additional Resources

Basler, B. (2004, July/August). Green graveyards—A natural way to go. AARP Bulletin, 45(7), 3-4. “I think we put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life.” (Page 3).

Kelly, S. (2017, February 13). Green burial and spiritual communities: One Earth, one movement. Let’s Talk.

Strybis, E. (2020, August 28). The spirituality of natural burialsLiving Lutheran.

Postscript, May 10, 2023: Herzog, K. (2015, March 10). A greener aftelife: Is human composting the future for funerals? For Grist, part of the Guardian Environment Network. [When “traditional” green burials aren’t green enough. In this option you “can go home with your loved ones in the form of soil.” Details of various burial practices are described].

  1. Green Haven Cemetery. “The types of green burials vary. There are hybrid cemeteries that provide both traditional graves and green ones. Another type is a conservation burial ground, in which proceeds from customers buy and conserve the cemetery property. These burial grounds are often old cemeteries where there are few if any burials, mainly because the burial space has been used up. Then there are natural burial grounds dedicated to the green concept, which prohibit the use of materials that do not decay. Green Haven is a ‘natural burial ground’ cemetery.”
  2. Araujo-Hawkins, D. (2021, July 6). Green burial as an act of faith: A growing number of Christians are embracing natural burial practices. The Christian Century. “When Beth Hoeltke starts talking about death, her face lights up and her eyes begin to sparkle….

    “[F]or some people, like Hoeltke, natural burial… involves a more participatory burial process: washing and dressing your loved one’s body at home, accompanying them to the grave site, physically laying them into the ground, and then fully covering their body with dirt.

    “‘It’s a really beautiful experience. And I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve seen the beauty of what can happen,’ Hoeltke said. ‘I think the loss that you deal with after a loved one dies becomes a little easier in a sense, because that reality of death is in front of your face. When society takes death out of the picture of life and hands it off to someone else, we’re missing that beautiful connection in the ability to love our loved ones through death.’

    “Fundamentally, of course, natural burials are nothing new; up until the 1930s, this is how almost everyone in the United States was buried—and it’s how many people around the world continue to be buried today.

    “‘For those who have grown up hearing that phrase, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ we recognize, in some ways—that’s our name being called,’ [Benjamin Stewart, associate professor of worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago] continues. ‘And our current funeral rites don’t ritualize that name. They’re doing something else.’”

  3. Goff, page 135; emphasis in the original. See footnote 4.
  4. Goff, P. (2019). Galileo’s error: Foundations for a new science of consciousness. New York: Pantheon Books. “Panpsychism offers a way of ‘re-enchanting’ the universe. On the panpsychist view, the universe is like us; we belong in it. We do not live exclusively in the human realm…. We can let go of nation and tribe, happy in the knowledge that there is a universe that welcomes us.” [Page 217, emphases in the original. Philosopher Philip Goff is an exceptionally eloquent advocate of panpsychism: the philosophy that consciousness is the intrinsic property of matter. Consequently, everything else in the universe is made of the same basic “stuff” as we are!].
  5. Is it possible to be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly goodGot Questions Ministries. “The accusation that some Christians are too heavenly focused and therefore not paying enough attention to earthly matters is based on a false premise, namely, that love of God makes one less capable or less concerned with the practical affairs of the world. Being ‘heavenly minded’ does not result in isolating oneself from the world, ignoring contemporary issues, or declining to be involved. Just the opposite: being heavenly minded results in attempting to please God, who has given us work to do in this world.” [Emphasis added. From the quadrune mind perspective this approach of “work to do in this world” creates an artificial division of reality—the earthly world and the heavenly world—and implicitly assigns an inferior status to the earthly world compared with the heavenly destined “workers.” This attitude does not represent the spiritual consciousness of a Human being].