Six Basics of Natural Funeral Directing

In my work advocating for natural burials, I was recently asked to help brainstorm a description of natural or "green" funeral service. I was so pleased with the way my short list came out that I wanted to expand on it here in a bit more detail. (You could view this list as either a description of the mindset of the natural practitioners reforming our industry today, or as a wishlist for the types of attitudes we are advocating the industry adopt more widely!)

  1. Access to the unembalmed body is not taboo. At the heart of a natural funeral is the understanding that is is safe and valuable to spend time with our dead. This can take place anywhere along the way from the vigil hours surrounding the death, through the arrangements and any gatherings, up until final disposition.
  2. Natural care for the body. Natural funerals forgo embalming or any toxic chemicals, and the body is prepared with household-safe soap, personal care products, or essential oils. Simple washing can go a long way towards reducing the risk of odors or deterioration of the skin. Anointing and shrouding are similarly ancient and non-invasive techniques that can improve the experience of spending time with the dead.
  3. Loved ones are invited to take part in all parts of the process. The option for family participation is one of the hallmarks of a natural funeral. Since we value time spent with the dead and are not using dangerous chemicals (see numbers 1 & 2!), loved ones should have the opportunity to participate in any portion of the arrangements. This can include the care for the body, dressing or shrouding, designing the ceremony, accompanying the body during transportation, preparing the burial site or closing the grave, etc.
  4. Openness to any venue. Natural funerals have always taken place in chapels and houses of worship, but the natural funeral director is open to other arrangements such as the loved ones' home, community locations or an outdoor venue. The guiding principle is following the family's needs and making sure they get what they need from the process, and many types of outside-the-box arrangements would be just the thing to help make the ceremony approachable, meaningful and memorable.
  5. Preference for artisanal, local or handmade merchandise. Sourcing caskets or urns from small-scale craftspeople in our local communities is an incredible way to reduce the footprint of a funeral. These one-of-a-kind burial containers are more personalized than anything we can offer from a catalog, most especially when the woodworker or weaver is a member of the bereaved and creates it for the person. The natural funeral director will embrace the family's choice of burial container, even if the DIY option may represent the loss of a revenue source.
  6. Preference for biodegradable merchandise and greener operational footprint. Not every community is producing burial containers from locally sourced materials. The natural funeral director will have a readily available source of biodegradable merchandise, and an understanding of the difference between sustainably and ethically sourced products versus the type that are "just" biodegradable and appropriate for green burial. This is related to an overall understanding of the impacts of our lives and work on our only planet, and the natural funeral director may also strive to reduce the footprint of our profession as a whole- whether through encouraging carpooling, offering plastic-free catering, replacing paper with digital memorial options, etc. (Please write to me if you want more ideas to help make your funeral home more environmentally friendly!)

For more, there is also a wonderful green funeral service course available for professional development through Redesigning the End.