Living Green 365: Grave matters

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Grave Matters

Grave matters

Happy Halloween! Halloween is a holiday that makes light of the dark side of life. We all joke about mummies, coffins, and burial as we chew sweet treats. However, it can be quite hard to talk about death and burial outside of Halloween jokes! That’s why we are going to hit the topic head on, from an environmental perspective, and give you some food for thought about funerals, burials, cremation, and some green alternatives.

Funeral flowers

What's the issue?

Conventional American funerals, burials, and cremations can be resource-intensive and polluting. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, cemeteries across the U.S. each year bury:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
  • 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)

The mining, manufacture, and transport of these materials creates air emissions, as does cemetery mowing and upkeep. Chemicals used to maintain cemetery grounds can pollute lakes and streams. Irrigation to keep cemetery grounds green uses a lot of water, a finite resource.

Flame-based cremation has some environmental advantages over burial (fewer natural resources are used), but is energy intensive. In addition, trace metals like mercury can be released to the atmosphere during the cremation process, along with other emissions.

Faced with this information, what’s a mere mortal to do?

green funeral

Fortunately, Minnesotans have an expanding number of eco-friendly death care options. Start by asking prospective funeral homes what their internal green business practices are and what green funeral choices they offer (this approach can be especially useful if developing a future plan).

Minnesota rules and regulations pertaining to green funerals and burials have been evolving in recent years. One of the best resources is the document “Choices” published by the Minnesota Department of Health. Among other things, it provides a useful definition of green funerals and burials.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

Green cremation

Originally pioneered in Minnesota by the Mayo Clinic, alkaline hydrolysis, also known as biocremation or green cremation, is an alternative to flame-based cremation.

Green cremation uses water, an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide (lye), heat, and pressure to reduce a body to bone ash. Because it is not flame based, the process uses less energy than conventional cremation.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota’s website provides information on green cremation and where it's offered in Minnesota.

Green Burial

Green burial

The Green Burial Council (GBC) identifies green or natural burial as a way of caring for the dead that reduces carbon emissions, protects worker health, helps conserve natural resources, and restores or preserves habitat.

Green burial prohibits embalming of the deceased. Biodegradable caskets, urns, or shrouds made from nontoxic, sustainably harvested materials take the place of concrete vaults and metal caskets.

Minnesota law does not require embalming except under certain circumstances, nor does it require the use of burial vaults, although some cemeteries do. See "Choices" for more information.

Green cemeteries

The Green Burial Council certifies the following three categories of green cemeteries:

  • Hybrid burial grounds are conventional cemeteries that offer the option of burial without a vault, concrete slab, or outer container of any kind. Hybrid burial grounds must allow for any kind of burial container, including shrouds.

  • Natural burial grounds must meet all the requirements of hybrid burial grounds. In addition, they must have an Integrated Pest Management program in place, practice sustainable landscaping techniques, and adopt  practices/protocols  that  are  energy-­conserving, minimize waste, and do not require the use of toxic chemicals
  • Conservation burial grounds must meet all of the requirements for hybrid and natural burial grounds. In addition, they must protect in perpetuity an area of land specifically and exclusively designated for conservation. 

GBC-certified funeral homes and burial sites in Minnesota can be found at

Greening the event

Funeral ceremonies can generate a lot of garbage. Here are some ways to lower the impacts.

  • Forgo flowers. Funeral flowers may be grown using pesticides and other chemicals. In lieu of flowers, ask friends and family to donate to a favorite charity. If flowers are a must-have item, request or source locally grown organic varieties.
  • Make sustainable food choices. If food is part of the event, specify locally sourced items. Reduce waste by using reusable dishware and utensils.
  • Travel green. Encourage attendees to carpool or take public transit to and from funeral events to cut down on fossil fuel use and emissions.Some funeral directors offer web-based video conferencing for friends and family who cannot travel.
estate sale

After the funeral

Sorting through and deciding what to do with a deceased loved one's belongings can be challenging.  Practicing the “4 Rs”—reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle—can help with this difficult task.

Even items that seem hopelessly dated or worn may still have value and reuse potential. An estate sale is a good way to find new homes for things. If you’re planning to involve an estate liquidator, be sure to first check out the Minnesota Attorney General’s guidelines for hiring one.

Hold off on the dumpster until after the sale, as estate sales need inventory to be successful! Donate things that don’t sell to charity organizations. has some great tips and resources for what to do with estate “left-overs”.

Feeling overwhelmed by all the “stuff”? A professional organizer may be worth engaging to help sort through things--some even specialize in estate clean-out! The National Association of Professional Organizers offers suggestions and resources for finding the right individual or company. 

Give sympathy cards a second life via repurposing! Check with local nursing homes and assisted living facilities, or youth organizations, to see if they accept card fronts for their craft projects. Or, you can send them to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children for use in their Recycled Card Program.


Community events and resources

Join your neighbors in attending a public "convening" on the local impacts of climate change, co-hosted by Climate Generation and the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. Hear from experts, community leaders, and storytellers about local climate issues. Work with neighbors, friends, and colleagues to implement innovative local solutions. Free and open to the public, ALL ages welcome.

  • Climate Minnesota: Detroit Lakes convening, November 2 @ 8:30 am - 12 pm
  • Climate Minnesota: Brainerd Convening, November 2 @ 5:30 pm - 9 pm
  • Climate Minnesota: West Metro Convening, November 12 @ 5:30 pm - 9 pm

For more information to to register, visit Climate Generation.

Kick off the holiday season with Do It Green! Minnesota’s 10th Annual Green Gifts Fair on Saturday, November 21, 10am - 5pm at Midtown Global Market on Lake Street and 10th Avenue in Minneapolis. The Green Gifts Fair is a fun, family-friendly event with an estimated attendance of 6,000. A $1 donation will be accepted at the doors.


  • Many new and unique vendors
  • First 100 visitors receive a Chinook Book mobile app
  • Free Green Living booklet
  • Go car-less booth with free bike tune-ups
  • Food samples 
  • Family passport activities with prizes
  • Live music 
  • Silent auction

Thank you for reading Living Green 365. This newsletter is a publication of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Please send questions or comments about living green to the address below.


Erin Barnes-Driscoll and the Living Green Team