Every day more and more people ask us great questions regarding sustainability in death care and natural burial. Specifically, many people want to know if there are laws that prohibit some of the choices in death care for a more natural return to the earth. The growing interest in green burials and natural burials is encouraging. Since the first natural burial cemetery opened in the U.S. at Ramsey Creek in 1998, there are now hundreds of new and existing cemeteries offering various methods of natural burial services.
In short, the answer to the question, "Is natural burial legal?" is, Yes. There are no laws prohibiting green or natural burial. The long answer involves being familiar with both federal regulations and state laws.
Federal Trade Commission Regulations
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has two rulings that bear some relevance to green and natural burial in the United States. One rule is the Funeral Rule that protects a consumer's right to choose only the goods and services they want or need and pay only for those services they select. This means that anyone has right to plan a natural burial with their funeral home. (In our experience, funeral homes will accommodate the wishes of any family, no matter how odd they may be--within the confines of the law, of course--and charge a fair fee for the expenses and services.)
A good point of interest in the funeral rule is that every funeral home in the United States must already offer a form of a green burial with a direct burial offering. Funeral homes are required to present a price list that includes a direct burial. For many funeral homes a direct burial service is one that includes a modest wood (or cardboard) container, no embalming, and immediate burial in a cemetery within 24 hours.
The second topic of relevance with the FTC is the Green Guides revised in 2012. These guidelines help marketers of green products and services use language that is not misleading to consumers. Specific language in the guidelines set definitions to terms relevant in funeral service like biodegradable, compostable, recycled, and non-toxic.
To sum up federal regulations, there are no laws that make an individual's wish for a more natural end-of-life plan. The direction is encouraging and the best thing you can do is simply ask questions. Your funeral director will help you.
It is important to recognize that funeral laws differ in every state. It is within each state's right to legislate the details of funeral service--the language in state statues refers to the "disposition of human remains." While there are lots of statutes across the land that set boundaries for how funeral homes and cemeteries conduct business, there are three common topics that relate to natural burials: burial vaults, caskets, and embalming.
Burial Vaults and The Law
Burial vaults are not required by law in most states--Massachusetts and Louisiana are the exceptions. [This is to the best of my knowledge and I could use help/feedback on the specific laws in these states.] While no laws require burial vaults, there is a general public perception that they are required. This is because most cemeteries have a policy of using vaults. There are reasons for concrete and steel burial vaults. They make it easy to locate a grave so as not to disturb human remains when digging an adjacent grave. Vaults prevent grave collapse that does simplify maintenance, but more importantly, avoids a dangerous situation while digging graves with a tractor. Even though many cemeteries require vaults per policy, there is a growing number larger municipal and commercial cemeteries that are opening natural burial areas within their facilities for vault-less burials. The many smaller cemeteries including private, church, and village/township managed cemeteries often have no policy on vaults and will do whatever the family wishes. And the growing number of conservation and natural burial cemetery sites around the U.S. actually prohibit the use of burial vaults and steel caskets.
Caskets and The Law
No state law requires use of a casket for burial or cremation. If a burial vault is being used, there is no inherent requirement to use a casket. A person can be directly interred in the earth, in a shroud, or in a vault without a casket.
There is no state law that dictates what a casket must be made of, either. A casket can be fabricated from paper, cardboard, cotton, wicker, banana leaves, felt, wood or any other [legally obtainable] material. The only limit is our creativity.
Embalming and The Law
No state explicitly requires that a person be embalmed. While states differ on the language, the general intent is the same in all states. Human remains be "disposed of" within 24 hours through burial or cremation. If not disposed, then human remains must be preserved. Methods of preservation include both refrigeration and embalming. Refrigeration can include ice, dry ice, or mechanical refrigeration.
Embalming has come a long way in the last two decades as well. There are several different "green" embalming methods on the market that do not include dangerously toxic formaldehydes. Inquire with your funeral director on the specific laws in your state and what alternatives are available.
Other Good Resources on Natural Burial
Mark Harris, author of national best-selling book, Grave Matters, hosts a web site and blog that answers many questions about natural burial. The Green Burial Council is a good resource for frequently asked questions and the facts pertaining to natural burial.