Green burial: An eco-friendly option increasingly embraced by families and faith communities

Editor's Note: This story is part of our series, Sacred Earth, which examines the intersection between climate change — and faith, worldview, philosophy, psychology, and the creative arts. This series is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Various communities and faiths have embraced eco-friendly approaches to burying loved ones, and are integrating green or natural burials into their practices. 

A 2022 poll by the National Funeral Directors' Association found that 60.5% of respondents would be interested in 'green' burial options. 

To understand what this trend looks like locally and statewide, Second Wave spoke with Oshtemo Township Clerk Dusty Farmer, Grand Traverse County Sexton Bob Wilkinson, Sister Virginia Jones of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Kalamazoo, and Kristi Arntzen of Temple B'nai Israel. 

Green burial and natural burial are not the same

The differences between green burial and natural burial may seem subtle, but only cemeteries who adhere to the Green Burial Council's requirements can be certified as a Green Burial Cemetery. Green burial uses only natural materials like pine wood boxes or shrouds made of cotton, bamboo fabric, or even silk placed around the body, and bypasses embalming. No concrete vaults are used, so the corpse may decompose naturally and return to the earth fully. 

According to the Green Burial Council, "Green burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat."

Artist: Casey GrootenPhotographs taken at Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo, using a long swath of donated white cloth dyed red and pink to connect the graves as a way of reflecting many faiths' belief that we are all truly interconnected and equal in death.A key difference with a natural burial is that non-organic items may be buried with the body and left at the burial site, while in certified green burial sites, that is prohibited.

“Interesting how little guidance the law gives you on burials,” says Dusty Farmer, Oshtemo Township Clerk, when asked how the new cemetery plans became a priority for Oshtemo Township. 

Because the townships allow non-organic material to be buried along with the body, West Oshtemo Cemetery is not certified as a green burial space, but the natural burial policies that are incorporated, on the other hand, allow the community to acclimate to the concept. 

Farmer played a significant role in introducing the concept of green burial to Oshtemo. She moved from Parma, Michigan to Kalamazoo in 2003 to attend Western Michigan University and has earned degrees in Secondary Education, Political Science, and English, as well as a Master's in Educational Technology. Farmer’s career as an educator helped shape her understanding of sustainability and community development. 

Casey GrootenPencil, ink, acrylic paint, fabric, and collage using 1980s National Geographic magazines on canvas paper, photographed, and then digitally processed.“There is no approval process," says Farmer. "The county has more of a role than the state." The township sends out a master plan for review to Kalamazoo County and then notifies the county of an expansion of the cemetery plans. 

The legal department for the township handled this, she says. People can even start their own cemeteries on their property and there are little to no guidelines for doing so. Currently, the West Oshtemo Township cemetery is the only in Oshtemo that offers green burial. “There is even a pet cemetery in Oshtemo owned by a citizen,” says Farmer. 

In 2017, Oshtemo Township began to update its master plan with an emphasis on sustainable initiatives including non-motorized trails and a plan for the township's cemeteries. In 2018, the township master plan was approved supported by data gathered from multiple funeral home companies in Michigan, the local sexton, and other experts. 

Pioneer burial sites

Farmer says the concern of indigent and pioneer burials (burials that took place as the area was being settled) was an initial concern because the township would need to determine if/how the bodies should be moved or if it was necessary to leave them. 

Oshtemo Township hired a consultant who used ground penetrating radar to identify if there were portions of the cemetery with condensed soil, an indication there was an unmarked burial there.

Artist: Casey GrootenPhotographs taken at Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo, using a long swath of donated white cloth dyed red and pink to connect the graves as a way of reflecting many faiths' belief that we are all truly interconnected and equal in death.There were "hundreds” of spots in Oshtemo’s three cemeteries that were identified as unmarked settler-era burial sites, says Farmer. She then met with professionals about whether or not to move the bodies, and the decision was made to let them stay at rest. A large section of West Oshtemo Cemetery could not be used for new burials because of the frontier burials which is why the first dedicated green space was placed there.

“Green burial is not about preserving the body," says Farmer, "it is about giving the body back to earth as fast as possible." 

Oshtemo Township natural burials

The township provides a space and regulations for natural burial, but just as with the rest of the cemetery, the actual burial is between the family and the funeral home.

“I have cremains waiting in my office for drop off. Funerals are not macabre for me anymore,” says Farmer, adding she realizes that this is not the case with everyone. 

Artist: Casey GrootenReliefs taken with crayons from the headstones in one of Kalamazoo County’s oldest cemeteries, Comstock Cemetery.“When people decide to have a green burial for themselves, I suggest for them to talk to their family members about it and manage their expectations. People are surprised by how they [the bodies] are handled.” 

For example, the lowering of the body is typically done by those closest to the deceased, and the contact with the body through the fabric or material used is overwhelming for some. 

The township has performed four natural burials as of the end of 2023, as well as sold dozens of plots for future use. Green burial spaces are 10 x 10 feet compared to 3x 7 feet for a standard burial plot, to avoid disrupting other graves. There is a plan to plant native prairie grasses, and trees around the natural burial spaces, with a cenotaph (an empty tomb or monument) near the driveway to display plaques for those buried there.

A Michigan sexton weighs in

One of the experts Farmer spoke to during the planning of Oshtemo’s cemeteries was Bob Wilkinson, the sexton of Michigan's Peninsula Township. Wilkinson, who has been in his current role since 2003, introduced green burials to the area in 2015 and says he oversees five to six green burials a year in Grand Traverse County.

“The sexton is the caretaker of the cemetery,” says Wilkinson. “The sexton keeps track of the graves, and digs the graves, and buries the graves.” While not always the caretaker, a sexton manages the overall maintenance of the cemetery grounds and graves.

Artist: Casey GrootenPhotographs taken at Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo, using a long swath of donated white cloth dyed red and pink to connect the graves as a way of reflecting many faiths' belief that we are all truly interconnected and equal in death."Up here anyway, it is a much more personal experience for the family," Wilkinson says. Wilkinson echoed Farmer in saying that with a green burial, the loved ones have the option to participate in the burial personally, even to help cover the grave. 

This approach mirrors burial practices from a century ago when families took on a more active role in the burial and funeral process. Both Wilkinson and Farmer note that initially, funeral homes were hesitant about green burials due to potential revenue loss from vaults and headstones However, after attending green burial services, funeral directors began to appreciate the intimate and personal nature of the experience. 

"Not real on board right from the beginning," remarks Wilkinson, but "now they are."

Wilkinson's work with green burials at Old Mission Peninsula signals how these practices offer families a more personal, hands-on approach to saying goodbye to their loved ones. His efforts help to create a meaningful and sustainable burial experience for the community.

Return to creation: Sister Ginny Jones 

In a virtual interview, Second Wave also spoke to a local green burial enthusiast, who says she does not refer to herself as an expert. 

Sister Virginia Jones, a Sister of Saint Joseph, has been part of the eco-spiritual Catholic congregation of nuns for over 65 years. Sister Ginny, as she is known, is originally from Long Island, New York. She holds a Master's and Ph.D. in Environmental Education from Michigan State University, focusing on fisheries and wildlife within the College of Agriculture. Sister Ginny has been a steward of the Bow in the Clouds nature preserve in Kalamazoo for over 40 years.

Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography Sister Virginia "Ginny" Jones, a former environmental science teacher at Nazareth College and Western Michigan University, loves sharing stories of Bow in the Clouds.“Green burial has been common for many cultures forever,” says Sister Ginny. She emphasizes that green burial practices have been common across various cultures in the United States since before the Civil War. 

"Coming from nature and returning back to nature" is central to the natural cycle," says Sister Ginny. “During wartime, people were separated from families, and because of cities booming, green burial became more common because of resource space."

One area of the Nazareth Cemetery behind the former convent and building that housed the former Transformations Spirituality Center near the Sisters of St. Joseph Residential Care Home uses simple boxes of pine for the bodies that are buried there. The space is not classified as a green burial space because there are traditional modern-day burials, cremation remains, and natural burials also allowed there. 

Eric Hennig, VAGUE photographyThe streams at Bow in the Clouds run under Quiet Bridge and Babbling Brook Bridge.Groundspeople tend to this area of the cemetery and provide landscaping and greenery. "If it were just a green burial space, things would be very different," Sister Ginny notes. “It would look like a natural area.” 

She gives examples of green burial cemeteries that look like a hillside in the woods with trees and natural shrubbery, possibly even some rocks and boulders throughout. 

Sister Ginny’s interest in green burial comes from her faith as a Sister of Saint Joseph, and their belief in the innate connection of humanity with creation. 

"God creates us and creates all of the earth, and in our culture, we have separated ourselves," Sister Ginny says. This desire to be more connected with creation sparked Sister Ginny's curiosity, and led her to explore the process of green burial as a way “to nourish life in the earth, whatever’s there.”

Artist: Taylor ScamehornSeries Teaser: Green Burial. Artist's comment: "A body transferring energy back into nature, back to the stars, and roots of dandelions releasing seeds."When natural burial first became an option for members of the Sisters of St. Joseph, some members were apprehensive about seeing the body. “They didn’t know what to expect,” says Sister Ginny. Some individuals in the congregation have chosen traditional practices over natural or green burial because, with the latter, the body must be buried within 24 to 48 hours, and this does not allow time for family members to travel from afar. 

During the interview, Sister Ginny shares that she is terminally ill, making the conversation all the more timely, and poignant. She makes it clear that this information could be included in this article. Sister Ginny says she believes green burial aligns with the Catholic faith's views on death and burial. Recognizing the holiness of the body, the process includes a funeral mass and prayers from the sisters, and Sister Ginny has chosen this type of burial for herself. 

“Everything, every moment of my life now," she says, "needs to be directed toward something that is important to me."

Temple B'nai Israel has dedicated natural burial space

Kristi Arntzen, a member of Temple B’nai Israel for 20 years, shares her views on the synagogue's approach to natural burial. 

The synagogue has owned and been the steward of a section of Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo since the late 1860s. Arntzen shares that often when a desire for the formation of a synagogue is established in a new place, the congregation will come together to form a burial society, and often purchases property specifically for that purpose. 

Artist: Casey GrootenPencil and ink on heavy watercolor paper photographed, and then digitally processed“A burial society is very important for a new Jewish community,” says Arntzen. 

Part of the Mountain Home Cemetery section taken care of by Temple B'nai Israel has been dedicated to natural burials. 

Arntzen says that although there have been no natural burials as of yet, they have sold a plot for one, and the burial society is prepared to handle the request, including guiding families through the process. Because the synagogue shares Mountain Home Cemetery with the City of Kalamazoo, Temple B'nai Israel uses city contractors to open and close the graves, so communication with the City is key. 

Wrapping the body in a shroud, or using this along with a collapsible biodegradable container made of cardboard or woven materials like wicker or bamboo, are all options for preparing the body before placing it into the earth in a natural burial. These options ensure the soil collapses over the grave and helps mitigate the air pockets that can form when the body settles.  

Artist: Casey GrootenReliefs taken with crayons from the headstones in one of Kalamazoo County’s oldest cemeteries, Comstock Cemetery.The synagogue uses the term "natural burial" for its cemetery, offering this option in and amongst more traditional burial styles. Similar to the Sisters of St Joseph, this hybrid approach balances the traditional and modern practices without seeking an official green burial designation. 

Arntzen says that natural burials align with Jewish traditions by emphasizing honoring the dead with simplicity and respect, and with how quickly the body is given to the earth. 

Arntzen touched on the desire to return to traditional Jewish burial practices, such as burying the dead quickly without using embalming fluid or having public viewings. Regardless of one's socioeconomic status, the body is wrapped in a plain white shroud, reflecting the belief that we are all equal in death. 

The sacred burial society within the Jewish community prepares the body for burial and even accompanies the body to the grave. Arntzen says that temple members have responded positively to the idea of natural burial, with a growing interest within their congregation. The synagogue strives to honor the traditional burial practices of their community, says Arntzen, while allowing for natural burial options as well. 

Growing interest in green/natural burial

As the interest in green and natural burials builds, and as folks like Dusty Farmer and Bob Wilkinson continue to usher in the change, it is clear that many are considering more than ever what happens to the remains of their body after it is buried in the earth. 

Artist: Casey GrootenPhotographs taken at Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo, using a long swath of donated white cloth dyed red and pink to connect the graves as a way of reflecting many faiths' belief that we are all truly interconnected and equal in death.Some may see it as purely an environmentally-friendly alternative to a cement vault, and treated metal and wood coffins that you may have to take a loan out for. Others, like Sister Ginny and Arntzen, see it as a decision that promotes a strong belief in their faith and also supports a healthier planet. 

Sister Ginny’s perspective exudes a thoughtfulness that melds her spirituality with her environmental consciousness. She believes strongly that is possible for burial to harmonize one's faith and respect for the earth. 

When considering funeral and burial options, Sister Ginny "hopes people will be open to the possibilities of saving the land, (and) saving the planet.”

Editor's Note: As part of our Sacred Earth series, we are incorporating various art forms to complement the stories. Inspired by this assignment, author, Casey Grooten, wrote a poem, "Re-greening." Casey lost their father in a car accident in December 2015. While the family chose a traditional burial, Casey wanted to imagine (through the poem) if the family had chosen a green or natural burial.


His legs were shorter than before
They warned me
The funeral director did

I was the first to see him
Shorter than before 
My dad, pronounced dead on site

The snow outside hot on my cheek
Dreamed about his creativity 
Asked pastor to mention it

In the service
What comes before
Our family’s hands on the body

The little debbies we buried with him
Used to keep hidden under his cap
The yo-yo diets of dad and mom

He built a swingset
In Mexico for the kids
We built this hole for him

Here in the ground

I can feel his arm against me
My hand on the woven cloth
Thinner than before

I steal pause
Sharp breath in
This is closer than before

Next we take turns, the rope
My sisters hands, then mine
Mom almost slips in the snow

The holy package looks small
Engulfed by the black space around it
And for some reason all I can think about

Is a galaxy in a hole in the ground

He is shorter than before
Mom finally notices 
The crash took height away from him

5 feet is farther than we expected
Taller and shorter at the time
Shorter than before

We each threw a handful of dirt
And the pile on top of dad grew
And slowly, over a half-hour

From 66 hands the expanse closed up
Covered, and the minutes passed
Shorter than before

In a galaxy in a hole in the ground.

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Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.