Green burials | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

Green burials

/ 04:18 AM October 31, 2023
Green burials

Today’s topic for my column was competing with several other urgent issues, but I decided to write about green burials because, unfortunately, it’s only around All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day that people seem willing to discuss death and burials.

Some years back, I wrote about how cremations were becoming popular, especially after the Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban on the practice. Cremations are now widespread but there’s still resistance to the practice. The Vatican itself issued a statement some years ago expressing reservations because the ashes were being disposed of in rather unorthodox ways, including scattering the remains to the winds, and processing them into diamonds! The statement reminded Catholics that church teachings look at the body, even if now turned into ash, as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

There have been other significant developments since then around burials, all coming from the growing environmental crisis and testing our commitment to a greener planet, not just in life but in death.


The most significant developments have been around the emergence of a green burial movement, mainly in the United States but finding advocates throughout the world. A website,, provides useful information on the general principles around green burials: conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of workers’ health, and the restoration and preservation of natural habitats.


That’s a lot but it all boils down to simplicity and sustainability. I checked several sites besides the Green Burial Council, including several funeral homes and other companies in the United States providing support services for green burials, and feel we’re ready to promote such burials in the Philippines, which are already happening without people knowing they’re doing it.

I’ll summarize three main characteristics of green burials, each with its environmental protection rationale.

First, embalming chemicals are discouraged because, as the corpse decomposes, the chemicals leach into and harm the environment. The most common embalming chemical, formaldehyde, is also carcinogenic and poses risks for the people working in the funeral home.

This option is available locally, especially as bereaved families choose to cremate the remains within a few hours or a day after the death. Wakes are then held with the ashes in an urn.

Second, coffins are discouraged as well as concrete vaults or “liners” in the grave because these are nonbiodegradable and, many people are unaware, that cement production is one of the most polluting (in terms of emissions contributing to climate warming) industrial processes. If coffins are to be used, biodegradable ones should be chosen such as wood, bamboo, even cardboard. Green burial advocates also encourage shroud burials, which has been and continues to be a preference among Muslims—the corpse is buried in a shroud, preferably cotton, again because it’s biodegradable.

Third, natural burial grounds are preferred, with native vegetation and wildlife and with the bereaved families contributing to conservation efforts in the area. They would have to be properly certified as burial places.


There are interesting variations around the concept of natural burial grounds, such as home burial (our backyards), actually still practiced in many areas, including more rural areas in the Philippines although usually in concrete tombs.

How does cremation figure in green burials?

Unfortunately, cremation is considered a problem because the process involves very high energy consumption, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, cremation is also considered an environmentally friendly option because the ashes consume much less space than the usual entombment.

Green burial advocates do include cremation as an option we will have to live with for now, while trying to make the process greener, such as using a biodegradable urn for the ashes, and not scattering the ashes because the ash fall, mostly calcium phosphate and sodium, can smother and kill plants

I was drawn to two options for a greener management of ashes. One company,, sells materials you can mix with ashes to make plantable soils. In effect, you would have plants, preferably a tree, growing out of the ash-based soil.

Another company,, offers materials to convert ashes into reef balls that can be added to natural coral reefs in the ocean. What an appropriate option that would be for the Philippines, surrounded by marine environments.

There’s actually a third option for ashes, which are probably not going to become popular for a few more years and this is to send the ashes into space!

The good news is that green burials are something we can already do in the Philippines … for our pets. My parents’ garden is the final resting place for many of our dogs and cats and even before green burials came along, we did bury them in cardboard boxes or in cloth, at the foot of trees. No tombstones, or markers, but not forgotten.


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