Back to the earth


When we visited our friend Bobby a few days before her death, she strongly expressed a final wish — she wanted a green burial. Bobby was a science teacher all her working life, and loved volunteering at Polly Hill Arboretum when she retired. She had an intimate, informed, and practical love for the natural world, and she walked her talk till the end.

Thanks to some quick work by her devoted family, Bobby’s last wish was made possible, and she now rests in the West Tisbury Village Cemetery, just down the road from her beloved Polly Hill. Her decision had a ripple effect among her friends, several of whom have begun looking into green burial options. Bobby’s faith community, the Unitarian Universalist Society of M.V., will be having a service on the subject on April 23 at 10 am. Anyone is welcome to join, in person or on Zoom. Bobby served as the U.U. delegate to the Island’s Interfaith Climate Action Team, inspiring discussions of green burial in that forum as well. (By the way, if your faith community is not represented on the Interfaith Climate Action Team and would like to be, please contact

Here’s some of what we’ve learned:

What is green burial?

According to the State of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, a green burial, or natural burial, is a method of final disposition of a body with fewer environmental impacts than traditional burial. Generally, a green burial means that the body is not embalmed, no metal or hard wood are used to make the casket, no gravel liner or vault are used, and a low-profile grave marker is used, or no marker at all.

Because no embalming chemicals are used to preserve the body, there are no poisons being added to the soil or the groundwater. Generally, a shroud is used instead of a casket, although a softwood casket open on the bottom is also acceptable. I’ve also seen some beautiful handmade basket coffins, woven of natural materials. Any of these options allow one’s components to return to the webs and cycles of life more directly. Much less energy is required than for cremation, and since there is less consumption involved, there is less strain on resources, and green burials tend to be less expensive as well as more eco-friendly.

A green burial is not the same as a home burial, although a home burial can be green as well. To be buried on your property, the land needs to be established as a family cemetery. It must belong to your descendants, be cleared by the state and your local board of health concerning setbacks from wells and wetlands, and an attachment goes permanently on the deed for the property. This approval process is not always successful, and usually takes a couple of years.

Where on the Island can you get a green burial?

Green burials are legal in Massachusetts, but the availability of green burials varies by town and by individual cemeteries. We know that West Tisbury allows them, and when I checked with Chilmark, they said that green burials at Abel’s Hill are “not only allowed, but encouraged.” Oak Bluffs is planning on changing its regulations to allow green burials, and to set aside an area in the cemetery just for them.

The Hebrew Cemetery is for those who wish to have a traditional Jewish burial; these have always been naturally green. It is believed that the natural processes of decomposition and return to the earth should not be slowed (as with embalming), and neither should they be hurried (as with cremation). In addition, given the history of crematoria during the Holocaust, some Jewish people are understandably troubled by this option. I’ve spoken with people who identify as witches who feel that way, too.

Green burials may not be for everyone — they take up more real estate than cremation, ashes may be brought to places that would not allow burial, and there may be some energy expended to thaw the ground, if the burial takes place during the winter, although not as much as cremation requires. Whatever one’s personal decision, I’m happy that the green burial option exists for people of any faith tradition, or none, because working with nature and living within the ecosystem is for the future of all of us.

Action steps

One of the drawbacks of green burial is that because the body is not chemically preserved, burial must take place briskly, usually within 48 hours. This takes preplanning. Having plans in place, discussing them with family and friends, and checking with your town’s cemetery commission are all things that can smooth the way for you and your heirs when the time comes. While these discussions may sometimes be hard to initiate, they can lead to a comforting feeling of having things taken care of. We hope that planning a green burial may bring peace of mind to those of us who are concerned about the environmental impacts of all aspects of our decisions, including end-of-life decisions. And for people like my friend Bobby, it’s another way to affirm one’s love and connection with the fertile earth from which our physical forms emerge and to which we all return.

For more information

Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts:

Green Burial Massachusetts:

Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Cemetery:

Jewish burials: “How Jewish Burials Are Actually Green Burials, Too: The Order of the Good Death”:

National Geographic article:

Rebecca Gilbert and Ursula Goodenough will give a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Society about why they have chosen a green burial. Join them on Sunday, April 23, 10-11:30 am, in person or via Zoom. For details, visit