Clipped from The Green Burial Council (GBC)
Green burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that furthers legitimate ecological aims such as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.

… The Council doesn’t think any end-of-life ritual, form of disposition, or mode of post-mortem preparation is “wrong.” We only want to ensure that services and products are available to people who wish to minimize the environmental impact of their last act. Embalming fluid is usually comprised of the carcinogen chemical formaldehyde, which has been proven to pose health risks in funeral homes. A study by the National Cancer Institute released in late 2009 revealed that funeral directors have a much higher incidence of myeloid leukemia. Fortunately, there are now several formaldehyde-free embalming fluids, including one made entirely of nontoxic and biodegradable essential oils, which recently earned the GBC seal of approval. The sanitation and preservation of a corpse can almost always take place without the use of chemicals, as is done in just about every nation in the world — with the exception of the US, Canada and a half-dozen others.

While the concrete and metal in vaults may be considered “natural” to some, the manufacturing and transporting of vaults uses a tremendous amount of energy and causes enormous carbon emission. In this US, vault manufacturing requires the production of 1.6 tons of reinforced concrete. Vaults are not required in GBC-approved hybrid burial grounds, and they are prohibited in Council-certified conservation and in natural and environmentally low-impact burial grounds.

The GBC believes a casket, urn, or shroud is suitable for a green burial if it’s made from materials/ substances that are nontoxic and readily biodegradable. We also require that these products not be made from materials that are harvested in a manner that unnecessarily destroys habitat, as is the case with certain types of sea grass. A list of caskets, urns, and shrouds that meet these requirements, whose producers have provided us with clean, fully disclosed material safety data sheets, can be found at our “find a provider” section.

Cremation uses far fewer resources than almost any other disposition option but it certainly has an environmental impact. Cremation burns fossil fuels, and some older cremation facilities can use significantly more energy compared to newer ones. Mercury is also emitted when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated, but effective filtration devices that can fully mitigate mercury pollution are expected to be on the market in 2011. The GBC has recently begun working with the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) to promulgate standards for more eco-friendly cremation and will be encouraging ways of “greening up” the cremation process by making available to consumers options for recycling medical parts, choosing a more fuel-efficient cremation container, and participating in a disposition program that has some positive environmental purpose, such as creating marine habitat or generating money to facilitate conservation.

Home funerals, which allow for families to care for a decedent and all aspects of a funeral at home, were quite common in the US up until the mid-20th century. A family can facilitate a home funeral in almost every state, or do it with the assistance of a licensed funeral director. GBC-approved funeral homes must now accommodate families wanting home funerals. A home burial is an alternative to disposition in a cemetery. It’s allowed by almost all counties, but most require a minimum number of acres and often the filing of a plat map with the planning department.

Additional references:
Do Your Bit Even After Death, By Shuchi Kalra, Environmental eZine, 2008
Options for Green Burials on the Rise, Newsweek, 2010