Can You Be Buried Without a Casket or Coffin?

For most Americans, a traditional burial includes a casket or a coffin and an embalming process with lots of chemicals. However, this is becoming less and less obligatory as natural and green burials gain momentum. Although there are laws about how someone can be buried, there are increasingly more alternative options for the burial process.

You can be buried without a casket or coffin in the United States. There’s no law prohibiting you from choosing a direct or natural burial, which is becoming increasingly popular these days. In fact, federal legislation protects your right to bury your loved one in the manner of your choosing.  

In the rest of this article, we’ll take a closer look at both the trends in alternative burials and the laws that come along with them. We’ll see the different ways people choose to be buried without a casket and coffin and why people chose this alternative option. 

Buried without caskets or coffin and the Law

In the United States, there’s no federal law that requires someone to be buried in a casket or a coffin. Even with all the variations in state law, there’s not a single instance of state law requiring a casket or coffin for burial.

Legally, you’re entitled to a casket or coffin-free burial if you so choose. 

Funeral homes are required by federal law to present a direct burial to customers on its list of services. A direct burial may include a basic cardboard or wooden container but this is a much simpler option when compared to a traditional coffin or casket.  

There’s also no federal or state law that regulates the material that a casket is made from if you choose to use one. The law sees fabric as just as viable a material for a casket as wood. If you’re not interested in an ornate, expensive casket, there’s no law requiring you to obtain one. 

On this page you will be able to find a clear explanation of the difference between a coffin and a casket. This might be helpful if you’re unsure.

The Federal Trade Commission has additional regulations to protect customers at funeral homes when it comes to goods and services. These federal regulations guarantee the right to pick and choose what you want to purchase from a funeral home.

This means that you can choose to purchase a green burial container, which includes:

  • A biodegradable shroud.
  • A coffin, or casket made from natural materials.

The funeral home you’re working with must legally accept it, so if you don’t want to purchase a casket or coffin from the funeral home, you’re not legally obligated to do so. 

man holding handle of casket

Traditional Burials in the US

In the United States, wakes and burials culturally have included a coffin or casket where the deceased was laid after an embalming process. Embalming preserves the body by using a series of harsh chemicals, including formaldehyde. 

Each year in the United States, over 4 million gallons (15.14 million liters) of embalming fluid are used to give the deceased traditional burials. 

The harsh chemicals used in this process can pose an environmental risk. 

Some of these chemicals, like formaldehyde, have the chance to evaporate into the air before burial. However, others go into the ground with the deceased. It’s then possible for these harsh chemicals to leak their way into the soil of the cemetery. 

Once there are chemicals in the soil, it’s possible for our drinking water sources to become contaminated. This is most likely to happen in the first year after the body has been buried, making every new grave a potential hazard to public health. 

Cremation is a popular alternative, but not one that’s much better for the environment. 

This process also has a significant environmental impact, as the process is a high producer of carbon dioxide, and it is one of the main contributors to environmental damage and climate change. However, it does remove the burden of choice for a coffin or casket, and it removes the risk of underground contamination.

Direct and Green Burials

The United States has numerous state and federal laws surrounding funeral home operations and how the remains of the deceased are processed. 

However, there’s no federal law prohibiting direct or natural burials. In fact, these types of burials are increasing in popularity as more people consider the environmental implications of traditional burials. 

A direct burial is when the deceased is buried within 24 hours of having passed without the embalming process. Direct burial skips the chemical component of the burial process and uses a minimal container to hold the deceased. 

Typically, the funeral home will offer a simple cardboard or wooden container for the burial. 

Direct burials are a type of natural, green burial since they don’t use chemicals that can cause environmental damage. However, if you don’t want to bury your loved one within the 24-hour window as required by law, you might want to consider green embalming. 

Types of Green Burials

Federal law states that the deceased must be buried, cremated, or embalmed within 24 hours after death. If you wish to embalm your loved one to present them at a wake or have more time to make arrangements, you still have environmentally friendly options.

Green burials might include a process of embalming that doesn’t use the harsh, dangerous chemicals that traditional embalming would. These environmentally-friendly alternatives can be a good step towards a more sustainable burial.

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides impact the funeral home industry as well by controlling how businesses use words that invoke environmentally-friendly implications like “non-toxic” and “biodegradable.” 

The point of the regulations is to make sure that funeral homes and other businesses don’t use words like these to raise prices without delivering on their promises. As you look into green or direct burial services, you can be comforted by the fact that there’s federal law around how the funeral home is allowed to describe their services to the customer. 

However, a green burial doesn’t need to include this embalming process. 

There are many designated Green Burial Cemeteries that seek to provide the deceased with a final resting place in the most natural way possible. 

Different green cemeteries may have regulations that vary slightly, but all operate under the premise that everyone buried here will enter the earth as naturally as possible. This absolutely prohibits chemical embalming fluids.

Green cemetery regulations could also prohibit concrete burial vaults or any coffin or casket that’s not made from a biodegradable material. The cemetery may also only dig graves by hand and may also prohibit any type of traditional polished tombstone or monument. 

It’s even possible to be buried in a traditional cemetery following a green burial procedure. Legally, every cemetery in the US can allow a green, natural burial. 

Green Burial Containers

Traditional caskets or coffins made from wood or steel aren’t traditionally used in green burials. 

The Green Burial Council, which is at the forefront of much of the green burial regulation and guidance given to funeral homes, has outlined approved burial containers. 

For a burial container to be approved as green, it must be fully biodegradable and must not contain any harmful or toxic chemicals. The idea is the container must also decompose along with the body, allowing everything that was placed in the earth during the burial to dissolve over time. 

With a truly biodegradable container, the deceased truly experiences the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” line we often hear at burials and funerals. 

The creation of these types of containers is also more sustainable than their traditional casket counterparts. Traditional caskets are often made from steel and come with a variety of environmental implications. 

Ornate steel caskets can come with a heavy carbon footprint, not to mention a high price tag. Check out this page to learn more about coffin prices.

Traditional caskets also have been known to contaminate the soil over time. Many of these containers are made from metal or wood, which both have harmful potential impacts. Metal caskets might contain hazardous heavy metals that can leak into the soil over time. 

Wooden caskets typically have had varnishes, and other polishes applied. 

These varnishes, polishes, and heavy metals all have the potential to be absorbed in the soil and make their way into the groundwater system. All of these contaminants are dangerous for human health and pose a risk to the drinking water of a community.

On the other hand, 100% natural, biodegradable burial containers don’t introduce any harmful substances into the soil of the community. If you opt for a burial shroud, you can find them in a variety of natural materials. 

Cotton and linen are common options, as well as the more occasional silk or wool shroud.

For a biodegradable casket or coffin, cardboard can be a go-to option. You can find cardboard caskets and coffins that are built to be sturdy that haven’t been treated with bleach or any other harmful chemicals. 

You can also find families taking time to decorate these cardboard coffins, with non-toxic supplies, of course. Making the container a celebration of the deceased’s life can be a special way to honor the loved one who has passed. 

You can also find more intricate woven caskets and coffins. 

Like a wicker basket, these containers have been woven from natural, biodegradable materials. They can be visually stunning while still remaining natural and completely eco-friendly. This type is the most expensive option of the burial containers we have seen so far due to the time and skill it takes to create them. 

Finally, you can still find a wood casket that meets the brief. There are manufacturers of handmade, toxin-free wood caskets that are approved to be used in green burials. These wooden caskets are free of stains and finishes and are another natural way of burying a loved one. 

Benefits and Culture of Green Burials

There’s a different culture that’s developing around green burial cemeteries and those who choose to be buried directly in the ground without embalming or using a traditional casket or a coffin. This type of burial contains a different perspective on death at its core and has contributed to a unique culture cropping up around the families of those who have chosen a green burial. 

Proponents of natural burials can prefer how the body is allowed to decompose naturally.

The deceased will decompose quite rapidly when laid naturally into the earth. For those with spiritual views, the idea of the physical body returning to mother earth as naturally as possible can be incredibly comforting and more aligned with their beliefs. 

Additionally, if you bury a loved one in a green cemetery, the process of visiting your loved one’s grave is quite different. Ornate, polished headstones are generally not allowed, and the grave will return to its natural state within a period of months. 

Therefore, visiting a green cemetery is usually a little bit different.

Some green cemeteries offer wooded trails that the community can come to walk on and enjoy a day in nature. Frequently, visiting a deceased relative will involve a day out in nature. It can be a very different feeling than stepping foot into a traditional cemetery. 

The grief can feel overwhelming in a traditional cemetery for some. In a green cemetery, there are not only alternatives for the burial process but alternatives for how we view and connect with death. 

To hear Ed Bixby, owner of a green cemetery, discuss these issues in greater depth, you can check out this informative YouTube video:

Finally, there’s an element of simplicity and minimalism in choosing a green burial. For individuals who have lived their lives as close to nature as they could while embracing a spirit of minimalism, a traditional burial would seem out of place. 

This type of burial allows an individual to rest in peace without harming the natural world. It also allows them to escape the capitalist model of purchasing an ornate and expensive casket or coffin. This makes the burial process less expensive and less of a burden for the surviving family members. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to burial options, there’s nothing in the law stopping you from being buried without a casket or a coffin. In fact, the increasing popularity of direct and green burials is making it easier and easier to be buried naturally and directly in the earth. 

Funeral homes are becoming increasingly used to fulfilling these types of wishes and can help you be buried directly in the earth or in a biodegradable container. 


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Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

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