Leaving an Eco-Legacy: An Exploration of Natural Funeral Methods

Leaving an Eco-Legacy: An Exploration of Natural Funeral Methods

Author: Gina Sheridan - Biography

Empowering people to make end-of-life decisions that reflect their values, nurture our planet, and preserve land for the living.

green burial, aquamation, death positive, natural burial, death education


My passion for natural death care and its ecological and social benefits started with a perplexing question posed by a patron at the library where I worked. The question was: “Can you help me find my grandparents’ graves? They’re missing.” While on a visit to St. Louis, this individual wished to visit the graves of her grandparents at Washington Park Cemetery, however, the section where the graves were supposed to be was covered by asphalt. How could this be? Finding the answer to this question would send me headlong down a path that exposed uncomfortable truths about the ecological impact of conventional cemeteries, the myth of perpetual care, environmental injustices in life and death, Western burial practices that seek to prolong decomposition and sanitize death, and cremation practices that cause pollution and sickness. This journey, chronicled within this portfolio, has also illuminated alternative natural funeral options that are widely unknown among the general public.

After being accepted into Project Dragonfly’s Advanced Inquiry Program at Miami University to earn a master's in biology, the library interaction described above came back to my mind and influenced my first project. Throughout this community-centered program with a conservation focus, I became more and more interested in how Western culture came to adopt conventional methods of final disposition and how these methods impact natural resources. I wondered at the sustainability of cemeteries in our increasingly urban landscape, these huge plots of land reserved for the dead and filled with inorganic materials and monoculture lawns. The impact and history of conventional burial and cremation and the social and ecological benefits of alternative natural funeral methods became my master plan focus. My goal was to become a knowledge leader in natural, sustainable funeral methods, helping adult consumers understand the impact their end-of-life choices have on the earth and its inhabitants, and feel empowered to pre-plan and communicate their own funeral arrangements. Little did I know that my master plan would become a harmonious blend of my educational, career, and personal interests.

One of the first truths I encountered during my studies is that when faced with planning a funeral, whether in advance or in the midst of acute grief due to the death of a loved one, many consumers believe they have two main choices when it comes to body disposition or disposal: burial or cremation (Harris, 2007; Kelly, 2015). People are generally unaware of the negative ecological and health effects that can result from the way burial and cremation are carried out (Kelly, 2015; Robinson, 2021). Further, many folks are unaware that there are environmentally friendly options such as natural or green burial, the practice of burying an unembalmed body in biodegradable materials and containers, and aquamation, a water-based alternative to cremation.

What may have begun as a naive desire to spread awareness about conventional burial and cremation alternatives in order to inspire behavior change among the general public evolved into something much more nuanced. I began to understand that awareness alone does not lead to widespread change; people need to experience self-motivation and social acceptance before committing to change (Schultz, 2011). Throughout my studies, it became very clear that the customs and rituals surrounding death are incredibly personal, intimate decisions best left to individuals and their families. It is not my place or intention to try to convert people to natural funeral methods. However, doing this research and connecting with people inside and outside of the world of death care has shown me that people are generally curious and intrigued by natural funeral methods because the outcomes often match values they hold dear in life. Clayton (2015) suggests that people who take a step toward pro-environmental behaviors may be more likely to stay on the path and adopt similar behaviors along the way. With this idea in mind, it stands to reason that people who reuse, reduce, and recycle among other behaviors aimed at reducing their carbon footprint may wish to carry eco-values with them beyond life as we know it. 

While investigating these topics, I discovered not only ecological benefits to natural funeral methods, but I also observed the positive social impact. Throughout the course of my studies, I witnessed meaningful rituals and the nourishing power of nature connectedness. I became involved with a strong natural death care community made up of educators, end-of-life care providers, conservationists, cemetery managers, and funeral service providers. I was inspired to undergo training as a death doula, which is a death educator who provides non-medical support to dying people and their families. Despite the tired trope that “death is a taboo topic,” I do not find that to be my experience. In general, people I have encountered are ready and even eager to discuss death and push back at the funeral industry and the limited options presented to consumers. They yearn to share their experiences and ask questions. I learned to employ storytelling to share information since it can be an approachable and persuasive way to communicate science to a general audience (Dahlstrom, 2014). The more I speak with the public, the more I observe that people are willing to learn how they can incorporate facets of natural funeral methods into their death traditions. 

This portfolio is the culmination of projects, presentations, and writings I developed during my master’s program. The body of work can be broken down into three sections: 1) Burial Grounds, which highlights a cemetery relocation study and juxtaposes conventional cemeteries with conservation cemeteries; 2) Aquamation Awareness, which pairs a scientific overview with my personal experience of one cremation alternative; and 3) Empowerment and Crucial Conversations, in which I share two projects that underline the importance of choice, communication, and dialogue concerning death. It is normal to ritualize and celebrate other rites of passage, from births to coming of age ceremonies, to birthdays, graduations, and retirements. But we do not afford the same care and attention to the most universal experience of life: the deaths of people we know, and our own deaths. By shining a light on this topic, my hope is to inspire others to carefully consider their own death by making funeral plans, having important conversations about wishes, and overcoming barriers to a good death. We cannot know exactly how or when death will find us, but through curiosity and planning, learning and discourse, we can be as prepared and empowered as possible.

Burial Grounds: What Cemeteries Tell us about the Living and the Dead

Burial sites have always been an important part of society, whether graves are on family property, churchyards, military cemeteries, in mausoleums, or in family plots in a conventional cemetery. The location of a grave and the size and characteristics of grave markers can tell a lot about a person’s social status, religious beliefs, values, and family. (Francaviglia, 1971; French, 1974; Jones, 2011). In this section, I contrast a conventional cemetery that was partially dismantled due to urban expansion with conservation cemeteries, which are natural spaces for the living to enjoy, where graves are present but are not the central feature. 

Unrest & Remembrance: A Study of Washington Park Cemetery Burial Records

My first Project Dragonfly project, inspired by the library interaction described in the introduction, focused on the accuracy of burial records of graves that were disinterred and relocated. Twelve thousand graves were moved from one historical Black cemetery to 23 different cemeteries spread across the city of St. Louis in the 1990s to expand the metrorail system and airport runway system (Lhotka, 1996; Morris, 2000). For this project, I examined how burial records for graves that were relocated from Washington Park (Figure 1) to Calvary Cemetery compare with burial records of Washington Park graves that have never been moved. I looked at names, dates, and locations of 25 graves that were moved to Calvary (one of which is pictured in Figure 2), and 25 graves that had never been moved. Based on news articles and civil lawsuits about people who could not locate family members’ graves (Tuft, 1994; Tuft, 1995a; Tuft, 1995b), and a history of mismanaged cemetery moves in St. Louis (O’Malley, 2019), I predicted that burial records of graves that were moved would contain more inconsistencies than burial records of graves that were never moved. I also hypothesized that I would not be able to locate one or more of the relocated graves on my list. 

Figure 1                                                                                
Washington Park Cemetery.                              

Figure 2
Reinterred grave at Calvary Cemetery.

Ultimately, the results of my inquiry showed there were more inconsistencies in burial records of the graves that had been relocated to Calvary (Figure 3). This means that if someone were trying to find a reinterred family member, like the library patron searching for her grandparents’ graves, inconsistent burial records may prevent them from successfully locating the grave. It is easy to imagine how devastating that could be to a family, its history, and to Black history. While I was able to find all 25 reinterred graves at Calvary despite my prediction, I could not shake the discomfort in knowing that 12,000 Black bodies were physically removed and spread out across the region, in cemeteries their next of kin did not choose.

Figure 3
Percentage of Inconsistencies Across Sources of Burial Data

Although this project was completed before I settled on natural funeral methods as a master plan focus, I returned to it often. It caused me to view cemeteries, which I had previously thought about as historically relevant libraries of people, differently. Single use graves are not necessarily eternal resting sites even if there is a promise of perpetual care and maintenance. And really, how can they be? The rapid acceleration of urbanization and increasing human population supports my argument that conventional burial practices are unsustainable. In this context, unsustainable is defined as damaging to natural resources and impossible to continue indefinitely. Put simply, conventional practices introduce contaminants to natural resources, and we cannot expect that there will be burial space for every past, current, and future human in existence. My research began as a way to understand conventional funeral practices and how they came to be, and how they impact the environment and occupy land. This led me to explore conservation burial, which I discuss next.

Six Things to Know About Conservation Burial

In Spring 2023, I carried out an independent study about conservation cemeteries and it was truly the highlight of my Project Dragonfly experience. Visiting conservation cemeteries in Tennessee and North Carolina resulted in many new community connections and my learnings were shared in a paper with an accompanying video (Figure 4). While conservation cemeteries are parks where burials take place, burial is not the main identity of these spaces. In most cases, they serve as parks that are open to the public for hiking, birdwatching, gatherings, and ceremonies (Hoffner, 2022). Instead of a grave visit, the entire space is the sacred place to remember and celebrate the life of a beloved. Also, the grave markers do not jut from the ground disrupting the landscape or demonstrating wealth or status. They are either flat native stones, a small metal pin, or a QR code that leads to a website featuring images, video, audio, favorite recipes, or other things that celebrate the person in an unobtrusive way.

The biggest takeaway of the study was realizing how differently the body is treated in a conventional burial versus a conservation burial. Today, modern or conventional burial typically begins with embalming the body, which means replacing the natural bodily fluids with formaldehyde and methanol to disguise and slow decomposition (Harris, 2007). After a body is embalmed, it is typically dressed in synthetic materials and placed in an expensive casket made of imported and varnished hardwoods and metal (Kelly, 2015). The casket is then placed inside a grave too deep to interact with natural soil processes, and this grave is lined with a fiberglass or concrete container or vault (Green Burial Council [GBC], 2019). Not only are all of these extra steps expensive and unnecessary, but they contribute to environmental problems. In a conservation cemetery, natural burial takes place on land that is legally protected, sustainably managed, and undergoing ecological restoration (GBC, 2019).

The project I designed was personally fulfilling and pushed me further down the path of natural death care. After my return, I made it a future goal to connect with local cemetery managers and natural funeral providers to discuss what it would take to create a conservation cemetery near St. Louis. While conventional funerary and burial customs can distance humans from death, I can see how conservation burial can bring us closer to this very natural consequence of life with positivity instead of fear.

Figure 4
Video about the top features of a conservation cemetery.

Aquamation Awareness: Alkaline Hydrolysis as a Safe Alternative to Fire Cremation

Cremation, or the use of fossil fuels to incinerate a body, produces remains that are made up of carbonized calcium phosphate and sodium, a substance more like fossils than bone (Herring, 2019). The process releases nitrogen dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and other materials that cause air pollution and are detrimental to the health of crematoria workers (Harris, 2007). In 2022, cremation was chosen in 59% of total deaths in the United States, a figure that is projected to grow to 65.2% by 2027 (Cremation Association of North America, 2022). While seeking out alternatives, I came across alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation, in which a water and chemical bath reduces everything but bone and medical implants to liquid (Olson, 2014). The resulting bones are pulverized just like in cremation, but with about one-tenth of the carbon footprint of cremation (Little, 2019). In this section, I use science communication techniques to present research about aquamation in a way that is interactive, attention-grabbing, and, as I will demonstrate, personal.

Contrasting Fire Cremation and Aquamation

Since cremation is often misinterpreted as an eco-friendly alternative to burial, I created a side-by-side comparison of the history, processes, environmental impact, and human dimensions of cremation and aquamation. I did this by creating an Ecospot website, an engaging and informational multimedia presentation which people can use to learn about a conservation topic. I was fortunate to be able to record and share an interview I conducted with leading natural funeral professional Elizabeth Fournier, author of The Green Burial Handbook. I also created an interactive map showing the availability and legal status of aquamation in the United States, a map that has had almost 1,000 views to date (Figure 5). The end goal was to create a product that was attractive to a general adult audience.

Figure 5
Aquamation availability in the United States.

Note. As of November 2023, aquamation is legal (but not necessarily available) in 27 states.

The personal feedback I have received has demonstrated the Ecospot’s effectiveness. For instance, one of my work colleagues changed her pre-planned funeral arrangements from cremation to aquamation because of what she learned on the site. And a classmate shared, “I am so glad our paths crossed on this journey. My family chose aquamation for our pet dog because of what I learned through your Ecospot…this was a gentle way for him to return to the universe.” In addition, an aquamation provider in St. Louis shared that he liked the language I used on the site and that he was considering switching from the use of the term “water cremation” to “aquamation” based on my work. 

This project allowed me to create a Google site for the first time, and gain experience with podcast recording equipment and platforms. I have shared it outside of the classroom several times since its creation and have observed how digital media can play an important role in building consumers’ scientific knowledge and awareness of conservation issues in a space that is familiar and accessible. This project not only linked directly to my master plan, but what I learned about aquamation became instrumental in a very personal part of my family’s history.

My Personal Experience with Aquamation

At the beginning of my final year in Project Dragonfly, my father entered hospice and died shortly afterward. My essay My Father’s Aquamation: Reflections on an Eco-Friendly Funeral was written as a way to honor him and his loving nature, but also as a way to share information about aquamation with a general audience. I chose the online magazine Peaceful Dumpling because it features articles on health and wellness, personal essays and poetry, and tips on sustainable living. I was honored that just one day after I submitted my essay, the editor chose to publish it.

Many people contacted me as a result of this publication. One person said they had no idea aquamation was an option and asked about providers near them. A journalist at a Swedish radio station contacted me to interview me about my experience with aquamation and to learn about funeral customs in the United States. A circle of older adults invited me to speak to their group on the topic of natural funeral methods, widening my community even more. 

This experience gave me the confidence and permission to make science personal. Sharing information about myself encouraged others to do the same. Storytelling is a powerful tool that can connect people and inspire empathy. I hope that by sharing my experience, readers feel inspired to ask questions, think about what they might choose for their own funeral, or strike up a conversation with a loved one about funeral wishes. Conversations about death are important and necessary, as the next and final section of my portfolio highlights.

Crucial Conversations: Empowering People of All Ages to Talk About Death

In this section, I bridge my career as a librarian to my Project Dragonfly experience by using programming and books to broach the topic of death. With the first project, I make space for adults to explore and examine natural funeral options through a series of programs at a public library. With the other, I create a booklist of recommended picture books on death in a way that champions the fact that a logical understanding of the biology and customs involved in death can decrease the fear of death in children (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). My goal with these projects is to spark discussion, share and celebrate diverse perspectives, gain a better understanding of how death is communicated, and support caregivers who are hesitant or unsure about how to talk about death with the children in their lives. Ultimately, my hope is that these children will grow into adults who are comfortable talking about death and accepting it as a normal part of life.

Empowering St. Louisans to Make Eco-Friendly Funeral Plans

In September 2022, I hosted a three-part series on green burial at the library where I worked. The first session was a presentation about natural burial options at one St. Louis cemetery, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum. The second session was a screening of the documentary A Will for the Woods, a film about a dying man who inspires the addition of a natural burial section at his local cemetery. The last session was a panel discussion with a horticulturist at the cemetery and arboretum, a funeral director who teaches natural body care at a university, a former pastor who has officiated conventional and natural funerals, and a death doula (Figure 6) .

Figure 6
Panel presentation held on September 20, 2022 in St. Louis, MO.

From left to right, Samuel Cline Perry, Delaney Rhea, Gina Sheridan,
Michael Garrett, and January Kiefer. Photo by Kendra Holliday,
used with permission.

Four people attended the film screening, six people attended the Bellefontaine Cemetery presentation, and seven people attended the panel discussion. While the turnout was smaller than I expected, the people who came were engaged and went away with new knowledge. At the conclusion of the final presentation in the series, each participant filled out a simple two-question survey. My objective was to understand whether the presentation was useful and whether or not something they learned inspired them to take action.

This series broadened my network of death care and cemetery workers, allowed me to share scientific information with the public, and promoted awareness about natural funeral options available nationally and locally. My facilitation skills improved throughout the series. After coming away from the film discussion thinking I spent too much time talking, during the subsequent session, I took on more of a guide role, allowing the panelists the full breadth of the stage while keeping the discussion on topic within the time allotted. This project gave me the opportunity to explore various evaluation tools which resulted in a survey that every participant took a moment to answer. One participant who is a new funeral service professional wrote: "[I sense] the importance of needing to educate and present [natural] options" to funeral consumers (Appendix D of attachment below). I also created a resource list that includes books, podcasts, and articles about green burial. One participant asked about children’s book recommendations and that partially inspired the project I will discuss next.

“Dead” Not “Gone”: Analyzing the Language Used in Children’s Picture Books About Death

Conversations about death are vital to the cognitive and social development of every child, and they are especially important to have with children who are struggling with grief due to the death of a person or animal in their lives (Lee et al., 2014). However, many caregivers struggle to find ways to raise and address the topic in a meaningful and helpful way (Menendez et al., 2020). One way to initiate a conversation with language that a child can understand is through sharing a picture book. In this project, I first consult existing research to determine what language and content is important to include in a children’s book about death. Then, I analyzed children’s picture books on death to learn whether a book written or informed by a grief specialist (i.e. a psychologist, a child development specialist, a grief counselor) plays a role in a book’s effectiveness. After compiling a list of 86 picture books on death and dying for ages four to eight years, I carefully analyzed 15 books by or informed by child grief experts and 15 books by non-experts in order to discover which recommended characteristics were present in each book. 

Findings indicate that books written by experts contain more recommended characteristics and thus have a better chance at fostering productive conversations about death with children. A product of this study is a multi-image social media post which I created to share my recommendations of picture books about death and dying (Figure 7). In my background as a professional librarian, it is important to me to be able to recommend exemplary books to families, particularly when they are dealing with difficult topics such as death. 

Figure 7
First slide of “Using Picture Books to Discuss Death with Children” social media post. 

For entire series of 10 slides, visit: https://tinyurl.com/booksanddeath


The overarching goal of my master plan was to explore natural funeral methods as a sustainability and land conservation measure, but this experience has become much more than that as I demonstrate in the video below (Figure 8). I have learned that promoting natural funeral methods as the best or only way forward is missing the point that funeral decisions are among the most intimate decisions anyone makes for themselves or the people they love. My position is that people should be completely informed and feel free to make their own decisions based on values, faith, and cultural considerations. Based on the connections I have made by speaking and writing about this topic, I believe that natural options would appeal to the general public if they knew they existed and the options were affordable and accessible. I have learned that there are many ways to incorporate natural methods into funeral traditions and customs. 

I started this educational journey with my mind open to possibilities, a new world of information, connections, and community. Meeting people in the natural death care world has illuminated my path forward. I have developed facilitation skills, strengthened my research methods, mastered new technologies, and shared joy and exhilaration with others. A concept that occurred to me during this experience is that learning new things does not occur outside of my comfort zone, learning new things expands my comfort zone. 

As I finish up my Project Dragonfly Advanced Inquiry Program experience, I have found a way to bridge my professional, educational, and personal goals. As a librarian, I have always enjoyed connecting people with resources. Now I wish to do that and support people who are struggling to find meaning and understanding in their last moments. The further I venture into the world of death education, support, and natural death care, the more I can see how empowering advance planning can be; for planning one’s death is an educational journey that leads to acceptance. The more people discuss, explore, and accept death as a life event to plan and celebrate, the more we understand ourselves and others, and the more fully we can learn to live.

Figure 8
Personal video in which I discuss my Project Dragonfly Advanced Inquiry Program experience.


Thank you to Susan Baron, Bob Coulter, and others at Missouri Botanical Garden for making a partnership with Project Dragonfly possible, and to my Miami advisor Karen Plucinski for steadfast guidance and encouragement. Heartfelt thanks are extended to the 15 passionate and inquisitive friends in my cohort whose companionship, enthusiasm, and feedback enriched my journey. Finally, thank you to my best friend and husband, Travis Sheridan, who not only held the camera steady during my deepest moments of grief, but offers unwavering support for every unconventional idea I pursue. I am grateful to share the experiences of life (and death) with one who is so loving and encouraging.


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Cremation Association of North America. (2022). Industry statistical information. https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/IndustryStatistics

Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13614-13620. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320645111 

Francaviglia, R. V. (1971). The cemetery as an evolving cultural landscape. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 61, 501-509.

French, S. (1974). The cemetery as cultural institution: The establishment of Mount Auburn and the “Rural Cemetery” Movement. American Quarterly, 26(1), 37-59. doi:10.2307/2711566. 

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Green Burial Council [GBC]. (2019). Cemetery certification standardshttps://www.greenburialcouncil.org/our_standards.html

Harris, M. (2007). Grave matters: A journey through the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial. Scribner.

Herring, L. (2019). Reimagining death: Stories and practical wisdom for home funerals and green burials. North Atlantic Books.

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