Green Burial Resolves Land Use Conflicts

By Mary Reilly-McNellan

With trouble brewing between Twin Lakes residents and the city of Boulder over two Gunbarrel land parcels, I have been—ahem—dying to propose their alternative use as a “green cemetery.” In a nutshell, green cemeteries are natural areas where unembalmed bodies are laid to rest in simple shrouds or biodegradable caskets, minus unnecessary burial vaults and upright headstones. This use would provide much-needed housing for the dead, while preserving the open space and natural resources that we so love.

All punning aside, I support affordable, environmentally sustainable housing for both the living and the dead. After 17 years working in Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery, I understand that just as people need space to live, we also need space in death. It is a practical matter many don’t like to discuss, but how we dispose of our bodies can have major consequences—not only for us, but for the entire planet. And with nearly 2600 Americans dying every day, we need to address this sooner rather than later.

Each year, along with the bodies of the deceased, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build more than 3500 homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools (Mark Harris, Grave Matters, 2007). While “greener” than traditional burial, cremation still pumps more than 23 million pounds of carbon dioxide and toxins into the atmosphere. For the sake of future generations, we must take steps to ensure that death and funerary rituals promote regeneration rather than degradation.

So what is a dead body to do? Thankfully, our culture seems to be revisiting its green burial roots—after all, this is how our ancestors were buried for centuries. Often called natural burial grounds, green cemeteries embrace the body’s return to the earth in a true “dust to dust” manner. Rather than the traditional “six feet under,” the deceased are laid to rest in hand-dug, three to four foot deep holes that accelerate decomposition. Soil microorganisms and bacteria immediately begin their composting work, providing nutrients for new life. This is what nature intended—that our bodies replenish the earth, not taint it.

Since 1997, approximately 100 green burial cemeteries have opened in the United States. Many are also beneficial nature preserves that actively promote a strong land conservation ethic. Unfortunately, there are currently no such cemeteries in Boulder County. This is somewhat surprising, given our environmental reputation and progressive history. Green cemeteries not only preserve land from development, but also help restore it. They support and expand ecosystems and wildlife corridors. They are not disease vectors. And unlike conventional cemeteries, they require very little maintenance—mowing is infrequent or unnecessary, and vegetation is limited to native plants adapted to the local environment. Plots are usually less expensive, and sales can help finance land preservation, stewardship, and conservation. There are other, less tangible benefits as well. Grieving families and friends are often able to participate in such hands-on burial tasks as transporting the body, decorating the coffin, or even shoveling dirt. These final acts of love can be powerful and very healing.

There are unquestionably many competing needs and finite available land. But with nearly 300,000 acres of publicly-owned property in Boulder County—some of which even land managers consider to be marginal and/or not conforming to its defined purposes—it does not seem unreasonable to consider using appropriate acreage for the very necessary and practical purpose of disposing of our bodies in an environmentally sustainable manner. Local government agencies I have contacted cited prohibitive land use regulations and codes. I understand and appreciate the protections these measures provide. But consider this: green cemeteries offer not only a less toxic and comparatively inexpensive alternative to traditional funerary practices—they can also help nourish, protect, and sustain natural ecosystems.

Establishing a green cemetery in Boulder County addresses not only the problematic lack of available “housing” for the deceased, but can also help improve the land. Our community benefits by preserving acreage for passive recreation and land buffers, wildlife remains undisturbed, and our carbon footprint is reduced. Whatever the Twin Lakes outcome, Green Burial Boulder County will continue to seek available public/private land, donations, and/or a benefactor to help launch this important project. Please contact us at if you can help. It is literally a matter of life AND death.

Mary Reilly-McNellan is a Boulder County resident and green burial advocate. She recently retired after many rewarding years managing historic Columbia Cemetery for the city of Boulder.