Frequently Asked Questions
People have lots of questions about green burial and conservation burial and we love to support conversations about it. Yes, it is legal in North Carolina.
Below are some answers to the questions most frequently asked. Please email us if you don't see the answer to your question.
Q. What is green burial?
A. A green burial is one in which there is no embalming, no vaults, and everything used in the burial process is natural and bio-degradable. According to the Green Burial Council, the national certifying organization, green or natural burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that furthers such legitimate ecological aims as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of native habitat.
Q. What's the difference between green and natural burial?
A. They are one and the same. The green burial movement which got its start in the US in the 1980s, is more recently using the expression natural burial to emphasize a return to nature.
Q. What is conservation burial?
A. Conservation burial is a cemetery classification designated by the Green Burial Council. Conservation burial cemeteries utilize green burial techniques and go a step further to define the management of the land and cemetery operations with specific ecologic and conservation principles including: the protection of important natural and sensitive areas, conservation management of the property, limits to burial density and the guaranteed preservation of the cemetery by deed restriction or conservation easement overseen by an independent conservation organization in perpetuity.
Q. Is conservation burial legal?
A. Yes. Bluestem Conservation Cemetery is a program of the nonprofit Bluestem Community. We follow all required State and Orange County, North Carolina, zoning, regulatory requirements, and cemetery laws, complete with the establishment of a perpetual care trust fund for the cemetery's future maintenance.
Q. Who can be buried at Bluestem Conservation Cemetery?
A. Burial at Bluestem is available to anyone.
Q. When can I be buried at Bluestem Conservation Cemetery?
A. Burial at Bluestem is planned by contacting the Co-directors Heidi or Jeff.
Q. How will Bluestem's graves be prepared and what will they look like?
A. Burial sites are prepared by Bluestem staff. The burial depth for a grave is approximately 3.5 feet from the bottom of the grave to its surface. Bluestem staff use equipment to dig the grave prior to the service, and prior to the family and friends’ arrival at the cemetery. Upon completion of the service, the soil that was removed from the grave is replaced in the grave either by the participants or cemetery staff. Flowers, wreaths made with biodegradable materials, and other natural materials may be used to cover the burial mound. Over time, the soil settles into the grave and the surrounding area’s natural features blend into the site. This settling process can take a year or longer.
Q. What are the burial choices at Bluestem Conservation Cemetery?
A. Bluestem supports full natural body burial, ash burial, pet burials, and if suitable, the scattering of cremated remains in designated areas on the property. Burial choice is offered in select areas of the restored open grasslands and native woodlands.
Q. Are family and friends allowed to take part in the burial ceremony?
A. Yes. A significant element in Bluestem’s mission is to encourage family and friends to create the service of their choice. In North Carolina, families can care for their loved ones up to and after death, performing the role of funeral director in managing the body at home, completing the required paperwork, and transporting the body to Bluestem. At burial, Bluestem staff are present to receive the body and help guide the burial process, assisting in lowering the body, closing the grave, and ensuring the safety of all participants.
Q. How are the graves marked and located?
A. Every gravesite is located and identified with an aluminum marker set in the grave. A global positioning system (GPS) coordinate, and grid coordinates are also recorded for each grave, with the coordinates provided to family and friends for independent visits to the gravesite. The individual or family can choose to mark the gravesite with a simple flat grave stone from materials provided by Bluestem staff. Bluestem’s cemetery records are maintained according to the standards of NC Cemetery law.
Q. Who provides the funeral service?
A. Families have the choice of working with a funeral home, with a home funeral guide, or they can manage the pre-burial preparations on their own. Bluestem staff help support the planning of graveside services, which may be held at the time of interment. The service can include as much support or as little as the family chooses; however, it is overseen by Bluestem staff and volunteers, including both lowering the casket and closing the grave.
Q. Are caskets required at Bluestem Conservation Cemetery?
A. Bluestem permits any biodegradable burial product appropriate for green burial. Burial products can be unfinished wood caskets, wicker or woven caskets, or cloth shrouds. A shroud is simply a piece of fabric (quilt, blanket or sheet) that is used to wrap a body. For shrouded burials, a shrouding board may also be required to support the body during the lowering process.
Q. Won't wild animals dig up my body?
A. This is a common worry for people considering green burial. We can report that in the 40 years that green/natural/ conservation burial has been in operation in the US, there have been no cases of animals digging up bodies. Each grave at Bluestem is significantly deep enough and intentionally prepared to deter any wildlife curiosity.
Q. Is embalming required by law?
A. Embalming is not required in any state. Embalming is a practice that was initially instituted to preserve a body for transportation from their place of death to their place of burial, made popular in the Civil War. The chemical used in embalming is formaldehyde, which the EPA has defined as a carcinogen, and has been proven to cause cancer in funeral staff. In keeping with green burial standards, Bluestem does not allow embalming, further limiting the potential for this chemical to leach into the land and subsurface water supply.
Q. Does burying people without vaults and without embalming hurt water quality?
A. Conserved landscapes are a time-honored tool for protecting and improving water quality. Careful site selection has been made to ensure that Bluestem complies with and exceeds all state and local health codes pertaining to water quality protection. Bluestem does not bury immediately adjacent to streams or wetlands. All perennial and intermittent streams on the property are protected with 100-foot water quality buffers; a measurement greater than Orange County requires, and integral to our commitment to conservation. Maintenance within the buffer areas includes invasive management, habitat restoration, the repair or prevention of erosion, and installation and maintenance of bridges. Burial is possible in the woodlands outside of the buffer areas.
Q: What is the cemetery's density?
Conservation cemeteries limit burial density to 300 plots per acre. As a point of contrast, average density in municipal cemeteries is between 1000-1200 plots/acre. Bluestem projects between 100-300 plots/acre. Restored natural areas will respect natural vegetation, provide improvements to adjacent waterways with stream buffers, and support greater biological diversity over time.
Q. What happens to the body after burial?
A. Upon burial, the decomposition of the human body proceeds rapidly. Bacteria and viruses typically die with the body or within days, and almost all become inert within a year. The earth’s soil and organisms facilitate the decomposition process and slow the exchange of bacteria and viruses, acting as a giant filter to prevent contamination. A conservation cemetery’s reduced burial density also limits the number of viable germs that can enter surface water or groundwater flow. International studies have demonstrated the low risk for germ transmission from green burial techniques. No known transmission of germs from a green burial ground have been recorded in the US.
Q. How is green burial better for the environment?
A. Green burial limits the introduction of non-biodegradable materials into the earth. Conventional practices for burial introduce metals, cement, finished wood products, synthetics, and formaldehyde into the subsurface soil layers. Over time these items, particularly when concentrated in compact density, have the potential to leach into nearby subsurface waters. Green burial encourages rapid decomposition which supports soil health, and reduces nearby water contamination risk. Conservation burial enhances the environment by additionally supporting the ecological health and restoration of the property.
Q. Is cremation a green alternative to conventional burial?
A. Nationally, cremation is the most widely used burial choice. While burying cremated remains uses less land area than full body burial, the process of cremation requires over 30 gallons of fossil fuel per body, which is the equivalent vehicle emissions of a 600-mile trip. Additionally, the cremation process emits mercury, carbon and other toxins into the air. As cremation is a popular and increasing burial choice, Bluestem allows for the burial of cremated remains. All ash burials are amended with a neutralizing soil-like material prior to interment. Scattering of ashes is currently under consideration by Bluestem's Council of Stewards.
For funeral consumers general information, we note that several other newer alternatives for body disposition are possible:
Aquamation. This new form of cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, uses a gentle process of water instead of fire to reduce a body to a powdered form. Aquamation requires no burning of fossil fuels and must be performed by a licensed funeral home. Aquamation remains are like cremated remains and can be brought to Bluestem for burial. Aquamation is legal in North Carolina. For more information on aquamation we refer you to Endswell, located in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Recomposition. Another new form of decomposition developed by scientists in Washington State. Recompose is currently only offered in Washington, Colorado, California and Vermont. With Recompose, bodies are laid to rest in containers with plant material, and microbes break down the body, resulting in the formation of a nutrient‑dense soil. The soil is then offered to the family and can be scattered or incorporated in flower gardens or for other uses. Bluestem is considering how/if it can accommodate these remains, should this option become available in North Carolina. To learn more, visit Recompose.