The aim of natural burials is not just to use fewer resources, but also to return the body to the earth as simply as possible.

When someone in the family dies, our first impulse is to call the funeral director. But it's important to know there are options. The aim of natural burials is not just to use fewer re- sources, but also to return the body to the earth as simply as possible.

On the lower scale of 'green' burials is cremation. It does use natural gas and electricity to generate temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees for about two hours. And it emits some pollution into the atmosphere. The most serious potential contaminant is mercury, which comes from our silver fillings. But on balance it uses significantly fewer resources—no wood coffin or steel casket or concrete vault or formaldehyde-based embalming fluids.

The greenest option is probably natural burial grounds, which are popping up on rural lands across the country. No embalming or vaults are allowed, and caskets, if used, must be made of cardboard or something plentiful and biodegradable, like pine. Once the body is laid into the ground, it's marked with a flat local fieldstone or a tree or bush.

Many of these burial grounds are used as ways to preserve lands from development: People dedicate 10 acres of a 100-acre spread and use money from the burials to help preserve the rest of the land. Ecologists go in and craft plans to restore the land. They give bereaved families a list of indigenous plants they can plant, and determine where to bury bodies based on where the soil needs nourishment and where it won't cause erosion. So you're helping restore this land to ecological health.

When you think about making up in some way for the vast resources you drew from the earth during your life, I think this might be the ultimate final act.

—Mark Harris, author, Grave Matters (Scribner, 2007)