COVINGTON TWP. – After months of research, discussion and planning, the Diocese of Scranton Catholic Cemeteries Office is now offering the option of a ‘green burial’ as an alternative to a customary burial or cremation.

The ‘Green Burial Council’ defines the practice as a “way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”

Kevin Beck, right, Diocesan Catholic Cemeteries Director, and Alex Burney, Superintendent of Saint Catherine’s Cemetery, examine a plot of land designated to be the first area for ‘green burials’ in the Moscow cemetery. (Photo/Eric Deabill)

The concept of a green burial is rooted in simplicity and sustainability. Unlike traditional burials, which often involve embalming fluids, concrete vaults and non-biodegradable caskets, green burials prioritize returning the body to the earth in its most natural state.

“Green burials are a natural way of taking care of a person’s burial needs at the time of a death,” Kevin Beck, Diocesan Catholic Cemeteries Superintendent, explained. “It entails no outside vaults, which is a concrete vault that we use in most areas, and no fancy metal caskets. It is supposed to be all natural – wood, reed, bamboo, wicker or cloth – creating less disturbance and less of a carbon footprint at that point.”

In response to inquiries about the practice of green burials, the Diocese of Scranton is now offering a natural burial section at Saint Catherine’s Cemetery near Moscow. Parish cemeteries may offer the service at their discretion and only if following the procedures outlined by the Diocese. Father Thomas Petro, Pastor, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Dupont, announced in his parish bulletin that its cemetery will also offer the option for individuals.

Alex Burney, who has served as Superintendent at Saint Catherine’s Cemetery for the last year, said an area in the back right corner of the cemetery has been selected to accommodate green burials.

“It is right behind the Sisters of the Good Shepherd section and it is a nice green area. The land is not one-hundred percent level, but that helps to make it natural,” Burney said. “We have 12 graves available right now. However, we have a lot of rom in front of it to be able to expand, so we would be able to do 100 graves and we have other sections that we would also be able to make green burial sections in the cemetery.”

Because embalming is not conducted with a green burial, a body can only be preserved by refrigeration for 36 to 48 hours, so anyone contemplating the new practice should inform family members well in advance. While the cemetery provides the necessary space, a licensed funeral director must administer it.

“We have at least three funeral directors who have either done it, or are preparing themselves for the need,” Beck noted. “All of the funeral directors that I’ve spoken to are willing to do them, but it is still a new process, so most of them have very little experience with it so far.”

For many years, the Catholic Church has emphasized the sanctity of life and the importance of caring for God’s creation. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis called for a renewed sense of ecological responsibility, urging Catholics to recognize the interconnectedness of all living beings and the urgent need for environmental protection.

“It will really resemble a traditional burial outside of the container that the person would be buried in,” Beck said. “A person can still have a funeral Mass. They can still have a final blessing at the gravesite as well and family are welcome to be there. At the time, it is just really the materials and the carbon output to process a body for burial that is different.”

At Saint Catherine’s Cemetery, each gravesite will not have an individual marker or stone, instead, there will be one common marker created that will denote the names of those interred in the natural burial area. Since the area is meant to be natural, the gravesite will settle naturally and no extensive landscaping will be done, other than routine lawn mowing.

According to the new Diocesan Green Burial regulations, which are available on the Diocese of Scranton website, other important rules include:

• Cremated bodies will not be allowed in the green burial section, since the cremation practice involves the use of fossil fuels in the incineration process.

• There will only be one burial per space – and space in the green burial area will be allocated in sequential manner to not disturb previous sites – therefore there is no “choice” of burial space allowed.

• Markers, memorials, plaques or objects of any kind cannot be left in the green burial area. Planting of any type will also be prohibited.

Anyone contemplating a green burial must recognize the solemnity and Catholic nature of the cemetery in which the area is located. No ceremonies, rituals, or acts contrary to Catholic tradition or Canon law will be allowed.

Fees and pricing for green burials will be the same as traditional burial practices.
While there are currently no planned green burials for Saint Catherine’s Cemetery, staff members say they are prepared to handle the first request when it comes in.

“It is a beautiful setting back there. It’s a nice little corner of the cemetery,” Beck said.

Any questions regarding green burials should be directed to the Diocesan Catholic Cemeteries Director.