Along a winding path, under a tiny grove of oak trees, Ann Hoffner's father rests in peace — with no massive tombstone, no casket, and no carcinogenic embalming fluids that could harm the environment.

"He's really just a part of the forest," Hoffner, of South Orange, said.

And one day, Hoffner's mother will lie, just as naturally, in the next plot over.

Green, or natural burials — from preservation of one's remains to preparation of their final resting place — have become a more popular choice for families over recent years, according to Hoffner, who published a guidebook to natural burial cemeteries across the country.

In New Jersey, nine funeral homes are certified by the Green Burial Council for practices that pose minimal environmental impact, aid in the conservation of natural resources, and protect the health of workers in the after-death profession.

The number of GBC-approved providers (funeral homes, cemeteries and product providers) in North America has grown from one in 2006 to more than 300 today.

"A true natural burial, in many regards, is more environmentally-friendly than cremation," said Robert Prout, owner of Prout Funeral Home in Verona, which was the first in New Jersey and one of the first in the nation to receive the GBC certification.

"A lot of folks have come to us because we offer green," he said. "They have a bond with the greener concept."

There are many "shades of green" when it comes to natural burial, Prout said. In its purest form, the deceased is buried in a shroud or a biodegradable casket.

"Something like seagrass, wicker, bamboo, native pine would all be acceptable for a true natural burial," he said.

Bamboo casket
Bamboo casket (Prout Funeral Home)

Some families, if they're tied to a generational plot at a traditional cemetery, may not be able to go the entire natural route. But they can still be environmentally conscious when choosing how to preserve their loved one for a service and funeral.

Certified funeral homes may use no embalming fluid at all, or any of several formaldehyde-free liquids, decreasing the potential harm to the earth and funeral home workers.

"Some of the fluids are based on the essential oils like they had in ancient times," Prout said.

Steelmantown Cemetery in Woodbine, where Hoffner's father lies, is the only cemetery in New Jersey certified by the Green Burial Council. The use of vaults and concrete slabs is prohibited, and the site will not accept decedents embalmed with toxic chemicals.

Generally speaking, a natural burial can run families about half the cost of a traditional funeral service, according to Prout. But most customers opting for a natural burial, Prout said, are not driven by cost.

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