10972661659?profile=RESIZE_710xAuthor’s note: This article covers a sensitive topic and is intended to provide a thoughtful and forthright discussion on various options available for more sustainable funerals. 

As much as we may accept that death is a natural part of life, the way we handle the body of a loved one after they pass can be a difficult and overwhelming decision. The disposition of a human body is a complex discussion and there are countless opinions on what qualifies as respectful, appropriate, and in keeping with one’s belief system. For some people, “green” burials, the idea of returning a body to the earth naturally without a lot of intervention and materials, is infinitely more appealing than a traditional burial, and so is the protection and management of land that comes with a natural or “conservation” burial.

The ecological impact of conventional burials

Most conventional funerals in the United States involve embalming, public viewing, and the burial of a casket into a vault in the ground of a cemetery. More natural “green” burials are gaining ground, so to speak, and according to the National Funeral Directors Association 2022 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Report, 60.5% of people are interested in exploring green funeral options. The Green Burial Council states that a green burial is “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.”

There is also the practical issue of the cost of funerals. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional burial is around $9,000, and the average cost of cremation is around $1,500, although with add-ons or transportation that figure may be closer to $7,000. In 1963, Jessica Mitford’s best-selling book The American Way of Death exposed the funeral industry for taking advantage of people who were at their most vulnerable and selling them products and services they couldn’t afford, including expensive caskets, embalming, and cemetery plots. In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission created The Funeral Rule, which requires funeral directors to provide full transparency on funeral options and prices by phone, and, among other things, disclose that embalming is not required by law in most states. 

In the United States, embalming is currently done about 50% of the time for cosmetic reasons and to preserve the body for public viewing, particularly when burial is not done quickly. Whether embalming is done before cremation or burial, it exposes funeral workers to toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, and those chemicals eventually seep into the soil where caskets are buried, which can affect wildlife, groundwater, and nature in general. Traditional burials also utilize non-biodegradable materials for caskets and vaults, including steel and other metals, plastic laminates, varnishes, hardware, and concrete. Traditional cemeteries require extensive land use as well.

According to Funeral Consumers Alliance of Los Angeles (FCALA), in conventional burials, the preparation of the body and burial site do not take environmental impact into consideration. The FCALA has compiled the following statistics. Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde)
  • 90,00 tons of steel (caskets)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
  • 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)

Cremation uses fewer resources than regular burials but generates 880 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming (and can include other pollutants such as mercury if the deceased had dental fillings). Cremation also uses the same amount of energy (natural gas and electricity) as a 500-mile car trip. For these reasons, burying cremated remains does not qualify as a true "green burial."

Green burials

While some conventional burials and traditional cemeteries don’t always require embalming or the use of vaults between the casket and soil, natural burials and green cemeteries still differ dramatically overall. In certified green cemeteries, no formaldehyde-based embalming or cremated remains are allowed. Nor are metal caskets and cement vaults. Corpses must be buried in biodegradable materials such as pine boxes, shrouds, or wicker caskets. Burial is typically in an area with native trees, shrubs, and flowers, with no man-made additions. Grave markers do not intrude on the landscape, and records are kept of the exact location of each burial (GPS coordinates may be used). Two decades ago, there was only one dedicated green cemetery in the United States and Canada, but now there are more than 220, which has created new competition for the conventional funeral industry.

Eco-friendly wood caskets may be made of oak, elm, pine, birch, maple, poplar, and willow trees. They are not treated with varnish, stains, or lacquer and are completely made of wood, without embellishments or handles, Shrouds typically use non-synthetic plant materials from locally-grown, unendangered species such as bamboo, seagrass, hemp, willow, or rattan, to name a few. Etsy sells products for green burials, such as cotton shrouds that cost $529.

One downside of green burials is that because embalming is prohibited, they require the timely burial of the body, which doesn’t buy the family much time to plan an immediate memorial service. Check out links on simple shroud burials, reef burials, water burials, Tibetan sky burials, and more on "Burial Alternatives For Non-Traditional People." Learn more on natural burials here and where to find green burials in California here. In case you are curious about whether you can be buried on your own land, be aware that several states, including California, Washington, and Indiana have regulations that prohibit it completely. At Better Place Forests, you can essentially "buy" a memorial tree as your final resting place, but it's definitely a pricier option.

Another interesting development in the funeral industry is the use of home funeral guides who help the family of the deceased with washing, preparing, and dressing the body of the deceased at home. People who choose at-home death care typically opt for cremation and green burials. Guides share the values of those who support the growing “death positive” movement and bear similarities to home-births and hospice practices. There are many resources out there for supporting natural burials.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance has a useful website that includes a practical page on "Ten Tips For Saving Funeral Money." They also have a page on recycling medical implants such as pacemakers, defibrillators, and artificial joints that would normally be buried or incinerated after death. It may be controversial to some, but these items can actually be recycled for reuse in some form. Life-saving heart devices, for example, can be sterilized, refurbished and sent abroad to help impoverished patients who cannot afford new ones.

Here are some current natural burial methods:

Human composting, also known as Natural Organic Reduction (NOR)

A person can have their body turned into soil after death. Many view this service as being an environmentally friendly alternative to burial or cremation, although the practice is distasteful to others. The Catholic Conference says human composting does not meet the “virtually universal norm of reverence and care towards the deceased” and expressed the sentiment that NOR turned bodies into a “disposable commodity.” In 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that legalized human composting in California, following in the tracks of Washington, Colorado, Vermont, and Oregon. California's law takes effect in 2027.

In special facilities, NOR involves placing the deceased body in an 8-foot steel above-ground box that is surrounded by biodegradable materials such as wood chips, alfalfa, or straw grass. The box is aerated to allow microbes and bacteria to grow, and within 30 to 60 days the remains are fully decomposed. This human-composted soil is returned to the deceased’s family or donated to conservation land to plant flowers or trees.The NOR process is less energy-intensive than cremation, which burns fossil fuels and emits carbon monoxide. It is also more economical, with a cost of about $5,000, compared to traditional burial services, which cost around $9,000.

Mushroom Suit (also known as the Infinity Burial Suit)

After death, a body is placed in a biodegradable shroud embedded with mushroom spores and other microorganisms. After burial, the spores aid in decomposition, neutralize toxins in the body (e.g., lead, mercury, pesticides and BPA), and provide nutrients to the soil and surrounding plant life. The manufacturer of the suit is Coeio, a company founded by Jae Rhim Lee, who introduced the suit in a fashion show in 2008 and has done TED talks about it. Actor Luke Perry was famously buried in a mushroom suit. The suits are designed to have a long, stable shelf-life, and when the product is delivered, it should be stored in a cool, dark place until burial. For germination to work properly, the suit should be buried at a depth of four feet, which is the typical burial depth in green cemeteries. Go HERE to learn more about how the mushroom burial suit works. Another related sustainable option is a mushroom coffin.

Alkaline Hydrolysis (also known as bio-cremation, resomation, liquid cremation, green cremation, or aquamation)

Alkaline Hydrolysis is a water-based, chemical body-disposal process that uses alkaline solution, heat, and sometimes agitation to reduce a body to its mineral bone remains that are then pulverized into powdered ash, as with cremation. Compared to fire-based cremation, it uses about one-tenth of the natural gas, one-third of the electricity, and 90% less CO2 emissions. Metal objects such as hip or knee replacements can be recovered and recycled intact. The average cost of alkaline hydrolysis is around $3,500.

Capsula Mundi

Two designers have formed a start-up company in Italy that designs a biodegradable egg-shaped pod where cremated ashes or a body in a fetal position is placed inside and buried like a giant seed under a tree. The deceased provides the growing tree with nutrients to continue the cycle of life after death, and loved ones can visit and care for the tree. FYI, these pods are so far only available in Italy. View the YouTube video here.

A final note: Clearly, there is a wide variety of options on what to do after each of us dies, but as uncomfortable as it may be to think about, it may be helpful to remember that we typically spend a lot time and energy when we research any substantial goods or services, whether it's buying a house or a car or choosing a college or a career, and we should feel empowered to devote the same amount of time and energy on making important decisions on what to do with our bodily vessels after they run their course.

Photo by The Good Funeral Guide on https://unsplash.com.

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