From fiction to reality

— Could forests replace cemeteries?

From tree pods and mushroom suits to plain old dirt, death may have a greener future.


The way humans live impacts the world. So does the way they die.

It isn’t death itself that creates an ecological nightmare, but rather the resource-intensive processes we’ve devised for dealing with the dead. On top of all the land that’s set aside for graveyards, building caskets requires around 30 million board feet of wood and 90,000 tons of steel each year (that’s more steel than you’ll find in the Golden Gate Bridge). Grave vaults guzzle up 1.6 million tons of concrete annually. And 800,000 gallons of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde go into embalming — chemicals that often wind up seeping into the ground. (Oh, and all these stats are for the U.S. alone.)

Cremation, which has edged out burial as the most popular option in the U.S., requires vast amounts of energy to maintain the 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit needed to incinerate a corpse, which can take two hours or more. In the U.S., the process releases about 250,000 tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere annually — the equivalent of burning more than 30 million gallons of gasoline — and a significant amount of mercury from dental fillings.

By now you may be thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” There is.

We already have several eco-friendlier ways of dealing with the dead, and more than 50 percent of Americans are considering them. These methods can be as simple as wrapping bodies in cloth and lowering them into the ground to decompose, or as cutting-edge as human composting and mushroom suits. There are also culture-specific traditions like the Tibetan sky burial, in which the dead are dismembered and left on mountaintops to be feasted upon by vultures.

In her short story The Tree in the Back Yard, a finalist in Fix’s Imagine 2200 climate-fiction contest, author Michelle Yoon envisions a future in which green burial practices have become commonplace. In the opening scene, the main character, Mariska, chooses a tree that her father’s remains will nourish via a receptacle called an Eternity Pod. Later, when she goes to visit his final resting place, Mariska sees “Trees of all types, all ages. Trees as far as her eyes could see,” each one marking a natural burial site.

How close are we to the future Yoon imagines?

The modern green burial movement

Generally speaking, a green burial is one that encourages the natural process of decomposition. That means no embalming, fancy caskets, or headstones. In the most straightforward application, remains are placed in a simple box or cloth, and interred at a depth of about 3½ feet — roughly half the proverbial 6 feet under — where there’s more microbial activity in the soil.

The modern movement emerged about 30 years ago as some sought to reclaim the intimacy and filial responsibility that is lost when a third party takes ownership of the dead, says Hannah Rumble, a social anthropologist at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society in England. “It was almost kind of a re-enchantment — this idea that our dead were a fertile source for new life, if we put them in sensitive ways back in the environment,” she says. “Rather than seeing a corpse as yucky and icky and something that needs to be sanitized and hidden away, actually the corpse, in its very decomposition, could be quite useful.”

Much like other eco-conscious movements — local food, right-to-repair, and living off the grid, for example — green burial, at its heart, is about reclaiming and re-familiarizing ourselves with a process. In this case, death.

In some cultures, elements of these practices are the norm already. Traditional Jewish burial involves family members washing and preparing the body, dressing it in a shroud, and burying it in a simple pine coffin, or no coffin at all. Although this practice is based on ancient Jewish law, it aligns with much of the green burial ethos. “It emphasizes simplicity, equality in death, and return of the body to the earth,” says Rabbi Seth Goldstein.

Muslim tradition similarly involves ritual bathing of a corpse, wrapping it in a cloth, and burying it without a casket, facing Mecca. In both customs, the funeral happens as quickly as possible after the person has died — which respects religious teachings about honoring the dead but also makes sense biologically. Without embalming or other forms of preservation, bodies must be interred ASAP, for obvious reasons.

Much like other eco-conscious movements, green burial is about reclaiming and re-familiarizing ourselves with a process. In this case, death. 

Although straightforward burial can be made more sustainable, an increasing number of  alternative methods that promise to make death not only sustainable but beneficial to the earth have captured the imaginations of entrepreneurs and designers — and some have become legit options. Human composting (or, as proponents prefer, “natural organic reduction”) made headlines earlier this year when Recompose, the first fully operational human composting facility, opened its doors in Kent, Washington. Colorado legalized the process this year, and Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont are considering it.

Then there’s the mushroom suit, which actor Luke Perry was famously buried in. The sleek, black “infinity burial suit” is made of organic cotton and specially cultivated fungi, which the company claims help detoxify the corpse and deliver its nutrients to the soil.

What’s shown in The Tree in the Back Yard is a form of tree burial — the burial of human remains (cremated or otherwise) in a biodegradable “pod,” from which a tree will grow, letting the remains nourish its roots. Italian company Capsula Mundi (or “the world’s capsule”) has designed egg-shaped urns intended to feed saplings planted above them. So far, the only product it has on the market is an urn for ashes, but the company intends to pilot a larger pod that could hold a human body.

Legal and cultural barriers, and the future

The largest obstacle to something like Yoon’s vision of a full graveyard of trees growing from burial pods is not the technology, but the stigmas and laws it needs to overcome.

Death is a deeply emotional, ritualistic affair in most parts of the world, and customs (or outright rules) around dealing with the dead can be stringent. “Unless you’ve got a country whose population follows one particular cultural or religious tradition, I think it’s kind of impossible to say that you’ll have a wholly burial culture or a wholly cremation culture in a country,” says Rumble. Some religions necessitate cremation, like Hinduism, while other teachings support burial in specific ways. According to Rumble, that means there will always be a need for multiple options.

But that doesn’t mean newfangled approaches like tree burial and human composting can’t be compatible with religious teaching and rituals. For Goldstein, who lives and practices in Washington, human composting has become a real option for members of his community. And although it isn’t traditional, Goldstein finds that the practice can uphold Jewish teachings and values and shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as non-Jewish.

“I can’t declare pork to be kosher all of a sudden,” he says. “But other things have more fluidity, in terms of the intersection between spiritual values and tradition and new technologies.” Goldstein puts the onus on himself and other religious leaders to find opportunities to make meaning out of these new approaches, rather than saying no to what people of faith want for themselves or their loved ones. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Is this OK?’ And I think that really what they’re asking is, ‘How do we make this Jewish?’”

As for simpler green burials replacing the chemical- and resource-intensive methods, other barriers must be overcome. In the Western world, the sanitized approach to handling dead bodies doesn’t just reflect our culture — it has also made its way into our laws. Some states require embalming or refrigeration of bodies that have been dead for more than 24 hours. If families haven’t planned ahead, that doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements at a natural burial ground.

“Some jurisdictions [also] mandate the use of concrete liners,” Goldstein says, which wouldn’t traditionally be used in Jewish burial and aren’t compatible with the green approach, either. In 2008, a county in Georgia passed an ordinance requiring leak-proof containers for corpses, due to a complaint about a proposed green burial site. Most states allow home burial on private property, but some also require special permits to do so and a handful of states mandate that a funeral director be on hand.

Even if it’s not law, each cemetery sets its own policies and requirements. According to the Green Burial Council, only 335 cemeteries across the U.S. and Canada offer green or conservation burial options (there are more than 144,000 total cemeteries in the U.S.). A majority of those are hybrid cemeteries, and some are also Jewish or otherwise affiliated.

But the list has been steadily growing. In 2018, 54 percent of Americans said they were considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries reported increased demand for eco-friendly options. There are all kinds of reasons for the shift, beyond the desire to live (er, die) more lightly on the planet. Natural burial options may be cheaper than ones involving ornate caskets, concrete vaults, and granite headstones. When a grave site is incorporated into the landscape, there’s no need to maintain or decorate it, which removes the fear of placing a burden on family members — or becoming the sad spectacle of an unloved grave.

And the desire to return to the earth, which has echoes in many religious teachings, appeals to many on a spiritual level. “Whether through the lenses of personal faith or secular society or science, we all recognize that circular notion of life and death,” Rumble says. Natural burial speaks directly to that, whether it’s in a simple cotton shroud or a mushroom suit. “The fact that, perhaps, you exist in some other form because your body’s gone back to the soil, that offers great solace to people,” she says.

And in fact, that very mindset shift may turn out to be more important than the emissions saved or the trees planted. As various forms of green burial begin to take root, they reinforce the idea that we humans are part of the natural world, and we have a responsibility to nurture it — in life as well as in death.

Complete Article HERE!

You can’t choose an afterlife.

But you can choose what happens to your body after your life.

Gravestones at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 2.

There are many options for what happens to your body after your death. But there’s only one real way to give it a long afterlife.

By Adam Larson

Gardeners can be very picky about the kind of compost they use, but this year Washington-based business Recompose has begun making it from a new ingredient: human remains. Intended as an eco-friendly funeral alternative, interested parties should perhaps be forewarned: It takes a couple of months to go from corpse to compost.

But (legally) composting yourself or a recently departed loved one is by no means the only unusual alternative to traditional burial or cremation.

You — or someone’s remains for which you are legally responsible — can now be buried in a suit made of cotton and mushroom spores, intended to make a person’s body into fungus food. (The process also claims to clean heavy metals from the deceased’s remains before they seep into the soil.)

If one is a fan of the ocean, there are companies that will take cremated remains and incorporate them into artificial reefs to act as a home for coral and fish.

The deeper question you might want to ask may be why we care what happens to our dead bodies at all.

If you’d prefer your earthly remains to stay closer to your loved ones (or they would prefer to keep your remains close), your post-cremation ashes can be made into a diamond and worn as jewelry or transformed into a glass paperweight for a bizarre cubicle talking piece.

Conversely, if you’d rather get away from Earth altogether, you could have your ashes shot into space, where they would then orbit the Earth before disintegrating upon future re-entry. If you’d like to really get away, your ashes could be shot out of orbit and into deep space. That is what was done with the remains of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto; his remains came within 8,000 miles of the dwarf planet and are currently over 4 billion miles from Earth.

After hearing the many options of what to do with your body after you’re done using it, you might have some questions. But the deeper question you might want to ask may be why we care what happens to our dead bodies at all.

Part of the issue is that many religions believe what happens to our remains is important. Hindus cremate their dead because they believe their souls will only leave their bodies if forced to leave. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies are impure and must be disposed of properly. Ancient Egyptians believed their bodies needed to be preserved because they were the vessels that contained their spirits.

If you actually want to make a difference after you’re gone, there are better choices.

But even people who don’t hold beliefs about the importance of the physical body in the afterlife still follow funeral customs. Around the world, most people (even those without a belief in an afterlife) would be weirded out by the prospect of the body of a loved one (or their own body) being unceremoniously tossed into a landfill, which is strange when you think about it. After all, it’s not as if dead people need their bodies for anything: They’re dead.

Clearly, another part of the human adherence to funeral rituals across time and cultures has to do with a desire to be remembered after we are gone and the idea that we now express as some version of “funerals are for the living.” A gravesite can help keep the memory of the deceased alive for their remaining loved ones, give mourners a specific place to commemorate the dead and make them feel closer to the deceased. But if you really think about it absent our cultural norms, even this is a bit odd, because you aren’t actually closer to the person who died at a gravesite.

You’re just closer to their corpse or ashes, and regardless of your personal belief system, you probably actually consider the intangibles of a person — whether you want to call that their heart or their soul or their mind — the essence of what makes them who they are, rather than their physical body.

Yet while we know that, we still have difficulty separating the idea of the mind from the body. Perhaps that’s because we can’t communicate with other humans without interacting with a physical body to some degree. Disrespecting a person’s remains, no matter how little they “are” the person anymore, still feels like disrespecting the person.

Part of the human adherence to funeral rituals across time and cultures has to do with a desire to be remembered after we are gone

So why, then, do some people want their bodies to become compost, coral reefs or mushroom food? A major motivator seems to be concern for the environment. The embalming fluid used to keep remains presentable for typical American funerals is good at preserving dead things but can also make other things die (if, for instance, it’s ingested by underground organisms — though U.S. regulations mandate that caskets be sealed to avoid things inside from leaking outside).

And while cemeteries only cover a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface, they are often located in cities, where land can be in short supply, and severe water events like floods can cause serious issues for the living, who generally prefer that caskets (and the bodies inside them) stay buried.

Plus, traditional funerals and burials can be prohibitively expensive. Add to that a general decline in people practicing organized religion, and it means that more people in the United States are not restricted by the rules and regulations of faith traditions that might prohibit certain post-death practices.

Cremation, then, is often seen as a more eco-friendly (and much less expensive) alternative to burial, but burning the deceased’s remains releases greenhouse gases and mercury into the atmosphere — although a relatively new form of cremation produces fewer emissions and uses less energy.

After hearing the many options of what to do with your body after you’re done using it, you might have some questions.

So becoming compost — or something similar — seemingly lets your body do some good after you’re gone. The opportunity to help others is the ethos behind the similar, but much older, practice of Tibetan sky burials (though, in a sky burial your body provides sustenance for vultures instead of hydrangeas).

But if you actually want to make a difference after you’re gone, there are better choices than turning your body into compost or vulture food. You can make compost out of human remains or the leftovers you forgot at the back of the refrigerator, but only one of those can save lives when used in a different way.

First and foremost, you can register as an organ donor. You won’t need your kidneys after you shuffle off this mortal coil, but there are more than 80,000 Americans who could use them right now and a single organ donor could potentially save eight lives.

While organ donation generally still leaves people with the option for burial, cremation or composting, there’s another option: donating your remains entirely to science. Donated bodies are used to train the next generation of doctors in medical schools, provide insight into human variation and even reveal how our bodies naturally decay — to help forensic anthropologists identify murder victims and catch their killers. Like organ donation, donating a body to science can save lives.

You might not get the chance to save the lives of others while you’re alive. But you do have the chance to make a simple decision while you’re still with us that can help others live longer after you’re gone.

Complete Article HERE!

Misconceptions about dead bodies hold back Maine’s sustainable death practices

Jim Fernald, funeral director at Brookings-Smith, shows two different green funeral caskets. Wooden dowels are used rather than nails or screws in green caskets.

by Sam Schipani

Environmentally friendly treatment of a body after it dies is garnering more interest in Maine these days. There are some passionate advocates for new, less environmentally harmful practices, but there are political, cultural and logistical challenges that could stand in the way of widespread change in the funeral industry.

Across the country, public health policies are wary about practices such as green burials and liquid cremation.

Caitlyn Hauke of New Hampshire is the vice president and board member of the Green Burial Council, a California-based advocacy group for more sustainable death practices. She said that many of the policies that make green burials and other sustainable methods of final disposition more difficult are the result of an outdated or misinformed understanding of death.

“I serve on the board of cemetery trustees for [Lebanon, New Hampshire], and some of the hang ups in trying to change municipal bylaws to allow green burial are these misconceptions that dead bodies spread disease, there’s going to be contamination of the ground and water and things that aren’t true,” Hauke said. “It’s hard to convince people that are set in their ways [that these things aren’t true].”

As an added challenge, Maine crematoriums are required to be located in a cemetery, according to Jim Fernald, spokesperson for the Maine Funeral Directors Association and funeral director of Brookings-Smith in Bangor. Crematoriums are also subject to restrictions in terms of size and licensing.

Some want to see that change though, allowing for more flexibility in how a body is handled after death. There is currently a bill before the Maine state legislature to consider reforming the liquid cremation rules to allow them to happen off-site of a cemetery.

Policy is one thing, but there is also the more challenging issue of shifting culture — specifically how people think — to look at death differently.

“Americans tend to avoid talking about death, you know,” said Chuck Lakin, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine. “When they do, they get a lot of misinformation or they’ve heard things and they keep passing them around.”

Lakin runs a website called Last Things that provides information about what is and isn’t legal and safe when it comes to funeral options in Maine.

Still, it can be difficult to spread the word when death is such a taboo topic. Katie Riposta is the funeral director at Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast, which conducts liquid cremations. She sees continued challenges with spreading the word about the various options available for final disposition.

“It’s hard to advertise because you have to find a professional and tacit way of letting people know there’s new information without seeming sales-y,” Riposta said. “We think the process is a very nice process for end of life final disposition, but some people don’t like to talk about that in advance. I would say the consumer knowledge in and around Maine is limited, [but] people are certainly becoming more educated.”

Even if consumers are aware of the sustainable options, these methods for final disposition require a significant amount of advance planning and advocating for your specific after-death wishes — much more so than a conventional funeral. If there is a sudden death and people don’t have the chance to plan a sustainable burial, their families will likely default to a more conventional, less sustainable option.

“When someone dies suddenly, people just stop thinking. They really need the help of professionals to guide them through,” Fernald said. “Making the green the default would be a much larger culture shift.”

Green death options in Maine are still very limited. Currently, there are only two designated green cemeteries in the state of Maine: Rainbow’s End Natural Cemetery in Orrington and Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington. Other cemeteries have designated areas for green burials.

Meanwhile, Direct Cremation of Maine is the only provider of liquid cremation for human remains, though policy shifts might open the door for more to open in the future.

“Green cremation is definitely an interesting process,” Riposta said. “We’ll see in the future how crematories are regulated as a whole and see where it goes from there.”

Funeral industry professionals are divided as to whether the green funeral movement will continue to grow in Maine. Fernald thinks that it will remain niche.

“Death and ritual is so individual based on previous death experiences and how you’re raised,” Fernald said. “When people are in an emotional part of their life, they go to things that are natural to them. If they were always raised to live off the land and all that, I would think [green burial] would be what they gravitate to during a time of loss.”

Awareness may be the most challenging element of the movement towards more sustainable funeral practices, but Hauke said that “the more people hear about it, the more interested they become.”

“The movement is growing thanks in part to the increased attention to the death positive movement that this is sort of opening doors to conversations about death that Americans have shied away from,” Hauke said.

Complete Article HERE!

Human Composting for a Greener Afterlife

By Gemma Alexander

No matter how sustainably you lived, modern funeral practices ensure that you make one last giant carbon footprint when you die. The biodegradable pine box of past generations is no longer an option. In most places, regulations require the use of toxic, persistent chemicals for embalming and burial; cremation produces as much CO2 as a flight from London to Rome. Until recently, natural burial choices were mostly limited to environmentally friendly uses for cremated ashes. Now there is a new option for a greener afterlife – natural organic reduction (NOR) – better known as composting.


If the idea of human composting brings to mind images of bug-filled waste piles behind a barn, or worse, scenes from a crime thriller, rest easy that natural organic reduction is a clean process. It is equally respectful of the deceased and the planet that sustained them in life. The chemistry of NOR is the same as all composting, and the proof of concept is agricultural (farms dispose of the bodies of large livestock through composting).

But NOR facilities compost human remains individually in hyperbaric oxygen chambers. These honeycomb-like cells (called “cradles”) control the temperature and oxygen level inside, slowly rotating a clean, efficient mixture of organic materials (including straw and wood chips) tested by the University of Washington. When composting is complete, the compost is screened to remove any nonorganic materials like dental fillings and pacemakers. The final result is indistinguishable from garden topsoil. Families can choose to collect the soil for their own use, but most choose to donate it. From funeral to garden, the entire process takes about six weeks.

Health and Safety

NOR composting takes place inside a controlled environment. So many of the problems that can be associated with composting – like odors or incomplete decomposition – are avoided. Under the authority of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Recompose’s permit requires air filters and no visible emissions or detectable odors from the facility. Independent review by a third party is required every three months.

Washington state requires the resulting soil to receive third-party testing for pathogens like fecal coliform and salmonella. It must be tested for heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury as well. The state also prohibits people with tuberculosis or prion infections from undergoing NOR.

The History

Katrina Spade was a graduate student in architecture 10 years ago when she began researching funerary options and found no practical, ecological alternatives. She wrote her master’s thesis on composting as an urban form of natural burial. But she didn’t give up on the idea after graduation. Instead, she worked with Western Carolina University and the University of Washington to produce feasibility studies. Then she helped push to change laws in Washington state to permit NOR. ESSB 5001 took effect on May 1, 2020, in Washington state, making it the first state in the U.S. to allow composting of human remains. Finally, in December of 2020, the first bodies were “laid in” at Recompose, Spade’s composting facility located in the suburbs of Seattle.

The Options

Recompose in Washington state, with 10 composting vessels, remains the largest active operation. They are currently only accepting prepaid clients through their “Precompose” plan. Herland Forest, a nonprofit natural burial cemetery in the Cascade mountains, has extremely limited capacity, with only a single composting cradle in operation. A third facility, Return Home, plans to begin operation in the Seattle area in April 2021. All three companies can accept bodies from out-of-state. But the carbon impact of transportation may significantly reduce the environmental benefit of composting relative to cremation.

Even with only three options available in the U.S., NOR pricing varies a lot. Ranging from $3,000 to $5,500, the three companies each offer somewhat different services. Herland, with its solar-powered cradle, may be the most ecological. They also have the lowest prices, but they cannot provide funeral services. Recompose has the highest price, but provides an all-inclusive service. As with cremated ashes, families can choose to collect the resulting soil. For those who do not, Herland can use the soil to plant a tree in their permaculture forest; Return Home offers to donate soil to “regional park departments, land trusts and the like for ecosystem restoration,” and Recompose donates soil to the ecological restoration project at Bells Mountain near Vancouver, Washington.

This variability is typical of the funeral industry. In King County, where both Recompose and Return Home are located, a 2020 price survey found cremation prices ranged from $525 to $4,165 while burial prices ranged from $1,390 to $11,100.

In February of this year, California introduced legislation to legalize NOR. As they decide whether to pass it, California, and the rest of the country, will be watching Washington’s NOR facilities closely. With their success, NOR could be normalized as a standard death care option for environmentally minded families within a few years.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying a conscious death

Your dead body might be bad for the environment


As a young and seemingly invincible college student, one presumably does not put much thought into their inevitable death. However, if you are eco-conscious, perhaps it is time to start planning ahead.

The need to preserve one’s lifeless beauty for just a little bit longer has grave consequences for the earth. When a person dies, it is common for their body to be pumped with an embalming fluid that contains a mixture of toxic chemicals in order to postpone their inevitable decomposition. They are then placed in a casket that is likely made up of inorganic hardwood, copper, bronze, and steel. Their toxic body encased in a casket of unsustainable materials will eventually be lowered into the ground in a concrete crypt.

Green burials are a sustainable alternative to this contemporary western burial method. They may also be called “natural burials,” and the process does not involve any inhibition of decomposition. Instead, the body in its natural state is placed into the soil so that it can be recycled into the earth and help to nourish the land, as most decomposing life does. The body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or casket and then buried shallow enough to decay in a way that is similar to composting.

Craig Benson, an environmental science and management lecturer, said that the funeral and cemetery industry already appears to be responding to increasing requests for green burials.

“I would like to see more conservation burial options like the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery near Gainesville, Florida,” Benson said. “This is where old restoration ecologists, like me, could make a last ditch effort– pun intended– at creating a contiguous savanna habitat and providing lots of underground munchies for the microfauna and microflora. Why have a feast at your funeral when you can be one!”

In the United States, cremation has recently become the most popular choice for those who pass away. While the ashes of our loved ones harbor sentimental value, this way of honoring the dead is unfortunately still harmful to the environment. Cremation leads to release of harmful toxins into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions.

When asked about the environmental impact of cremation, Jennifer Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, gave insight on the atmospheric consequences of the practice.

“I noticed that the Los Angeles Air Quality Board recently lifted the limits on cremations temporarily due to the number of COVID-19 deaths,” Kalt said. “I’ve read that cremation is a significant source of mercury pollution. Once it’s released into the atmosphere, it gets re-deposited by rain and fog. All that does make me wonder why people think cremation is a better option. My understanding of the green burial concept is that it prohibits embalming, but human bodies still have contaminants that we store up over lifetimes.”

There are a few local options for those who choose to give their body back to the earth. Cemeteries in Loleta, Fortuna, and Blue Lake all offer natural burial options. However, Blue Lake Cemetery is the only place that does not require the body to be contained in a concrete crypt.

Environmental conflict resolution lecturer Natalie Arroyo said that, in her personal opinion, green burials seem like a great end-of-life option for those who would like to practice sustainability even after they die. However, it is important to note that how humans deal with death is wholly intertwined with their cultural, religious, and personal values.

“I would say as a community member and lecturer who has read and heard a little bit about this, that green burials seem like an excellent alternative with environmental benefits,” Arroyo said. “But they may not fit with people’s religious and cultural values, and they may not suit every circumstance. For example, my own father died far away from home, and his body was cremated due to the low cost and need to transport the remains easily over a long distance.”

Complete Article HERE!

Green Burial Wants to Clean Up American Funerals

Natural burials can remind us that death and grief are natural, too.

The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan.

By Jake Maynard

Basil Eldadah assumed his father’s funeral would be simple. Years before, Basil’s father had taken steps to make the process easy on the family, purchasing plots and making arrangements. But in 2012, when his father died, Eldadah and his family discovered how complicated and impersonal the American funeral industry could be.

First, Eldadah learned that what his father had purchased was only the plot itself. Digging the grave, installing the concrete grave liner, and filling in the gravesite were not included. But the larger issue was that the cemetery required the use of a vault or burial liner: a concrete box that encases the coffin, keeping dirt from collapsing the casket. Eldadah’s family is Muslim, and it’s customary in Muslim traditions for a body to be placed directly in the soil. He described Muslim burial as “a process that reminds us of the humility of being from dust and returning to dust.” But most American cemeteries require concrete vaults or grave liners to prevent dirt settling at the gravesite—it makes the cemeteries easier to mow and eliminates the spooky depressions overtop graves—despite the fact that it is counter to the religious traditions of Muslims and some Jewish denominations. For Eldadah’s father, the best the family could do was to add some dirt to the inside of the vault.

>Later, as the grief began to lift, Eldadah questioned whether there was a more reverent, natural approach to burial. As an active member of his local Muslim community and as a researcher who studies aging, he knew that his experience wasn’t unique. “My father’s funeral really kind of planted the seed in my mind,” he told me. He eventually learned that there is a name for what he wanted: a green burial ground.

Green burial doesn’t have an official definition but generally refers to a range of cemetery practices that limit fossil fuel usage and the amount of human-made materials put into the ground. More broadly, the green burial movement wants to help people approach death with a more natural, and less commercial, outlook.

Green cemeteries substitute exotic hardwood caskets with renewable wood coffins or burial shrouds, and they don’t line graves with concrete. They shun mown lawns for native grasses and trees. Some green cemeteries mark graves with native stone or plant memorial trees; others don’t mark graves at all. They reject embalming as unnatural, unnecessary, and toxic. (Embalming chemicals contribute to high rates of cancer in mortuary workers.) Green cemeteries look more like nature preserves or parks than the orderly cemeteries we’re accustomed to.

The nonprofit Green Burial Council certifies cemeteries as green—it’s kind of like LEED building certification—and keeps tabs on the environmental impact of conventional burial. It says that each year American burials put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, 81,000 tons of metal, and 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground. Cremation, promoted by the death care industry as the greener alternative, uses the equivalent of around 20 gallons of gasoline per cremation and vaporizes heavy metals (from dental fillings and surgical implants) into the atmosphere. While cremation conserves physical space, green burial conserves energy.

Burial wasn’t always so complicated. Embalming only gained traction among wealthy Americans during the Civil War, which essentially started the modern funeral industry. (Abraham Lincoln was embalmed for his funeral train, and reembalmed at many stops, but onlookers thought he looked nasty.) Concrete grave liners came later, allowing for today’s flat, uniform suburban cemeteries.

Generally speaking, laws governing burial are complicated and vague. In most states you can bury a loved one on your own property, but local zoning ordinances often contradict the state laws. While no states legally require embalming or grave liners, the funeral industry has made them so standard that in some places, they’re essentially requirements. Neither practice has any public health benefit, but embalming stretches the possible time between death and funeral. Embalming is popular only in the U.S. and Canada; in the rest of the world, it’s actually quite rare. Funeral homes have normalized embalming because it saves on refrigerator space and because they can sell larger funeral packages.

After his father’s funeral, Eldadah let his idea percolate until he found the right partner, one who’d also been surprised by the cost of a funeral. In 2019, Eldadah’s friend Haroon Mokhtarzada, a successful tech entrepreneur, received a call asking him to help fund the burial of a local community member. He was glad to help, but the cost rattled him.

“I was thinking it was going to be a couple hundred bucks and it was several thousand dollars,” he said. “And I came to learn that the average burial in Maryland is $10,500.” The national average, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, is about $9,000. (This chart shows how complicated itemized funeral expenses can be.) Mokhtarzada said, of the funeral’s cost, “There’s something that bothered me about that to my core.”

He asked, “Why does a hole in the ground cost $10,000?” The same use of embalming fluid, concrete, and hardwood that make death so polluting also make it expensive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, funeral costs jumped 225 percent since 1986; GoFundMe hosted 125,000 memorial campaigns in 2020. Funeral poverty is an underreported crisis in America.

Eldadah had contacted Mokhtarzada previously about the project, but he was too busy to get involved. Seven years later, backed with his money and startup expertise, Mokhtarzada emailed Eldadah and said, “We’re going to make this thing happen.” Together, they set to work making metro D.C.’s first nonprofit green cemetery. If it works, it will be the most urban green cemetery in the U.S.

There are 82 cemeteries in America certified as green by the Green Burial Council (you can read about the certification standards here), but the movement has struggled to take hold near major cities due to the price of land. Pete McQuillin, who operates Penn Forest Natural Burial Ground near Pittsburgh, told me that it took him three years to find a property close to the city. In the nine years since Penn Forest opened, it has interred only 205 bodies. (Because people usually want to be buried next to their deceased loved ones, cemeteries are notoriously tough to get started.) But the number of burials is growing steadily every year, as does the execution of Penn Forest’s broader mission: It strives to be a multiuse park, hosting guided nature hikes, community roundtables on death, and a DIY coffin-making class.

Mokhtarzada and Eldadah have similar goals for their site, a woody, 40-acre plot in Silver Spring, Maryland, tucked between a concrete factory and a church. (The price? Almost $2 million.) When I first talked to them in July, they were excited to explain the project’s overarching goals. “We’ve started to envision a community-gathering place,” Mokhtarzada said. “Not just a creepy place where you only go to pay your respects and then you leave. But some place where people would want to spend quality time … a space where not only do the living serve the dead by providing simple, natural, and dignified burials, but also where the dead can fuel life.”

By December, they were feeling the weight of bureaucracy. In between fielding questions from their new neighbors about water quality and funeral traffic, the two men had poured $200,000 into the project before breaking ground. There were nonprofit lawyers, land-use lawyers, engineers, architects, permitting fees. And they were still struggling to come up with a name. Like burial, starting a cemetery was more complicated than anticipated.

While Mokhtarzada’s startup experience was helpful, he learned that the cemetery business is unique. “In a startup mode,” he said, “you just figure out as much as you need to figure out, you don’t figure out what this thing’s going to be in five and 10 years. But what I’ve found that was different in this creative process is we had to think decades into the future. We had to think in three dimensions in decades.”

To help with that part, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada hired architect Jack Goodnoe, who has designed some of America’s best-known green burial grounds. Goodnoe started designing conventional cemeteries in the 1980s and began working with green cemetery movement when the movement began in the late ’90s. While Goodnoe supports greening the death industry, he also thinks that green and conventional cemeteries need to learn from each other. The green burial movement has been led by charismatic industry outsiders—academics, environmentalists, spiritual types—with big ideas offset by a lack of knowledge about cemetery management. Goodnoe recommends that “when someone wants to start a green cemetery, they partner with a traditional cemetery that can bring all the legal, grief, record-keeping elements that they’ve learned from decades in the industry.”

Eldadah and Mokhtarzada don’t plan to work with a traditional cemetery, but they have implemented some conventional cemetery practices at Goodnoe’s recommendation. For example, some green cemeteries let people choose their own burial site anywhere on the property, which Goodnoe worries could lead to record-keeping issues for future cemetery managers. At their site, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada have taken Goodnoe’s advice of burying in one area at a time and evenly spacing gravesites like a conventional cemetery might.

They hope to open for burials in 2021 and have already generated some interest among the local Muslim community. But in order to fulfill their inclusive mission, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada will have to expand beyond green burial’s usual demographic. Hannah Rumble, an anthropologist who studies burial in the U.K., told me that green burial has been “quite a middle-class aesthetic and cultural practice,” and hasn’t yet become popular among the working-class people who could most benefit from lower burial prices (often less than half the price of conventional burial) and less upkeep responsibility. But traditions change slowly, she says, and as the last rite of passage, burial traditions are usually some of the last to change.

On a more spiritual level, Rumble has observed the way that green burial has influenced the grieving process of people she’s interviewed. She says, “The bereaved like to go over time to watch the trees grow, to watch the site developed to maturity, to watch the plants bed in. It’s interesting how their own emotional journey with grief has changed and how they see it reflected in the development of the natural burial ground. … And so now their visits are more about just going and enjoying the bird songs, seeing how the site’s developed, seeing what initiatives are going on. It becomes a kind of community, a community of practice.”

This sentiment is ultimately how the green burial movement overlaps their ecological and spiritual goals. Conventional cemeteries, with their permanent headstones and concrete grave liners, encourage us to think that even in death, we’ll last forever. What natural burial offers is the reminder that death and grief are like all natural processes: They change and evolve, grow and decay. Like Rumble says, “I think what’s really powerful about that ecological metaphor is it’s fairly timeless. And it’s one that, irrespective of your faith, people can relate to.”

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The Newly Legal Process for Turning Human Corpses to Soil

Reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinders, packed with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa, present an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial

By Corinne Purtill

There’s an empty warehouse 20 miles south of Seattle that, if everything goes as planned, will soon be full of dead people.

The facility belongs to Recompose, the first U.S. company to compost human bodies indoors, through a process known officially as natural organic reduction. Washington state became the first — and so far, only — U.S. state to legalize the practice in May 2019. Recompose opens in November. It’s designed to hold the bodies of up to 10 recently deceased people at a time, each of them quietly decomposing into a loamy, nutritious soil, just as their previous owners wanted.

At the most basic level, decomposition is not a new technology; microbes have been doing it extremely well for just about as long as organic matter has existed. But it’s a part of death that Western funeral practices have traditionally gone to great lengths to evade: Embalming a corpse in chemicals with the goal of preserving a “natural” (that is, not dead) look; hawking expensive caskets that claim to seal out nature’s corrupting forces.

Recompose takes the opposite approach.

Against an attractive millennial pink background, the company’s website plainly explains the eco-friendly setting in which clients will decay. Instead of in a single-use casket, bodies rest temporarily in a reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinder, packed snugly in a cocoon of wood chips, straw, and alfalfa. For 30 days the dead human and living microbes stay in the vessel together, lying alongside fellow Recomposers in the warehouse’s hexagonal wooden frame, while the microorganisms slowly break down the corpse. At the end, after a brief turn in a curing bin to cool and dry out excess moisture, what once was a human body is now about a cubic yard of fertile, nutrient-rich soil, which can be returned to loved ones or scattered according to the decedent’ wishes. (The company will deliver all or part of the soil free of charge to Bells Mountain, a protected wilderness in southern Washington.) The service costs $5,500 — more than a typical cremation and service costs in the U.S., but about half the cost of burial. Some 275 people have already signed up for the service since reservations opened a month ago, said customer and communications manager Anna Swenson.

“There are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality.”

Why hack death? Cremation releases more than 500,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually in the U.S. alone, along with significant levels of mercury emissions. Traditional burial shoves truckfuls worth of metal, concrete, wood, and formaldehyde beneath the ground each year. Cities around the world are running out of traditional cemetery space, and preserving any unmolested open space is hard, even if you’re not trying to get permission to plant corpses in it. Human composting and its kindred green death technologies distill the body from a large, unwieldy, decomposition-prone state to one that is smaller, shelf-stable, and portable, with negligible environmental cost along the way.

There are existential reasons as well. As a pandemic rages and wildfires burn and a general feeling of doom pervades the air, “there are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality,” said Jeff Jorgenson, who owns green funeral homes in Seattle and Los Angeles.

“We look at what we’re doing and how disconnected we are from the earth and realizing that we’ve created this mess. We’ve allowed this to happen. And I think that informs decisions and perspectives on death.”

Recompose founder and CEO Katrina Spade was raised in a family of doctors “where it was fairly normal to talk about death and dying at the dinner table,” as she explained in a 2016 TED Talk. That frank approach to life and its end followed her to architecture school, where she became fascinated by a particular design question: How to dispose of her own physical body when she was no longer living in it, without — as she put it — “destroy[ing] the possibility of giving back after we die.”

She admired the example of green cemeteries, where nonembalmed bodies are wrapped in biodegradable materials and buried in a grave about three or four feet deep in which, over the course of about two years, tissues decompose into matter that nourishes the surrounding soil. (Bones can take up to 20 years more to fully disintegrate, according to the Green Burial Council.)

Green cemeteries are lovely places, with trees and plants growing freely without the austere manicuring of a traditional cemetery. There just aren’t very many of them. Only a few hundred of the thousands of cemeteries in the U.S. offer any green burial option, including many Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, whose burial practices traditionally forgo embalming and nonbiodegradable caskets. With composting, the body can go through the same process as it would beneath the soil of a green cemetery, even if there’s no open space for miles.

There’s also the question of one’s final resting place. A body placed in a green cemetery becomes, effectively, a part of that particular expanse of earth. One of the benefits of cremation is that the deceased or their survivors can dispose of the resulting “ashes” however they see fit: scattered in a meaningful spot, divided amongst children, even shot out of a cannon if that feels most appropriate.

Wouldn’t it be nice, Spade thought, to rot closer to home, to turn back into something that feeds the earth instead of takes from it, and to have a say in where the soil made from you goes?

Agriculture has been using natural organic reduction for decades to dispose of dead cows and other livestock on farms. For her master’s thesis in architecture, Spade laid out the idea for a facility where humans could be composted this way, indoors, in a setting that would be both dignified and sanitary.

Upon graduation, she began in earnest to make the business a reality. In 2018 she partnered with the Washington State University Soil Science Department for a study using six donor bodies to confirm that soil produced from human composting would be pathogen-free. The heat produced by the composting process kills almost all pathogens; the only people who will not be eligible for composting at Recompose are those who die with prion conditions, like Creutzfeldt–Jakob (“mad cow”) disease, as the proteins that cause those conditions can remain toxic in soil for years.

Recompose’s vessel is not the only relatively new advance in the disposal of human corpses. The law that made Washington the first (and so far only) state in the U.S. to legalize human composting also explicitly legalized alkaline hydrolysis, also known as chemical cremation.

The novelty of Recompose got more attention, as alkaline hydrolysis was already legal in more than a dozen U.S. states. But because the technology fits so easily into existing crematoriums, chemical cremation, which was also originally developed to dispose of dead cattle, may be the more accessible option at the moment for people without access to a green cemetery or reduction facility.

More than half of the people who die in the U.S. each year are cremated, a process that emits more than 500 estimated pounds of carbon dioxide per body. In alkaline hydrolysis, a body is placed inside a vessel containing a solution of water and the caustic base potassium hydroxide that’s then heated and pressurized. Over about three hours, the pressurized liquid dissolves the body’s soft tissues as fire does in a traditional crematorium. Because there’s no combustion, there are also no greenhouse gas emissions.

The end result of both processes is the same: Bones that are then pulverized into what are typically referred to as the “ashes” of the deceased. Traditional cremains are the color of gray sand. The remains of a chemically cremated body are the pure white of seashells.

Green death tech also expands to engineered materials that line coffins and wrap corpses, and that sell themselves as accelerating the conversion of the former, resource-consuming you into matter that feeds other life forms, the ideological opposite of traditional burial marketing.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way.”

These include the offerings of designer Jae Rhim Lee’s company Coeio, which sells burial garments laced with a mixture of mushrooms and other organic matter that claim to speed decomposition and break down the toxic compounds the body releases. (According to his wishes, actor Luke Perry was buried in one after his 2019 death from a stroke at age 52.) The Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel created Capsula Mundi, a biodegradable, egg-shaped urn whose creators say should be buried in the ground, with a tree as a grave marker.

New technologies for disposing of bodies allow new ways of mourning the dead. Even before Covid-19 disrupted the ability to gather in mourning, it was a challenge to convene dispersed loved ones and choose a specific place to lay to rest a person who lived their life in multiple cities or countries. The share of people who identify with organized religion has fallen. Secular services that fill the need for mourning rituals have grown in their place.

Recompose is also a funeral home, and eventually, the business hopes to move to a facility large enough to allow for memorial services where loved ones can participate in the process of placing the body in the vessel. The company also plans to offer franchising opportunities in a few years. While patents are pending on the specific design of their vessels, composting itself is not a proprietary idea. In the future, rather than calling the church to organize a service, one may call the closest organic reduction facility.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way,” said Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association, a Seattle-based nonprofit cooperative funeral home. Over the last six months, there’s been a jump in calls to the organization from people contemplating their mortality while riding out the pandemic at home. They want options, she said, so that “your last act on earth isn’t polluting it.”

The way we dispose of bodies says more about how we live. Embalming became popular in the Civil War, the first episode in U.S. history where people died en masse far from their homes and needed to be transported for burial. Cremation rates rose as the country became more mobile, and scattered families could not be convened fast enough for a burial. Today, more people seek options that don’t contribute to the environmental destruction we see around us, that allows our earthly remains to be shared by the people we loved or disposed of altogether. To embrace our final obligation, which is to return to the earth the substance that let us be ourselves.

Complete Article HERE!