The misunderstood funeral tech that’s illegal in 30 states

From mafia propaganda to moral outcry, what’s stopping us from embracing water cremation technology?

By Steph Panecasio

When you die, your body is going to decompose.

It starts from the moment you pass. Your organs begin to shut down. Hair stops growing, skin recedes. Some parts of the body take longer than others, but eventually, as with all things, it all starts to break down.

If you opt for a traditional burial, your remains will spend years nestled within a casket underground, progressing into a deeper state of decomposition. If you opt for a traditional flame-based cremation, you eliminate any further decomposition by burning it to a halt.

But there’s also another alternative — one designed to accelerate the decomposition process through the medium of water. It’s known as alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation. One part spa, one part chemical blend, a few hours of a swirling soak, and your earthly remains are no longer.

“It’s basic chemistry,” explains Anas Ghadouani, leader of the research group Aquatic Ecology and Ecosystem Studies. “You have organic matter and you add a base to it and it just decomposes. You can write the equation to it. It’s very simple.”

Despite this, alkaline hydrolysis remains one of the most divisive and misunderstood practices in contemporary funeral technology.

The machine

Alkaline hydrolysis is a form of cremation that uses water and chemicals to break down the human body to its bare minimum. Salts, amino acids, peptides. Like flame-based cremation, it produces ash that can be taken home. Unlike flame-based cremation, it’s illegal for use on human bodies in almost 30 states in America.

The concept itself isn’t new. Amos Herbert Hobson of Middlesex, England, patented the first alkaline hydrolysis machine all the way back in 1888. He used it to dispose of animal carcasses.

In the century and a half since, the technology has evolved, and it has the potential to shake up the death industry. 

The process is straightforward. Bodies are placed in a machine containing a chemical mixture of water and alkali. The mixture is then heated and cycled. Over the course of hours, the body is accelerated through its natural decomposition process, resulting in a residual liquid made up of amino acids, peptides, salt, soap and bones — the last of which is broken down into white ash.

Joseph Wilson, now founder and CEO of leading alkaline hydrolysis manufacturer Bio-Response Solutions, helped design the first commercial-use human alkaline hydrolysis unit in 2005.

“I was stunned that there was a way to dispose of tissue without burning,” said Wilson. “You don’t have any external pumps or tanks or chemicals. It’s all there at the machine.”

There are undeniable benefits to this process. In 2011, a study from the University of Groningen compared conventional burial, cremation, alkaline hydrolysis and cryomation and found that alkaline hydrolysis had the lowest overall environmental footprint.

The low temperature also means pacemakers and joint replacements can remain inside the body. In flame-based cremation, these are extracted to prevent a reaction — pacemakers, especially, are incredibly volatile when subjected to extreme heat.

Yet despite the fact that flame-based cremation subjects the remains to intense fire, alkaline hydrolysis is seen as the more graphic option for potential funerals, when both are just as valid. Legal roadblocks and cultural concerns have plagued water cremation since its inception.

And there’s a simple reason for that: Alkaline hydrolysis has a reputation shaped by years of misrepresentation. Nobody wants to feel like they’re disrespecting their loved ones.

Media, morals and the mafia

Most people’s first experience of alkaline hydrolysis is through popular culture.

In the second episode of Breaking Bad, audiences sees drug dealer Jesse Pinkman dissolve a dead body in his apartment’s bathtub using hydrofluoric acid he’d sourced from his high school’s chemical stores. He returns the next day only to find the acid had eaten through the bathtub itself and floorboards beneath, before finally falling through to the floor below.

Despite the effective cinematics, Breaking Bad is far from realistic. Hydrofluoric acid, while highly corrosive, doesn’t have the capacity to completely liquefy remains overnight — it’s at the wrong end of the pH scale. It certainly doesn’t have the capacity to eat through a bath and the floor.

Even if it could, the science doesn’t check out — Mythbusters proved it.

Whether it’s a question of gulping down Soylent Green or shunting bodies into acid barrels, television and film haven’t been kind to the practice of alkaline hydrolysis.

Outside of television, urban legends have tarred alkaline hydrolysis with further negativity. In 2011, researchers had to debunk claims the Sicilian mafia disposed of human remains in a process called lupara bianca, or white shotgun. Just like in Breaking Bad, the mafia supposedly used acid — an entirely different, cruder chemical process.

Mafia urban legends and shows like Breaking Bad create a sense of violence surrounding water cremation that simply doesn’t hold up. Water cremation, at its core, is no more than the acceleration of a natural process.

The reality: As with almost all aspects of the death industry, there is a level of respect and dignity. You don’t see what happens in the retort of a flame-based cremator, but you won’t see what happens inside an alkaline hydrolysis machine either.

Waste not

What remains to be dealt with, however, is what comes out the other side. Ashes are one thing — you can pop them on the mantle in a decorative urn, sprinkle them at sea or even have them launched into space — but what about the residual liquid?

One of the biggest roadblocks to the acceptance of alkaline hydrolysis technology is the issue of wastewater. Because of its association with death, the liquid is perceived as too unsanitary to be processed normally. Say it goes through the same recycling plants that supply residential areas, the idea of drinking the essence of a dead body sounds abhorrent. It’s hard enough swallowing the idea of recycled sewage water. Remains? Inconceivable.

But technology already exists to tackle almost any kind of wastewater.

Sewage water is filtered for reuse in municipal treatment plants. Organic material is broken down in anaerobic digesters, which convert the material into methane or “biogas.” Specially designed ultrafiltration systems can even tackle aqueous nuclear waste.

“Any liquid waste that we have, we can deal with,” says Ghadouani.

Yet in Australia, residual liquid from water cremation isn’t permitted to be treated via the municipal water treatment facilities or digesters. More worryingly, there’s a disconnect here — and it’s one that, for the most part, is behind the closed doors of the funeral industry.

“One of the most common things the public doesn’t know,” says leading US thanatologist and death educator Cole Imperi, “is that when someone is embalmed, all the blood that comes out of your body, where does that go? It goes down the drain.”

In fact, almost all the human waste that comes from hospitals and funeral homes as a result of the embalming process is permitted to be processed through these official channels.

“So if you’re allowing byproducts from funeral homes to go into the municipal water system for treatment, why are you discriminating against one particular disposition method?” Imperi asks. “It’s an interesting kind of cognitive dissonance.”

Thanatologist Cole Imperi beside one of Bio-Response Solutions’ alkaline hydrolysis machines.

Nevertheless, in the few states that allow alkaline hydrolysis — for animals — practicing venues must provide their own wastewater filtration treatments and submit them for regular testing. It’s expensive and demanding. Venues are scarce.

Jonathan Hopkins, owner and operator of Resting Pets Cremations in New South Wales, Australia, is an alkaline hydrolysis advocate. He and his late wife opened their practice after the pain of a family pet’s death opened their eyes to the process as a cremation alternative. 

“My wife was always an animal lover and she just had a really bad experience with the [cremation] company that was serving this area,” he said. “So we approached the local council for a pet cremation system.” They landed on alkaline hydrolysis.

To ensure the wastewater passed council and environmental regulations, Hopkins created his own treatment system. He began by increasing the machine’s existing filtration capacity, with any overflow going into a separate tank. Here, microorganisms remove any remaining bacteria — much like a septic system.

“With our system, they can see what chemicals are going in, and they can see the effluent coming out. They can test it, they know where it’s going,” he said.

Reframing the narrative

Some will always struggle with the concept of alkaline hydrolysis. Certain cultures or religions might always register a stronger connection to conventional burial and cremation methods.

But our human instinct to process death isn’t incompatible with water cremation. We could use residual liquid from the hydrolysis process to help nurture the earth. A gardener, for example, could live on in the plants and flowers they once nurtured.

Conceptually, it’s not out of the question. “If the liquid waste stream were to be applied to soil as a fertilizer, there could be a role for this as a soil improver.” explains Michael Short, a senior research fellow of the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia.

On a larger scale, this could even benefit the wider agricultural industry.

“The wastewater stream [would be] a relatively high strength organic waste solution,” Short says. “Soils in some Australian regions are generally low in natural organic matter, so adding organics from such waste streams could help to improve overall soil quality and soil carbon stocks.”

It may sound strange on first pass, but why not? If it gives someone peace of mind that our loved ones will “live on,” the transmutation of alkaline hydrolysis liquid to fertilizer may just be the PR dream the technology has been waiting for.

Alkaline hydrolysis may not be accepted anytime soon. It may take years of building up a more positive association. Maybe even decades.

It all comes down to whether states and countries are willing to test the waters.

Complete Article HERE!

Death of the funeral

Trends in commemorating those who die are shifting away from tradition. And, as the population ages and times change, the City of Kamloops is looking at how to manage the dead


A statue of Jesus stands among the remains of loved ones in a mausoleum at the city’s Hillside Cemetery. Funerals with large gatherings are on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jessica Wallace

Dead are the days of traditional casket burials for all.

These days, a dying man’s wish may be to grow into a tree, while another may choose to be buried in a certified eco-friendly cemetery.

Last spring, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to legalize human composting.

Funerals — once a place for obligatory tears and dark clothing — are today often substituted with a “celebration of life,” complete with funny stories and laughter.

Trends in dying are shifting away from tradition. And, as the population ages and times are changing, the City of Kamloops is looking at how to manage the dead, with an update to its Cemetery Master Plan.

The plan focuses on the city’s primary cemetery, Hillside Cemetery on Notre Dame Drive.

City civic operations director Jen Fretz said the plan will address current trends as traditional casket burial declines in popularity.

More common these days is cremation, Fretz said, noting the plan will look at demand for increased mausoleum space at Hillside Cemetery. The current mausoleums, she said, are “fully subscribed.”

Schoening Funeral Service manager Sara Lawson lauded the city’s planning, telling KTW the industry is rapidly changing.

She said some people may be surprised to know that in British Columbia, 85 per cent of people are cremated after death, with 15 per cent buried in a casket.

In Kamloops, that number is slightly lower, at 80 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

The overall trend, however, is a rise in cremation. Lawson believes that is happening for multiple reasons, primarily a new generation and loss of tradition.

“Newer generations aren’t attending church as much as grandma and grandpa,” Lawson said. “Back in the day, that’s what you did. You had a casket burial. You had service at the church.”

Another reason cremation is increasingly popular is due to urgency for gathering that comes with casket burial and desire for options. For example, if a family cannot unite in one place for some time until after a loved one’s death, cremation might make more sense. Perhaps everyone wants to meet in a place that was meaningful to the deceased.

“It happens more and more where there is a bit of a delay for the service,” Lawson said.

In addition to mausoleum space, the city will explore trends in green burials.

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

Green burial requires non-toxic and biodegradable materials.

Lawson said only one cemetery in B.C. is certified to meet green burial standards — Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, which opened in 2008.

According to its website, Royal Oak is the first urban green burial site in the country, where it “returns human remains to the earth in a simple state permitting decomposition to occur naturally and so contribute to new life in a forest setting.”

Green burial prepares the body without embalming.

The body is buried in a biodegradable shroud, simple container or casket made from natural fibre, wicker or sustainably harvested wood.

Lawson said the difference between regular cemeteries, such as Hillside, and a green cemetery is the grave liner. While most cemeteries have grave liners made of concrete, wood or fibreglass, green cemeteries use dirt as a way to return remains to the elements as quickly as possible.

Schoening does offer green options, but there is no green burial site in the B.C. Interior. Green burials are not yet a common request, Lawson said, but she expects it will become more in demand in the next five to 10 years.

The city will also explore the potential for a scattering garden, which is a place to scatter ashes. Lawson said scattering gardens may look like flower gardens, wherein ashes can be scattered for a fee.

Compared to scattering someone’s ashes in a backyard or elsewhere in nature, cemeteries are permanent — meaning loved ones won’t return to that special location one day to find a development in its place, a rose garden dead or a tree chopped down.

“Cemeteries stay the same,” Lawson said. “The record must remain forever.”

Updates to the Cemetery Master Plan are expected by the fall.

With need for expansion of the cemetery, rates may also be on the rise.

The city said its fees are between 20 to 25 per cent lower than similar-sized communities and the goal is to recover operating costs with revenue collected.

MODIFYING THE MEMORIAL

While funeral servcies undergo a transition, a Kamloops pastor has noticed memorials are also changing.

Rev. Steve Filyk, a minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, said newspaper obituaries increasingly state “no funeral by request.”

He suspects it is due to the taboo nature of death. As a culture, he said, people don’t want to acknowledge death, as it is finite.

“Perpetual youth is sort of what the focus of our culture is, right? In that way, I don’t know how well prepared we are to face it — to face the loss of loved ones or face our own death,” he said.

Filyk said he worries about the psychological impact of not marking someone’s death.

“I think to set apart and designate a time, not just for yourself but for everyone, where the world will stop for a few moments. It’s about that,” Filyk said.

“A moment of silence at Remembrance Day, where the world just stops to acknowledge that this person was special. They had warts and foibles, but they were special to a bunch of people and had an impact and that their loss is felt. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Of memorials that do occur, Filyk said they rarely involve a casket and often involve photo slideshows in an increasingly media-driven, photo-centric society.

In addition, Filyk said he has noticed memorials are getting longer and are often called celebrations of life.

Regardless of whether people follow a faith tradition, Filyk said it is important to acknowledge wisdom from centuries past.

Memorials can be secular or religious, he said, noting there are unique ways to honour someone. with the better memorials providing opportunities to share stories.

“Any story often reveals something interesting about who they were and I think there’s something about telling those stories that somehow helps us heal,” Filyk said.

“Maybe because we’re all together having that similar focus.”

Complete Article HERE!

“Mushroom Burial Suit” Called Into Question

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You may remember the “mushroom burial suit,” the alternative-burial product that promises a gentle return to the earth as your body becomes compost and nourishes a thriving colony of fungi. Sold as an eco-friendly burial option, the Infinity Burial Suit claimed to cleanse the body of toxins, return nutrients to the soil, and support plant growth around the body. Now critics question the accuracy of the suit’s claims.

Mushroom burial suit goes viral

The Infinity Suit took the green burial world by storm in 2011. A TED talk by suit co-creator and artist Jae Rhim Lee went viral with over a million online views. Lee presented a compelling case that our modern, chemical-laden bodies need extra detox before burial. Her suit claims to go beyond natural burial to actually remove and neutralize toxins from the body.

The hype reached a peak when news broke that 90210 star Luke Perry had chosen the mushroom suit as his preferred burial option before his sudden death in early 2019. In a highly publicized Instagram post, the actor’s daughter called the suit “genius.”

The suit relies on a “biomix of mushroom mycelium and other micro-organisms” to speed decomposition, neutralize toxins, and return the body to nature. Most notably, it’s use of mushrooms imagery implied that a colony of fungi will grow out of the shrouded corpse.

From movement to industry

As an art project meant to promote a “radical acceptance of death” with a compelling visual symbol of our return to the soil, the Infinity Suit clearly strikes a chord. Its arresting symbolism can doubtlessly inspire difficult conversations. Ultimately, though, the product doesn’t live up to its claims as a practical burial option. It turns out the purported benefits of the Infinity Suit differ little from the regular decomposition of an unembalmed body. 

Dr. Billy Campbell, co-founder of the first conservation burial ground in the United States, addresses the mushroom suit in a blog post. He explains that organisms like soil bacteria, insects, and nematodes all take part in decomposition much earlier than fungi do. To him, the complex biology of decomposition and mushroom ecology makes it difficult to design a better system than nature already has.

While our modern bodies contain sometimes alarming levels of heavy metals and toxins, these amounts prove inconsequential to surrounding soil. Contamination can take place when toxic sludge or pesticides get dumped in the same location repeatedly. However, there’s little danger of any substantial pollution from buried human remains. 

Lee’s other claim—that the Infinity Suit speeds decomposition—also falls flat upon closer examination:

“Faster decomposition means that carbon leaves the body and returns to the atmosphere as CO2 more quickly … nutrients such as nitrogen are released more rapidly. What if they are released at a speed faster than surrounding plants can actually take them up? Then they make their way into waterways and cause algae blooms just as fertilizer pollution does.”

From movement to industry

Critics also argue it falls into the same trap as the traditional funeral industry. They believe Infinity is selling “a solution to an invented problem” that has simpler, cheaper (if less visually striking) answers. In a piece for AlterNet, authors Sarah and Tim Crews call the suit’s claims “wildly misleading.” They also accuse the budding “green burial” industry of manipulating customers to buy unnecessary products.

As with any trend, the popularity of “green burial” will bring out products of varying quality. It’s inevitable as eager entrepreneurs mine a lucrative new market. As a generation of eco-conscious baby boomers ages and young people embrace “death positivity,” interest in alternative burial options will continue to grow.

In an industry not overly familiar with change, the public demand for alternative burial and memorial options has left providers scrambling to provide their customers with new choices. In 2019, the Green Burial Council recognized 72 cemeteries certified for natural burial, up from only 36 in 2012. Hundreds of cemeteries and funeral homes already offer a variety of environmentally friendly options. These include wicker caskets, shrouds, and eco-friendly urns.

Let the earth do the work

Creative, personalized memorials and innovative burial techniques can help us make peace with dying. They also can help us develop modern mourning rituals, and reduce the carbon footprint of burial. At its core, natural burial is simple and economical. The key is to keep humans out of the way (when they, for example, wan to enclose a grave in a concrete vault). The earth’s self-regulating mechanisms can do quick work of decomposition, needing no specialized equipment.

Supporters of the green burial movement value simplicity, affordability, and sustainability. Therefore, they must turn a critical eye to the upsurge of commercial interests like the Infinity Suit. These threaten to undermine their ethics and co-opt the movement with misleading claims.

Complete Article HERE!

The Emotional Wallop of My Friend’s Green Burial

What I learned about the realities of this new, but old, practice

By Janet Siroto

My friend Carla saw almost everything in life as a creative challenge — a moment to brainstorm and make a statement.

If there was a potluck brunch, no way was she picking up a dozen bagels. Instead, she’d find a recipe for pear-ginger coffee cake, go buy some fresh yeast and get baking.

Any home-improvement project triggered a deep dive into materials, colors and a discussion of what kind of light bulb would cast the right glow.

So when she was telling me about some fabric she’d found — “It’s moss green velvet and looks like the forest floor in a fairytale,” Carla said — the enthusiasm was familiar, but the circumstances very surprising.

Carla had heard about the concept of a green burial and had gone all in. Even though she was in her 60s and in good health, the idea spoke to her; her love of nature, her love of doing things a little bit more individualistically. The fabric she was describing would be her burial shroud.

Getting Back to Basics

A green burial is an “everything old is new again” practice: After death, no chemicals are used to preserve the body. No heavily shellacked coffin is placed in the earth. Rather, one’s burial is done as naturally as possible so the body can return to and nourish the very earth beneath our feet. Everything that goes into the soil must be biodegradable — and the velvet Carla found fit that bill.

This closer-to-nature concept is in sync with society’s growing concern for the planet. Before the advent of the modern burial, when loved ones died, their bodies were wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground. But by the time we reached the early- to mid-1900s, a very different, non-eco-friendly tradition had taken over.

According to Scientific American, “funerals [in the U.S.] are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”

About 50 years ago, our collective consciousness and conscience about burial began to change. “American sensibilities about environment shifted, with Rachel Carson in the ’60s and the launch of Earth Day and the formation of the EPA in 1970,” says David Charles Sloane, an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California and author of Is the Cemetery Dead? “We’ve become a much more aware society about environmental impact.

That awareness enveloped end of life, and the idea of a good death and green burial began to be entwined and gain interest. Last year, a study found that 54% of Americans were actively considering this option, and 72% of cemeteries reported an increased demand (many are responding with green zones on their premises).

Another reason why green burials are catching on: the lower price. Joyce Foley, who owns Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, Maine, where Carla chose her plot, says green burials typically cost $3,000 at the very most, versus $5,000 and up for traditional burials.

Being There: At a Green Burial

But no matter how much one may read about green burial in principle or how many statistics one might absorb, little can prepare you for the actual experience. So, back to my friend Carla.

Picking the green velvet was just one facet of her creative expression. She also hunted for a natural headstone. Many green cemeteries offer local stones, but Carla wanted something special — and somewhere, somehow found a petrified tree stump that could be engraved with her name and the dates of her life when the time came. (Foley, the burial ground’s director, approved of the choice given how well it harmonized with nature.) Because the stump was so heavy, it stayed in the back of Carla’s car for at least a year, as she researched who could engrave it.

As blithe as Carla seemed about the prospect of her green burial, things took a serious turn a few years later. Her increasing fatigue led to tests, more tests, and a diagnosis of a rare blood cancer. A bone-marrow “perfect match” was found, but alas, after the procedure, graft versus host disease destroyed the hope of recovery. In her final days, Carla would say, “I hope you’ll come picnic by my spot in Maine. I’ll be helping the trees grow. The cycle of life.”

Just shy of her 70th birthday, she died in a hospice not far from her home in Cambridge, Mass., and plans were quickly made for her burial. My family — myself, my husband and our two college-age sons — joined about 10 other dear friends that day. We drove into, and then walked across, what looked very much like every nature preserve I’d ever visited. Trees everywhere. Quiet. Bird song. Rustling leaves. A gray-blue winter sky.

There were none of the manicured lawns and stately tombstones in regimented rows as you’d see at most cemeteries. We assembled at the gravesite, which had been hand-dug prior to our arrival, and barely noticed the other plots nearby, so subtle were the markers. A bunch of dried flowers or perhaps a small pile of stones revealed them to us.

The bottom of Carla’s grave had been covered with boughs to make it a soft resting place. A hearse pulled up and the driver asked my husband, sons and a couple of other men to assist. And then came the shock of seeing a plain wood board pulled from the back of the long car with my friend’s shrouded body on top of it.

I may have gasped a bit, as this was so unexpected and so far from the “avert your eyes” nature of death and burial I had grown up knowing. For a moment, I felt like a child recoiling from a scary movie.

My friend’s shrouded dead body was right there in front of all of us. We could see Carla’s silhouette — her long, slender body; her aquiline nose. There was no coffin to shield us from the truth that her incandescent spirit had left this world and only her remains were now here. It was quite an emotional wallop.

How often are any of us in the presence of a corpse, let alone one about to be put into the soil? How often do we have this kind of unmediated, unmedicalized contact with someone who has departed this realm?

Before Carla was lowered into the ground, a few of us placed a hand on the contour of her shoulder (yes, you could make it out) and said our goodbyes. The board with her body was then lowered via straps into the grave by the men in the group. Some people tossed in loose flowers. Carla’s friend Louie had brought his guitar and sang her favorite song, “Here Comes the Sun.”

Carla’s daughter said, “This is exactly what she wanted. It’s all so beautiful.”

The Simple Truth

It’s been a couple of years since that day, and I have visited only once, when I was heading to Maine for a wedding. I spent a bit of time by Carla’s gravesite and that stump tombstone and thought about the gift of her friendship and how much I wished she were still here.

The green burial was one of the gifts of her friendship. She showed those closest to her a path of possibility, different from the mainstream.

My family and I still talk about the raw beauty of the burial, of how we felt so close to Carla and so intimately involved with her transition to whatever may be ahead. My husband and sons still talk about the visceral experience of transporting and then lowering her body — feeling its weight — so Carla could become one with the earth and “feed a tree,” as she said.

It was a jarring experience in the moment, to be sure — but one I will always remember. It connected me to Carla at the end of our time together and also to the most elemental way of saying goodbye to the dead, as our ancestors had done for generations. It brought a simplicity and meaning to one of life’s hardest passages.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Be Eco-Friendly When You’re Dead

Standard burial and cremation take tons of energy and resources. So what’s the most environmentally sound way to deal with a dead person?

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When Phil Olson was 20, he earned money in the family business by draining the blood from corpses. Using a long metal instrument, he sucked the fluid out of the organs, and pumped the empty space and the arteries full of three gallons of toxic embalming fluid. This process drains the corpse of nutrients and prevents it from being eaten by bacteria, at least until it’s put into the ground. Feebly encased in a few pounds of metal and wood, it wasn’t long until all the fluid and guts just leaked back out.

Most of the bodies Olson prepared in his family’s funeral home would then be buried in traditional cemeteries, below a lawn of grass that must be mowed, watered, sprayed with pesticides, and used for nothing else, theoretically until the end of time.

Cemeteries “are kind of like landfills for dead bodies,” says Olson. Today, as a philosopher at Virginia Tech, his work looks at the alternatives to traditional funeral practices. He has a lot to think about: The environmentally friendly funeral industry is booming, as people begin to consider the impacts their bodies might have once they’re dead. Each year, a million pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are put in the ground to shield dead bodies from the dirt that surrounds them. A single cremation requires about two SUV tanks worth of fuel. As people become increasingly concerned with the environment, many of them are starting to seek out ways to minimize the impact their body has once they’re done using it.

There all kinds of green practices and products available these days on the so-called “death care” market. So many, in fact, that in 2005 Joe Sehee founded the Green Burial Council—a non-profit that keeps tabs on the green funeral industry, offering certifications for products and cemeteries. Sehee saw a need to prevent meaningless greenwashing in the green burial world. “It is a social movement. It’s also a business opportunity,” he said. So what’s the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body? It all depends on your preferences.

For those who still want to be be buried, a greener approach may include switching out the standard embalming fluids made of a combination of formaldehyde and rubbing alcohol, with ones made of essential oils. And instead of a heavy wood and metal box that will take years to degrade and leave behind toxic residue, there are now Green Burial Council-certified biodegradable cedar caskets.

Others are choosing to forgo the casket completely and opt for what’s called a “natural burial,” involving only a burlap sack buried in the woods. If you don’t have a forest handy, in some cities bodies may soon be placed in an industrial sized compost bin, and turned over to create fertile soil.

That’s the idea behind the Urban Death Project, which envisions a three-story downtown cemetery for bodies: a stylized pit of sorts, filled with carbon-rich material. Microbes decompose the bodies into a compost. It is a green practice, but not simply a utilitarian one: Urban Death Project bills itself as “a space for contemplation of our place in the natural world.” Bodies are “folded back into the communities where they have lived,” the website explains.

For those who might have opted for cremation rather than burial, there are green alternatives to that as well. Currently on the market is a method called “green cremation” that uses a pressurized metal chamber and bath of chemicals. The technique started out as a way to dispose of lab animals at Albany Medical College, and it is now legal for use on humans in just eight states.

In this method, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, bodies are dissolved into a liquid that is safe to flush into the sewage system. Overall, the process uses 90 percent less energy than traditional cremation—though it will skyrocket a funeral home’s water bills. “It uses a ton, a ton, of water,” says Olson. According to an alkaline hydrolysis system manufacturer, about 300 gallons per human body. Olson thinks recycled “grey water” could be used to cut down on the water waste. But he wonders: “Will families say, ‘I don’t want grandma dissolved in dirty dishwater’?”

Olson says that it’s not necessarily the green-ness of this new cremation that appeals to people. It’s how gentle it seems. “Burning grandma in fire seems to be violent,” he says. “In contrast, green cremation is ‘putting grandma in a warm bath.’”

And that perception is generally far more important to people than the eco-friendliness of the process. Even projects that put the environment front-and-center emphasize the feeling of a pleasant exit, and a lasting connection to the Earth.

So what does Sehee look for in a truly green burial? Something that works to actively conserve rural land. The council awards three leaves—the highest rating available—to burial plots that not only eschew embalming fluid and vaults, but double as conservation spaces. A three-leaved process does away with nearly every environmental concern related to burial and cremation and works to keep land free of development and pesticide.

Ultimately, which eco-friendly exit you choose is mostly about personal comfort. And if the choices seem daunting, it’s worth remembering: Even the most energy-intensive acts of burial pale in comparison to the carbon footprint you’re leaving right now.

Complete Article HERE!

Ashes to Ashes and Into Trees

This Bay Area start-up wants to change how we think about death

By Austyn Gaffney

Five miles inland from the rocky coast of Mendocino County sits 20 acres of forest. The trees—redwoods, Douglas firs, tan oaks, madrones—line old logging roads. Ferns and rhododendrons soften the forest floor. On a clear day, from a crest in the wooded parcel, there’s the blue snap of ocean.

It’s near this crest that Sandy Gibson, founder and CEO of Better Place Forests—a company whose mission is to conserve land by turning it into natural cemeteries—showed me his gravesite. Trees marked by orange, pink, or blue ribbons were available for burial plots, but Gibson’s redwood, towering above a dry creek bed, was ribbonless, signifying its purchase. Nearby trees with small copper plaques at their base, reminiscent of US Geological Survey markers, served as people’s tombstones.

Gibson has been yoked to death from an early age: When he was 10, his father died of a stroke, and a year later, cancer took his mother. As a child, he remembers leaving their gravesites before they were even filled in with soil, and later visiting a shiny black tombstone along a busy street in Toronto, Canada. With a voice gentle but earnest, like he’s intimately familiar with the octaves needed to discuss death, Gibson explained on this foggy morning in August how he now finds comfort in seeing a ceremony to its end.

“We’ve been burying our dead for 50,000 years in cemeteries,” Gibson told me. “The earliest things we can find are basically tools in caves and burial sites. The idea of a permanent sacred space for the people that you love is something deeply and innately human.”

Better Place Forests takes cremated ashes, which are, essentially, bacteria-free bone dust, and spreads them in forested properties. When mixed with bacteria-rich soil, the nutrients in the ashes break down and feed a tree’s root system. On a bronze table next to the visitor’s center, forest stewards sift cremated remains with soil. Then, they lead a “spreading ceremony,” ushering loved ones into the forest and up to the base of the selected tree. There, the sifted soil is mixed with more dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the dead are returned to the earth.

Now 36, Gibson is the epitome of a start-up CEO—gray hairs pepper his temples and his beard. He’s clean-cut but practical—a button-up shirt, slim pants, and walking shoes. For seven years, Gibson and one of his two partners at Better Place Forests, Brad Milne, ran a software company in Toronto. But Gibson was dissatisfied. Software could disappear one day. He latched onto the idea of creating something physically beautiful that might endure a technological collapse. (In the 45 minutes Gibson and I spent touring his Point Arena property, he referred to beauty, on average, once every 60 seconds.)

“I used to think about nothing, about blackness,” Gibson said, turning to face me beside his redwood. “Now there’s certainty. And that certainty is beautiful.”

Depending on traffic, Point Arena lies three to four hours north of San Francisco. A second site, slated to be open for burials in 2020, is two hours south in Santa Cruz. Better Place Forests is purchasing as much land as it can, as fast as it can, with plans to expand into Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. Although Gibson claims he started his company in California to be near the redwoods, it probably doesn’t hurt to be close to Silicon Valley. The biggest challenge, though, might be getting investors excited about death.

“It’s a scary topic,” Gibson admitted. “But people love nature. They love protecting nature. You’re changing the discussion from one about death to one about conservation and beauty. That one’s a lot more accessible.”

Along with the promise of closure, Gibson and his team are selling the notion of legacy through conservation. If cemeteries take up space, Gibson wondered how death could do the opposite. How could it give space back? By purchasing a tree, customers invest in the preservation of a natural landscape. Each purchase also triggers an “impact trees” program, which commits to replanting a certain number of trees—between 25 and 400 depending on the price of the purchased tree—in wildfire-affected areas of California.

Before Better Place Forests came to Point Arena, this former logging parcel was full of dense underbrush that made it more susceptible to forest fires. By establishing conservation easements on purchased properties, Better Place Forests promises to pay for the ongoing management of the entrusted land. Furthermore, if the start-up goes under, the land will be protected in perpetuity. But the process is a bit complicated. Negotiations for the easement on the Point Arena property are still incomplete, though as of October approximately 100 spreadings had taken place.

For the past 150 or so years, the United States has developed a far-reaching death industry. Before the Civil War, families mourned and buried their dead at home. But the staggering amount of dead bodies from the war, needing to return home for one final ceremony, led to embalming and undertakers. Business began to boom, introducing more elaborate coffins and making engraved stone markers more common.

The price tag of death spiked, damaging both pocketbooks and the environment. According to Mary Woodsen of Cornell University, in the US alone, conventional burials account for 20 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel each year. Over 4 million gallons of embalming fluid are used annually, almost one-fifth of which contains formaldehyde, a toxic substance linked to increased cancer risks among funeral-industry workers.

In her 2015 book, Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, Suzanne Kelly laments the “walled-off city of contaminants” that will flood her own father’s body after he is embalmed, placed in a wooden casket, and then a metal casket, before being encased in a concrete vault inserted into the ground and then buried beneath the dirt. Kelly fears his grave will become a problem, instead of a place of mourning. Mounting awareness of these impacts has led to a growing movement for green burials, which the Green Burial Council defines as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact.”

The process of cremation—which accounted for less than 10 percent of US burials in 1980, but today plays a role in over half—isn’t great for the environment either. Along with emitting carbon dioxide and mercury, cremation uses enough natural gas to power a 500-mile car trip, though, according to Kelly, advocates are pushing for renewable forms of energy and crematory filters to limit contaminants. Water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is also on the rise, using a water-based solution, instead of heat, to speed up decomposition. It uses one-fifth the energy of fire cremation and better retains the body’s nutrients.

Today, there are approximately 93 green burial sites across the US. The first cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council was a preserve in South Carolina founded to protect a quarter mile of Ramsey Creek. Opened in 1998, it now encompasses over 60 acres, and over 400 natural burials, both whole body and cremation, have taken place on the site. Management practices on the land are permanently restricted so it remains wild.

Along with better environmental standards, green burials tend to be less expensive than conventional ones. In the past 30 years, funeral costs have risen almost twice as quickly as any other consumer items. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), in 2017, funerals with a burial, viewing, and vault cost an average of $8,755. But green cemeteries, like Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, advertise natural burial plots for $3,200. For natural burials involving cremation, those costs drop between $1,150 and $2,700, depending on the location.

Though trees in Better Place Forests are hardly cheap. While community trees (in case you’d like your ashes to mingle with those of a bunch of strangers for eternity) start at $950 per spreading; individual trees begin at around $3,000 and can go upwards of $17,000. Each tree includes one to two ceremonial spreadings, and each additional spreading is an additional cost. But if all your relatives agree to be interred beneath the same tree, that spreading fee can be about an eighth of the cost of a conventional burial.

Most natural burial sites, including Better Place Forests, don’t include the cost of cremation, which ranges widely from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The number of funerals involving cremation is expected to rise to almost 80 percent of burials by 2040. And although more baby boomers are choosing cremation, they’re not all choosing cemeteries.

It’s a good thing, because we’re running out of space. According to a 2012 study, if all Americans who reach 78 years old (the average life expectancy) chose to be buried in standard plots, by 2042 we’d need 130 square miles of pure grave space, an area about the size of Las Vegas.

The green burial movement subverts the major economic interests of the funeral industry in other ways besides circumventing traditional funeral services. Returning people to the earth in a more natural way doesn’t surround death with sales of land, resources, and facilities. Service Corporation International, the largest multinational funerary business, reported a revenue of over $3 billion in 2018 alone. It’s estimated to comprise at least 15 percent of the death-care industry in North America, operating almost 1,500 funeral service locations and close to 500 cemeteries. Their report to the United States Securities Exchange Commission stated that they were “poised to benefit from the aging of the American population.”

Kathee Pfalmer, a baby boomer from California, had a hard time talking about her eventual passing with her family. She’d brought up various unconventional burial methods with her four children. Would they like mom’s ashes pressed into stones reminiscent of diamonds and made into rings? Or perhaps a nice piece of pottery with her ashes worked into the glaze? Unfortunately, she couldn’t imagine her children saying, “Let’s go pick up mom’s vase.” Then she stumbled across a Facebook ad for Better Place Forests.

When she visited the Point Arena forest in October, she, like Gibson, connected with a redwood tree. Although genetically the same, her tree has two trunks that appear distinct, and the pale stump of a burned tree, left over from a 1906 forest fire, leans against them. Pfalmer says the trio resonated with her because of her eclectic mix of family members, who though not all biologically related, are very loving and supportive of one another. Her decision has shifted the conversation with her children.

“Something about buying this tree and having a place helps me talk to my kids about it,” Pfalmer told me over the phone. “They can imagine my passing without thinking about me dying.”

In a 2017 study by NFDA, over 60 percent of respondents felt it was important to communicate funeral plans, but only 21.4 percent had done so. More than half of all respondents wanted to explore green funerals as a way to reduce their environmental impact. Or perhaps, to become a positive contribution to an environmental web.

“I thought it was a really good way of introducing the finality we all come to,” says Pfalmer, who brought along her 14-year-old granddaughter to pick out her tree. A lifelong gardener, Pfalmer is familiar with the cycle of life and death. She wants the cycle of her life honored in a natural way, and she hopes that for her granddaughter, the experience “might help her feel more at peace with the inevitability of death as part of life.”

Cody Sanders, a Baptist pastor and theologian who specializes in how death care impacts the environment, believes our corpses aren’t dying in a natural way but instead are being withheld from the ecosystem to which they belong. He argues that in death, our corpses can be in tune with the earth’s own cycles of life and continue living through the transformative process of decomposition.

“We’ve done everything we can in the last 150 years or so to deny the earth the life it could receive through our dead bodies,” Sanders writes in a paper for the journal Pastoral Theology.

Sanders suggests that how we treat our dead “mirrors ideologies and theologies that have arisen that suggest humans are not a part of the earth,” and that this “has strong ties to the practices that are contributing to the climate collapse at this point.”

Suzanne Kelly, author of Greening Death, claims sustainable death choices could provide a new tool for engaging in climate anxiety—a more intimate connection to the earth. In her book, she quotes Bob Fertig, a green-friendly funeral director, who says, “The focus on the environmental aspect [of the green burial movement] is wonderful, but I think what sometimes gets lost in that is the potential for closeness with death and the way it makes people feel.” 

In other words, green funerals aren’t just good for the environment. In an age of climate crisis, strengthening the bonds between people and the planet can be good for the human psyche too.

*

Weeks after visiting the Point Arena forest, I called my dad and asked him, “Would you like to be buried beneath a tree?”

My father has had a rare form of stomach cancer for over half a decade. I found out after graduating college while lying on the floor of the apartment I was subletting—not because I was awaiting bad news but because it was midsummer in Kentucky and I had no air conditioning. I thought my father had gone in for a minor surgery, but my mom called, saying they’d found tumors. They’re the kind of tumors that can be stalled but not the kind that go away. He has since retired on disability. He tires often and can suffer stomach pains that send him to the emergency room. He’s taken up meditation and spends time in a condo in Ontario to be closer to family. I often hesitate when he brings up his death. I get tongue-tied in the company of mortality, but now, when referencing another living being, like a tree, I found the discussion flowed more easily.

Of course he’d like to be buried beneath a tree, he said. Since childhood, he’s explored thousands of miles of the outdoors. On his first canoe trip, he was in diapers, and he hitchhiked out to the Canadian Rockies the summer he was 16. He still has the steel-frame, faded red backpack he used to traverse Jasper National Park. We don’t stroll too far from home these days, but we often manage to find our way to a riverbank or some nearby woods. On the phone now, he repeated his desire for cremation, and while he liked the tree idea, he balked at the cost. “Why wouldn’t I just donate what I’d spend reserving a tree to a conservation group?” he asked.

The cynic in me wants to critique Gibson’s model: the continued commodification of the natural world, and of burial sites. The idea that a San Francisco–based start-up is finding capital gains in something as tender-hearted as death. But somehow I keep falling short. Sure it’s just a tree. Sure it’s a lot of money for the ritual of saying goodbye. Aside from the small fact that it’s illegal, I could spread my father’s ashes wherever I like. But the idea of being able to visit his remains while also conserving a natural space? It sounds a little like solace.

“People still need a sense of place. You want to know there’s a place for your family to come,” Gibson told me, echoing Kathee Pfalmer’s wishes for her tree. “You want to know there’s a ceremony that will make it easier for your family to grieve.”

In May, months before I met Gibson in Better Place Forest’s tract of trees, I traveled to the gravesite of my great-grandfather in Nova Scotia with my father and my paternal grandmother. The cemetery was camouflaged along a backroad of birch trees and brambles, but my grandmother recognized the turn-off immediately. She’d visited her father here since he died when she was five years old, and she wanted me to pay my respects at his burial site. There was an intimacy in picking flowers to lay on the graves of our relatives, fenced off between two small fields and curtained with trees. There is a sweetness to these spaces.

Death is part of the ongoing web of life that humans are ecologically tied to by virtue of being mammals on this earth. For Sanders, privileging these alive human bodies “allows us to maintain the destructive fiction that all that is lifeless is inert and without significance or desire. The dead body—lifeless as it may be—is not finished revealing to us our roles and responsibilities for care.” The earth still desires something in relation to our body, Sanders writes—its return to the “aliveness” of the ecological world.

There is a natural order to things that ugly interruptions like cancer, addiction, car wrecks, and other tragedies take away from us. Nature reestablishes that order. It reminds us, especially the nonreligious among us, that there is life after life. Those nutrients in my father’s bones, in my bones, could enrich the soil. I imagine worms eating bits of me, and birds eating bits of worms. I imagine the process of my decomposition spiraling out beyond me. And I admit, it brings me comfort.

Complete Article HERE!

Floating ice urn makes for a unique eco-friendly memorial

This one-of-a-kind urn floats on the water while slowly returning cremated remains to nature.

By

As you may have heard, humans have a death problem. It’s not that humans die; it’s that once they do, the still-alive humans of many cultures bury the newly-dead humans in the ground. Given that there are some 7.7 billion of us on the planet currently … well, you can see where this is going. Add in the environmental impact of burying a casket’s sturdy materials and a few gallons of toxic embalming fluid along with it and it’s no wonder that more people are looking into alternative funeral ideas.

There have been some really beautiful, eco-friendly memorial products designed over the last decade or so, like biodegradable urns that use one’s ashes in which to grow a tree. But my jaw dropped when I saw this one, the Flow Ice Urn, which floats on the water while slowly releasing ashes in an unapologetically pure way. It is simple yet beautiful; and it brings to mind other funeral traditions that are intrinsically tied to the idea of returning the body to nature.

And while scattering ashes on a body of water is understandably popular, I love the inherent ceremony in watching an ice urn, and the ashes within, float and gradually dissolve into the sea. It would be just as ephemeral as scattering, but a bit more formal – and just so poetic.

The ice urn was designed by Diane Leclair Bisson, who approached the design with the creativity of an artist and the thoughtfulness an anthropologist. As her website notes, “her research into contemporary burial practices, and the preservation or the scattering of ashes has also engaged her in a reflection about materiality, which has guided the design of a new typology of objects and materials.”

Bisson notes, “The Ice Urn is a deeply sustainable object in its essence. The concept of making a dissolvable memorial object through the transformation of water into a solid form of ice – while encapsulating cremation ashes within it – is truly innovative. It is the most immaterial urn ever created, and it inspires new types of water ceremonies as well as a completely new approach to the idea of burial itself – emphasizing new thinking about the return of the body to the natural environment, and of water back to its original source.”

The Flow was originally designed for Memoria, a progressive funeral home group based in Montreal. But now Biolife, LLC, the developer of other eco-focused urns, has obtained the exclusive license to produce and market the patented ice urn in the United States.

Julia Duchastel, Vice President of Memoria explains that they spent years developing and perfecting the ice urn, noting that is is a proven and patented product that has been well tested tested at their funeral home locations in Montreal.

“Many people form a strong connection with the ocean, lakes, or rivers throughout their lives. Water is a truly extraordinary molecule – it is what makes life on earth possible,” says Duchastel. “Throughout history and across cultures, it has persisted as a symbol of life, renewal, and purity. With this connection to water, many people choose to have their ashes freed in the water after they pass. With the Flow™ ice urn families have a new and improved water burial option to honor a loved one and say goodbye in a more beautiful, meaningful, and memorable way.”

The urn is available at funeral homes; you can see more information on the ice urn page at The Living Urn.

Complete Article HERE!