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.”

Complete Article HERE!

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!

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

Hendrikx with the ‘Living Cocoon’ coffins.

by Becky Ferreira

For tens of thousands of years, humans have developed funeral rites and burial practices that reflected the attitudes of their particular time and place. These traditions of honoring the dead continue to evolve into the 21st century, as people seek “green burials” that are more environmentally friendly than standard coffins. 

One of the newest examples comes from Loop, a Dutch biotech company that recently unveiled a biodegradable coffin made of fungus, microbes and plant roots. Called the “Living Cocoon,” the coffin is designed to hasten bodily decomposition while also enriching soil around the plot.

“Normally, what we do as humans is we take something out of nature, we kill it, and we use it,” said Bob Hendrikx, founder of Loop, in a call. “So I thought: what if we humans start moving from working with dead materials toward a world in which we work with living materials?”

“We would not only become less of a parasite, but we could also start exploring super-cool material properties, like living lights, walls that are self-healing, and that kind of stuff,” he added.

Hendrikx was inspired to develop the Living Cocoon while presenting a living home concept at last year’s Dutch Design Week. While houses are obviously for the living, Hendrikx got to thinking about adapting the concept into a coffin powered by mushroom mycelium, which is the filamentary vegetative part of the fungus.

“Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler,” Hendrikx said. “It is continuously looking for dead organic matter to transform into key nutrients.”

Developed in collaboration with Delft University of Technology and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Living Cocoon contains a moss bed packed with mycelium, plant roots, and a lush ecosystem of microorganisms. It is already on the market in the Netherlands, and has been used for a burial at the Hague.

Initial tests of the coffin indicate that it degrades in soil over about 30 to 45 days, and the Loop team estimates that bodies within coffins should be composted after three years. Mushrooms can also remove contaminants from soil, so the researchers have a “bigger vision” to use the coffins to purify dirty environments.

“We have a dream of having super-new natural funeral-based concepts in which we go to different cities and search for the most dirty soil and start cleaning that up,” Hendrikx said.

“We already have this product launched on the market, but what we want to really know is how long does [decomposition] take exactly, what does the decomposition phase look like, and also—this is super-important—what kind of chemicals can it absorb and in what amounts,” he added.

The Living Cocoon is one of many emerging concepts that aim to reduce the environmental tolls of current mortuary norms. Right now, both caskets and cadavers are treated with chemicals that leach into soil over time, potentially contaminating groundwater.

Green burials are exactly not a new phenomenon, as Indigenous cultures around the world have practiced environmentally friendly mortuary practices for thousands of years. For instance, “sky burials” that expose bodies to high altitudes where they can be scavenged by birds and animals, are still practiced in the Himalayas today.

But more novel funeral technologies such as “water cremation,” in which bodies are broken down in water and potassium hydroxide, are attracting the interest of people who want to tread lightly on the planet, even after they no longer live on it.

To that point, the Loop team thinks that the Living Cocoon will help people access the right end-of-life experience for them.

“I think people are ready for this,” Hendrikx said.

Complete Article HERE!

I visited a ‘green cemetery’ in California,

and it made me question everything about American funerals

By

  • A small network of cemeteries across the country are looking to shake up American burial practices and make them eco-friendly by offering “green burials.”
  • Green burial rejects cremation, embalming, and concrete-lined graves to reduce the carbon footprint of death.
  • A national survey found that over half of respondents were interested in exploring green funeral options because of potential environmental and cost-saving benefits.

Cindy Barath is the steward of a 32-acre property in the hills of Mill Valley, California, and all the bodies that come with it.

She spends her days planning ceremonies, receiving the bereaved, and caring for the dead. She’s honest at dinner parties about her job, and when people are surprised to hear that she personally dresses the corpses, she tells them, “Well, they don’t dress themselves.”

I met Cindy Barath on a cool October morning. I was a graduate student hoping to write an article about rocketing property prices putting pressure on the cost of a grave. My tentative headline was: “The cost of living is rising. Is the cost of dying, too?”

I arrived at Fernwood Cemetery looking for a story about real estate. But I found something different, and in my opinion, more interesting: a small movement looking to shake up American burial practices and make them environmentally friendly.

In a traditional American burial, a body is embalmed, then placed in a coffin and laid to rest in a concrete-lined grave. The custom is resource intensive. Each year, it uses 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, and 1.6 million tons of concrete, according to the Green Burial Council.

The “green burial” movement looks to change that.

Barath offered me a tour of the property via her shiny black golf cart. We hop in and she hits the gas. We whip by eucalyptus trees, wood-chip trails, and the mounds of fresh graves.

Barath is not the funeral director I imagined. She has a warm, folksy demeanor, and wears her auburn hair in short curls that are closely cropped to her head. Her wardrobe reminds me of my high school home economics teacher — long, warm sweaters and a chunky gemstone necklace.

We pull up to a spot overlooking the hills, which are patched with light and shadow by the misty clouds overhead. It’s quiet, but if you listen closely, you can hear the distant chatter of recess from an elementary school a few miles away. “Sure beats the office,” said Barath with a chuckle, dismounting from the driver’s seat.

Green burials are generally defined by what they don’t do. They don’t cremate, which burns through gallons of fuel to turn the body to ash. They don’t embalm, which pumps formaldehyde into the body to preserve it. And they don’t line a grave with concrete, which slows decomposition.

But from there, the details vary. Customers can choose biodegradable containers that range from a pine box to a hand-sewn silk shroud. Some cemeteries offer flat stone markers, others record grave locations with a GPS tracking system. Fernwood even offers a mushroom suit, a shroud of fungal spores that aid in decomposition and detoxification.

Beyond Fernwood Cemetery, options abound for the late nature-lover. A Canadian design firm created an urn called “ROOTS,” made from coffee grounds and lime that will germinate a tree. A company called Better Place Forests is conserving hundreds of acres of land in California and Arizona where families can reserve a memorial tree to spread ashes. And an organization called Eternal Reefs can inturn your cremated ash into a concrete “reef ball” that restores ocean habitats.

A new name for an old practice

Although green burial is marketed as an eco-friendly choice, its customs existed long before the environmental movement. A simple burial without the frills of chemicals and concrete is ancient. Green burial is, essentially, a new word for an old practice.

Take Jewish burial traditions, for example.

“Jewish burial traditions and customs have been green for the last 3,000 years,” said Glenn Easton, executive Funeral Director at The Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park in Maryland. “In Israel, they don’t use caskets. They don’t embalm. They don’t use concrete liners. They use a shroud and put people in the ground.”

Easton says his Orthodox Jewish customers are especially green, since they prioritize letting a body decompose quickly. They even have a workaround called “butterdishing” for cemeteries that require concrete liners: they line the sides and top of the grave, and leave the bottom open to the earth.

Green burial isn’t too different from the way we bury the indigent, either. At potter’s fields across the country, governments bury those who are too poor to afford funeral services, or bodies that are unclaimed, in simple graves without coffins, concrete, or chemicals. The only difference: rather than a shroud or pine box, they are often buried in plastic body bags.

Unlike coffee-ground urns and “reefballs,” green burial is old technology. But while it doesn’t contribute much in terms of innovation, it does spark an important conversation. Green burial prompts us to ask why our rituals of death default to using formaldehyde and concrete.

In America, embalming can be traced back to the Civil War. The soldiers who died fighting on the battlefields of North Carolina needed to have their bodies transported back north to be buried. Preservation became a necessity.

Meanwhile, concrete liners can be traced to America’s obsession with the perfect lawn. Funeral directors say that they are useful for landscaping: they prevent the ground above a grave from sinking or collapsing. Many cemeteries require the concrete. It keeps things smooth for their industrial mowers.

The difference is apparent at Fernwood’s Green Cemetery. Rather than neat rows of gravestones and uniformly-trimmed fescue, the cemetery’s green burial sections are dotted with native grasses and shrubs. In parts, the landscape is steeply sloped. A lawnmower would have a tough time.

Changing times

The movement is still in its early days. There are at least 287 cemeteries in the US and Canada that offer green burial services, according to New Hampshire Funeral Resources. And at some of those cemeteries, like Wooster Cemetery in Connecticut, traditional burials vastly outnumber their green counterparts.

The cadre is small, but Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council, which certifies green cemeteries, is hopeful. A national survey found that over half of respondents were interested in exploring green funeral options because of potential environmental and cost-saving benefits.

And Bixby says that end-of-life customs are more changeable than they seem.

Take cremation, for example. In 1975, only 6% of Americans chose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Traditional burial with embalming was standard.

Funeral directors considered cremation to be no more than “a flash in the pan,” said Bixby.

But it wasn’t. Cremation was a fraction of the price of traditional burial, and it was adopted widely.

Today, cremation is king. More than half of all Americans choose cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. It surpassed traditional burial as the most popular end-of-life solution back in 2015.

Direct cremation, which forgoes a viewing or other ceremony, can cost as little as $750. But since green burial is less expensive than traditional burial, Bixby believes it could gain traction as the “official third option.”

Traditional burials, with a vault, cost a median of $9,135 in 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By forgoing embalming ($750), a cement vault ($1495), and opting for a simple shroud or pine box over a wood casket ($3,000), or metal burial casket ($2,500), those choosing green burial can save thousands.

Still, Glenn Easton emphasizes that at his cemetery, “green burials are not influenced or determined by financial decisions.” Instead, “they’re a philosophical preference.”

And Cindy Barath says that the simplicity of a green burial service, and emphasis its emphasis on nature, helps the bereaved. “I try to cut through all the red tape and make it easy and simple. Just help them make this transition. I know if they come in crying and come out laughing, something has taken place.”

Complete Article HERE!

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

By

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!