— When it comes to matters of life and death, there may be a missing key ingredient of conversation: mushrooms.
By Li Cohen
A new startup has found that fungi can go beyond filling people’s plates while they are alive. They can also be used to take care of their bodies once they’re dead. The company, Loop Biotech, is “growing” coffins and urns by combining mycelium – the root structure of mushrooms – with hemp fiber.
The founders of the company say they want to “collaborate with nature to give humanity a positive footprint,” a goal that is difficult to achieve with today’s common burial practices.
A study published last year in Chemosphere, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that cemeteries can be potential sources of soil and water contamination, with people in urban areas that live close to packed cemeteries are most at-risk of those effects. Heavy metals are among the pollutants that can leach into the soil and water, the study found.
And even if people opt for cremation, that process emits “several pollutants,” including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, the authors of the study said.
Shawn Harris, a U.S. investor in Loop Biotech, told the Associated Press that the startup is a way to change that situation.&
“We all have different cultures and different ways of wanting to be buried in the world. But I do think there’s a lot of us, a huge percentage of us, that would like it differently,” he said. “And it’s been very old school the same way for 50 or 100 years.”
Loop Biotech offers three options, all of which they say are “100% nature” – a “Living Cocoon” that looks like a stone casket, a “ForestBed,” which they say is the “world’s first living funeral carrier” that looks like a thin open-top casket covered with moss in its bed, and an urn for those who prefer to be cremated that comes with a plant of choice to sprout up from the ashes.
All of these items, the Dutch company says, are “grown in just 7 days” and biodegrade in only 45 days once they are buried.
“Instead of: ‘we die, we end up in the soil and that’s it,’ now there is a new story: We can enrich life after death and you can continue to thrive as a new plant or tree,” the startup’s 29-year-old founder Bob Hendrikx told the Associated Press. “It brings a new narrative in which we can be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Along with being more environmentally friendly than traditional burials, the products are also cheaper, ranging from about $200 to just over $1,000. A metal burial casket costs, on average, $2,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2021 report, and a cremation casket and urn combined cost an average of about $1,600. Wood burial caskets cost even more, about $3,000.
For now, Loop Biotech is making about 500 coffins or urns a month, and ships them only across Europe, the AP reported.
“It’s the Northern European countries where there is more consciousness about the environment and also where there’s autumn,” Hendrikx said. “So they know and understand the mushroom, how it works, how it’s part of the ecosystem.”
Four days after her mother died, Shelley Anson walked into a candlelit room at a funeral home. There, her mother Lorraine lay on a bed, tucked in as though she were just asleep. A cooling mat to slow decomposition was humming away beneath her body.
“She looked so beautiful. She had colour in her face, even her lips. I asked if it was make-up, but it was from massage. I was in absolute disbelief and awe, I cried and cried,” Anson says.
“I was kissing her and she was cold to the touch, but that was OK. I was telling her how much I loved her, how grateful for her I was and how happy that she was reunited with my dad.”
For the next three hours, Anson cuddled her mother, brushed her hair and washed her face, arms, torso and legs with warm water and myrrh oil. Finally, she dressed her in her favourite sequined maroon dress for the funeral.
The experience, in December, was transformative for Anson’s grief.
“It was perfect in every way. It brought me absolute, great peace,” she says. “I could have stayed longer, but I felt like I’d finally done enough and that it was OK to go home.”
In contemporary Australia, much as in the rest of the Western world, our eyes are closed to the realities of death. The dead are often hurried away from a hospital room by an appointed funeral director and not seen again, unless a family chooses to farewell them with an open casket.
But there is a growing push towards keeping vigil with a loved one after their death and taking on the care of their body, either at a private house or a funeral home.
Advocates of what’s been termed the “death-positive movement” say our modern, sanitised practice interrupts our grieving process, creates a fear of death and has contributed to the loss of centuries-old rituals of caring for our loved ones.
Libby Moloney is the founder of Natural Grace, a Victorian holistic funeral company that has been at the forefront of shifting the narrative around after-death care.
“In the 1900s we surrendered the care of our dead to well-meaning strangers in what we now know as the funeral industry. In a way death was sterilised and outsourced. It’s a model that’s very much about easing your burden, taking away the stress,” she says.
But Moloney says this robs families of a pivotal point in the mourning process that comes from the act of being with the body of their loved one, of feeling the stillness of their hand.
“It happens to everybody, and it’s deeply sacred,” Moloney says. “It takes the human mind and body about three days, where there’s a visceral, profound knowing that ‘I’m ready’ – ready to separate from the body of my person and I can now go on to the next steps. It’s unbelievably empowering.”
She says at least 80 per cent of her clients have an element of death care, with roughly half choosing to do this at home, the other half at her Woodend or Fairfield sanctuaries. These rituals usually take place over a three-day period before a funeral ceremony and burial or cremation.
Tasmania-based Bec Lyons spent six years in the mainstream funeral industry before becoming a death doula and independent funeral practitioner. Today, she leads both the Australian Home Funeral Alliance and Natural Death Advocacy Network, which aim to raise awareness of family-led funerals, death care and natural burials.
Death care is not for everybody, but Lyons’ goal is to teach people that there isn’t just one way to grieve. Most Australians don’t know that they don’t have to appoint a funeral director, and that it’s perfectly legal and safe to care for the body of their loved one. In NSW, the deceased can stay at home for up to five days; in Victoria, there is no prescribed limit. The key requirements are to register the death and arrange a burial or cremation.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there were more than 171,000 registered deaths in 2021, up from almost 147,000 10 years earlier. It’s estimated that by 2066, the number of annual deaths will be over 430,000.
“There’s a pertinent conversation around what are we going to do with all those bodies? Death needs to move back into the home,” Lyons says.
With 70 per cent of Australians wanting to die at home, Lyons believes that the older generation, having watched their parents die in nursing homes, want to do things differently.
She says the number of home funerals she’s facilitated has doubled in the last 12 months, which she puts down to increased understanding of death, as well as financial considerations: they can be half the cost of a typical funeral.
Lyons says more people began to explore the idea of after-death care and home funerals (meaning a dead person is kept at home until they are put to rest) during COVID-19, when restrictions stripped away usual mourning practices. Holding vigil at home was still possible.
“In conventional Western society, the only vehicle we have to mourn is the funeral ceremony. For people who want that, that’s fantastic. But when COVID-19 hit, you ended up with grief that had no outlet,” she says. “Grief is an emotion that needs something to do.”
Anson’s mother died at age 79, 2½ years after a brain cancer diagnosis. Anson, an end-of-life doula and nurse, cared for her at home for the first seven months until, emotionally, she couldn’t do it any longer. But putting her mother in a nursing home weighed heavily.
It’s why after-death care and being with her mother’s body was extraordinarily healing: “That was my way of giving that last bit of love that I felt I hadn’t been able to give.”
Several religions and cultures have preserved ancient death care rituals. In Islam, it’s customary for same-sex relatives to wash the bodies of their dead, usually three times, then wrap them in sheets. Hindu families traditionally wash a body with holy ingredients such as milk, honey and ghee before dressing them.
Simon Weinstein is chief executive of the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha, a funeral home that serves much of the city’s Jewish community and delivers funerals according to Orthodox laws and traditions.
In Judaism, a burial should happen as quickly as possible, preferably within a day, and until that happens, a body is guarded – an act called “shemirah” – by family sitting close by to protect and comfort the soul.
The body is also washed in a ritual of purification and immersed in a holy bath. Weinstein says this process, tahara, is done by trained, same-sex volunteers as children and grandchildren of the dead cannot be involved to preserve modesty – but the community is tight-knit, and there is often a connection with at least one volunteer. “It’s an act of ultimate kindness and respect,” he says.
The dead person is then dressed in white cotton shrouds, and it’s at the end of this process that close relatives sometimes enter the room to place a cap on the head or tie a final bow.
“A common theme that comes out is how angelic they look. It’s very comforting for families,” Weinstein says.
Yaelle Schachna was praying in a room next door when her late grandmother was undergoing tahara. She joined for the final stage. “I gave my grandmother a kiss and it was very peaceful for me to see her. I could say goodbye.”
Last year, Schachna became a Chevra Kadisha volunteer. She this week helped send off her great aunt in a purifying ritual.
“For the first time, I stood there and was teary the whole time,” she says. “It was a beautiful send-off. I think you can hear in my tone the holiness I feel.”
There are two methods of looking after a dead body. One is through cleaning and cooling, which slows rather than stalls decomposition. The other is with embalming, which involves injecting chemicals such as formaldehyde and methanol to prevent the corpse from degrading.
RMIT senior lecturer Dr Pia Interlandi has been involved with the death-positive movement for a decade, creating bereavement casts – one of which she made for Anson of her and her mother’s clasped hands – and running Garments for the Grave.
Interlandi believes the movement goes together with attitudes on living sustainably. “If you love composting and the environment, it doesn’t make sense to be embalmed with chemicals and put in a box lined with plastic,” she says.
“Embalming is sold as a perceived psychological protection to seeing the dead body of a person you love. The natural death movement is about saying ‘you can cope with this’.”
Interlandi says that it might feel “strange” to see a dead body at first, but the slowness of death care allows you to move through the shock. “Dressing my nonno [grandfather] was the most transformative moment of my life,” she says.
Moloney explains that dead bodies become cold and pale, while limbs stiffen and get heavy, but these changes act as signals that the person is ready to be returned to nature. “It’s incredibly powerful and healthy to see those gentle changes; they inform our subconscious that we need to prepare to separate from their body.”
Thea Lamaro’s mother, Ana, began to prepare for her death two years before she died of breast cancer in 2016. She decided she wanted her body to be taken home to her apartment after her death, and not be left alone for three days.
Ana’s body was washed and dressed in a shroud by family and friends and Thea spent time talking to and holding her mother.
“I felt so comforted by having her body in the house. When I woke up throughout the night I could go to her,” Thea says.
“[It] helped me so much to integrate the fact she had finally died. It was a very gentle way of saying goodbye.”
Thea, who is developing a podcast series called Approaching The End speaking to people preparing to die, says she appreciated being able to decide the moment her mum’s body left the house: “I was letting her go rather than having her taken from me.”
Interlandi hopes that our conversations on death evolve past the question “do you want to be buried or cremated?” and towards: What type of funeral do you want? Who do you want to be cared for by? How do you want to be dispersed?
“People think it’s hippie woo-woo, and it’s not. There is a spiritual component, of course, because this is ritual – but it’s about choice and how you identify yourself in life goes into how you identify yourself in death.”
By Kathleen McQuillan
Three young men work in silence excavating the place where their grandmother’s body will be buried — free of harsh embalming chemicals or the effects of a fiery furnace. No concrete vault or steel casket. Her remains are “dressed” in her favorite pajamas and wrapped in a simple white cotton shroud, ready to be placed in a designated plot of ground at what is called a “conservation burial site”. A hand-made wicker basket housed her body for the length of time it took to decompose. The lid was covered with dried ferns, rose petals, and her favorite wildflowers. Although the men have agreed to silence, nothing stops a steady flow of memories, some of which will be shared for the lowering of her body into this hallowed ground. With explicit details on how to prepare the site, they are fulfilling their role in what will be remembered as their family’s ritual of final good-byes.
As I read this story, I recalled the burial rite for my mother who died five years ago. My brothers and I agreed to dispense of a formal funeral because most of our extended family were scattered across the country and all of my mother’s closest friends had predeceased her. Not aware of alternatives, we decided on a simple cremation and planned to disperse Mom’s ashes at a place we’d named “Karen’s Rock”.
Located up a hill and across an abandoned pasture left fallow for at least thirty years, a massive granite boulder rises out of the willow brush and wild plum. My guess is that it was deposited there by an advancing glacier scraping its way across the landscape some ten thousand years ago. When my sister died in 1997, this was where I sprinkled her ashes with my family in full agreement that this unique rock monument would act as a suitable headstone. On the day we sprinkled our mother’s ashes, I and my siblings shared a warm and comforting thought. Our mother was finally reunited with her daughter.
The opening to this story was inspired by an article entitled “Down to Earth” by Kathy Jesse that appears in the Spring issue of the National Wildlife Federation magazine. It examines “eco-friendly alternatives” to the conventional funeral practices of embalming and cremation. I’d heard of “green burials” but never “natural organic reduction” or NOR, a process that places human remains in a specialized vessel with a mixture of organic materials that hasten decomposition. After six weeks, the body is fully transformed into compostable soil that is, in most cases, returned to the family for final disposition. There are twenty NOR facilities in seven states with accompanying tracts of land called “conservation burial sites” where composted remains can be buried and the land eventually available for reclamation and reforestation. Minnesota is not among them.
Interest in alternative burial practices is increasing, partly because of growing environmental concerns with embalming and cremation, and also due to increased use of services provided by hospice professionals and death doulas dedicated to educating and supporting families’ direct involvement in end-of-life decision-making and caregiving. Americans, as a whole, are becoming more at ease with issues surrounding the final stages of life. More of us are completing Advanced Directives that clarify our preferences regarding medical interventions as death draws near. Books and podcasts abound that focus on death as an inevitable and natural part of life to be discussed openly rather than denied, avoided and feared.
Since the mid-1800s, Americans have adopted embalming, burials in vaults and caskets, and more recently, cremation as our conventional methods for disposing of our bodies after death. These practices have become increasingly expensive, creating enormous financial burdens on grieving families. According to Jesse’s article, a study conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2021 states “the average cost of a casket burial in the United States is $7,848, with cremation averaging $6,970.” And these figures don’t include the cost of a burial plot.
Green burials and NOR are significantly less expensive. They also inflict far less harm on the environment. As earth’s human population approaches 8 billion, how we handle our physical remains becomes an ever-increasing concern. Most of us are clustered in urban areas. The land available for burials is rapidly declining. When we take a look at the volume of natural resources consumed each year for burials — an estimated 20 million board feet of hardwoods and 64,500 tons of steel used for caskets, and 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults; the toxins that leak into the soil from an estimated 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid made of formaldehyde and other carcinogens; and atmospheric pollution from crematorium emissions estimated conservatively at 140 to 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per person — the need for less polluting alternatives becomes ever clearer!
Dr. Sara Kerr PhD., a Canadian educator, certified death doula, and founder of The Centre for Sacred DeathCare in Calgary, Alberta states on her website that NOR uses 1/8th the energy of cremation (furnaces must reach 1900 degrees F. and maintain that temperature for two hours), and NOR sequesters its carbon (about one pound per person) back into the soil. She describes human composting as “a collaborative vision in service to ecological restoration, regenerative agriculture, grief-tending, and land-based healing.”
Just imagine… our bodies giving back to Nature … a final gesture of good will in return for the life it gave us. As this method gains greater acceptance, our death rituals will evolve, bringing us together to mourn and celebrate the lives of our deceased and with a deeper understanding that death is less an “ending” and more a “returning”. For those of us standing by, we can be comforted knowing that this final act did not degrade the earthly home left behind, but instead helped to restore it.
More Americans are turning to human composting—now legal in six states—to avoid the environmental pitfalls of mainstream deathcare.
by Britany Robinson
Frederick “Fritz” Weresch planned on becoming a math teacher or a famous actor. He was empathetic and diplomatic, known to gently encourage the shy students to speak up in class. The high school senior loved music, learned the piano as a child, and had recently taught himself to play guitar.
He also, according to his friends, had talked about wanting to be composted after he died. His parents, Eileen and Wes Weresch, wanted this for themselves, too. They just never imagined they’d be carrying out Fritz’s wishes before their own.
Fritz, 18, was found unconscious on November 30, 2022. He died six days later from unknown but natural causes, according to his family,
His parents are still wading through the thick of mourning. “Grief brain” is making it hard to remember certain details about the months since Fritz’s death, Eileen said. But one thing she and her husband feel good and confident about was their decision to have Fritz’s body undergo human composting, also known as natural organic reduction or “terramation.”
Human composting is the process of turning human remains into nutrient-rich soil. It’s an option that avoids the environmental pitfalls of more mainstream practices: cremation releases carbon dioxide and air pollutants, and casket burial typically involves hazardous embalming chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials.
It’s a practice that some say could shift the United States’ $20 billion deathcare industry. More than 52% of Americans are interested in “green burial,” according to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors’ Association (NFDA).
Six states have legalized human composting in the last four years. Washington state, where the Wereschs live, was the first, legalizing the process in 2019.
“There’s this romanticism to it,” said Haley Morris, a spokesperson with Earth Funeral, a human composting facility in Auburn, Washington. “So many people want to turn into a tree.” But at the root of this romantic idea is something that’s increasingly possible, Morris explains: “For your final act to do good for the Earth.”
When Fritz died, Eileen and Wes approached Return Home, a Seattle-based company, to care for his remains and host a laying-in ceremony. His body was placed in a large, white, reusable vessel on a bed of organic materials—straw, alfalfa, and wood chips. Loved ones added flowers and notes to the mix. Fritz’s best friend cut off his long, curly black hair to lay with Fritz, prompting other attendees to leave locks of their hair as well.
“We got to be there and be part of the process,” Eileen said. “Our culture has made dead bodies icky or scary and that’s not the case.” She said something doesn’t feel right about seeing an embalmed body. “But [Fritz’s] body felt so right. You could hold his hand, and it felt like holding his hand.”
With Eileen’s permission, Return Home captured and shared a video of the ceremony to Tik Tok, where it has more than 600,000 followers.
“The first and most important thing we need to do is win over hearts and minds,” said Micah Truman, the founder of Return Home. He said one way to do that has been to normalize and provide explanations on human composting via social media.
“There’s this romanticism to it…for your final act to do good for the Earth.” — Haley Morris, spokesperson, Earth Funeral
Human composting, or as Return Home calls it “terramation,” is typically an eight to 12-week process, depending on the provider. Once a body has arrived at a human composting facility, they’re placed in a reusable vessel. Some providers, like Return Home, offer funeral services or a “laying-in” ceremony, after which the vessel is sealed and naturally occurring microbes begin to decompose the body. Rotating the vessel along with careful control of temperature and moisture levels also help the process along. Details vary across providers, including how bones are dealt with. At Return Home, they’re removed after one month, reduced to tiny shards, and returned to the vessel to continue decomposing.
The resulting soil, about one cubic yard, can be used to plant trees, spread in gardens, or saved however the family sees fit. Some families opt to donate soil to a nature preserve or land restoration project, Morris said, adding that Earth Funeral owns five acres on the Olympic Peninsula where they send donated soil.
Until recently, most Americans were buried in caskets. Casket burial typically involves embalming the body with chemicals, including formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and glycerin. Every year in the U.S. 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde go into the ground with embalmed bodies, according to the Green Burial Project. Formaldehyde is listed as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and according to a study by the National Cancer Institute, morticians have a significantly higher rate of myeloid leukemia.
In addition to toxic chemicals, casket burial uses an abundance of materials—concrete, wood, steel—for a single purpose, which are then left in the ground. Land usage is another concern. Cemeteries use up land that might otherwise offer natural habitat to wild animals or housing for humans, covering those acres with monoculture lawns treated with petrochemicals. The space to do this, especially near population-dense cities, is becoming scarce. A traditional funeral with a casket burial is also expensive. The median cost in 2021 was $7,848, according to NFDA.
Today, slightly more Americans opt for cremation, a cheaper and less land-intensive option than burial, but one with its own problems. The impact of burning corpses on air quality made headlines in 2020 when Los Angeles county was forced to suspend limits on the number of cremations due to a backlog of bodies from the coronavirus pandemic. Those limits exist because cremation releases air pollutants, including particulate matter. Most of these are filtered out by post-treatment systems, but cremation still emits about 573 pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of a 500-mile car journey—per corpse.
From a financial perspective, human composting typically costs less than casket burial and more than cremation. Return Home’s standard pricing is $4,950.
Eileen Weresch first heard about human composting on an NPR segment back in 2019. She researched the process and, that night, brought it up over chicken fajitas with her family.
“I was fascinated,” said Eileen. “We talked about how it’s carbon capturing instead of carbon emitting; how it’s going back to our roots.” And so it was decided: Eileen and Wes wished to undergo human composting when they died. Eileen recalled that Fritz, “was super into it, too.”
Fritz was an organ donor. While Wes and Eileen held vigil during their son’s final days on life support, they heard from several of Fritz’s friends. They wanted Fritz’s parents to know he had told them he wanted his body to be composted when he died. Those friends, along with hundreds of classmates and loved ones, lined the halls of the hospital for Fritz’s “honor walk,” when Fritz was wheeled to the operating room where his organs were prepared for donation.
“I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves,” Eileen told those who had gathered to say goodbye. After Fritz died, his body was transported to Return Home.
“I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves.” — Eileen Weresch, Mother to a terramated young person
Truman, the founder of Return Home, was an investor when he first heard about human composting. He’d been looking for a new focus in life. “I’d come to the conclusion that infinite growth in a finite world is madness,” he says. He wanted to build a company where “the bigger it gets, the better the world gets.”
After first hearing about human composting, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, it struck him as odd. But the more he talked to people who loved the idea of becoming soil after death, the better he understood the appeal. “Love it or hate it,” he says, “this idea will live in your head rent-free. I just had to do it.” He opened Return Home in June of 2021.
Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says they receive calls from all over the world, from people who want to know more about human composting, which is estimated to become a $1 billion industry. Traditional funeral homes in Washington are responding to this demand, many of which have added human composting as a line item, working with providers to transport bodies to their facilities.
Human composting as practiced by startups like Return Home isn’t the only way to lessen the environmental burden of deathcare, said Carlton Basmajian, urban planner and author of Planning for the Deceased. The terramation process is best understood as an alternative to cremation because the body is broken down in a facility and the family is given the remains at the end of the process. He said he sees more promise in so-called “natural” or “green” burials, which entails designating land for the burial of bodies without chemicals or coffins. (Many of these sites, including one that Eileen approached, only allow for burials during warmer months when the soil is soft.)
“[Natural burial] has the potential to allow us to preserve and rehabilitate larger areas of land,” said Basmajian.
Truman said he believes the process at Return Home gives families more time to grieve, compared to the long-standing traditions of the funeral industry. With human composting, families can visit their loved one’s vessel throughout decomposition. They can call and check in on how the process is going. The traditional funeral industry, Truman says, has turned grieving into a 48-hour process, but many find that insufficient. “We hurt, and we do it for a long time.”
In February, more than two months after Fritz died, Eileen received a call notifying her that Fritz’s body had completed its transformation into soil. She and her husband are now making plans to distribute his remains to loved ones and build a memorial garden in his honor.
— These ‘green funerals’ offer an eco-friendly afterlife.
Traditional burial and cremation pollute the ground and emit carbon dioxide. People are looking for new options.
By Allie Yang
You may have seen the headlines: Earlier this year, New York State became the sixth in the nation to legalize something called human composting. In 2022, Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose to be cremated not by flame, but by water, in a process called alkaline hydrolysis. In 2019, actor Luke Perry was buried in a “mushroom suit” made of cotton and seeded with mushroom spores. All were part of a push to make the afterlife more eco-friendly.
Death care has remained largely unchanged in the United States ever since embalming and burial became the de facto method as far back as the Civil War, says Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of death care advocacy nonprofit Order of the Good Death. Most people don’t even have access to other options: burials and cremation are the only methods that are legal in all 50 states.
Traditional burial methods harm the planet in various ways. Embalming slows the decay of a person’s body so that it’s presentable at a funeral—but after burial, the chemicals used for embalming leach into the ground. Caskets require enormous amounts of wood and metal, and cemeteries often build concrete vaults in the ground to protect them. Even cremation requires a lot of fuel, and generates millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
Now, however, a variety of theoretically more sustainable death care alternatives are increasingly being offered around the country. Here’s what you need to know.
Green or natural burial
Green burials have been used as long as humans have been burying bodies. Both Native American and Jewish communities traditionally use green burials. But in recent generations, they have fallen out of fashion as people opted for more elaborate burials. Green or “simple” burials became more commonly used for the poor and wards of the state.
These are generally defined as burials using materials that are both nontoxic and biodegradable. In a typical green burial, the deceased is dressed in a 100 percent cotton shroud and buried in a plain pine box.
In some cases people choose to “become” a tree in death by having a tree planted over their plot. (However, the tree burial pods that kicked off this trend—in which bodies are wrapped in an egg-shaped pod that supposedly feeds the roots of a young tree—are not available for commercial use and it’s unclear if they are even viable.)
Almost every cemetery in the U.S. has an area reserved for green, or “simple” burials, according to Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council (GBC), which helps educate and certify burial grounds meeting sustainability standards. On some burial properties, plots are marked via GPS and a natural stone marker—otherwise, the area is left to grow wild, becoming less like a cemetery and more like a nature preserve full of life.
Most families who choose natural burial also forgo embalming, often seeing the process as overly invasive, when refrigeration alone adequately preserves the body. Others opt for gentler embalming fluids made without formaldehyde, which are becoming increasingly available.
But could these simple burials contribute to the spread of disease or pollution of the land? The data from existing research on traditional cemeteries “doesn’t indicate that bodies are dangerous in and of themselves,” says Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education and former director of GBC, adding that vaults, chemicals, and non-organic containers used in traditional burial do contribute to pollution.
Further, the WHO has found “no evidence that corpses pose a risk of epidemic disease—most agents do not survive long in the human body after death.”
Still, it’s unclear if some of the newer variations of green burials are effective. For example, the brand responsible for Luke Perry’s mushroom suit claimed it would neutralize toxins and give nutrients back to the earth. Years earlier, however, the suit’s maker had hired mortician Melissa Unfred to study the suit—Unfred found there was no evidence the suit had any real effect.
One cremation creates an average of 534 pounds of carbon dioxide, one scientist told Nat Geo in 2016. Toxins from embalming fluid and nonorganic implants like pacemakers or tooth fillings also go up in smoke. Water cremation—also known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis—produces the same result with significantly less environmental impact and for some, a spiritual benefit.
Native Hawaiians practiced a form of water cremation for thousands of years. They would use heated volcanic water to break down the bodies of their loved ones, says Dean Fisher, water cremation consultant and former director of Mayo Clinic’s donated body program. Then they would bury the remaining bones, where they believed the soul’s spiritual essence was stored.
Water cremation machines work by pumping a heated alkaline fluid around a body for four to six hours, exponentially accelerating the natural decomposition process. Bodies can be embalmed or unembalmed and dressed in any material that is 100 percent natural. After the body breaks down, only bones and non-organic implants remain. The bones are dried, crushed, and returned to the family.
The only byproduct of water cremation is nontoxic, sterile water that can be recycled into the local water supply—270 gallons of it, or slightly less than what the average American household uses in a day. There are no emissions into the ground or air.
But water cremation does have its drawbacks. For one, traditional cremations are more readily available, faster, and usually less expensive. Water cremation also requires energy to heat the water and run the pump, although a Dutch study from 2011 showed that’s only 10 percent of the energy used in flame cremation.
Further, some critics of water cremation argue it is immoral or disrespectful to the deceased, akin to flushing your loved one down the drain. However, advocates counter that water cremation simply accelerates the natural decomposition process and is no different from the blood from routine embalming that also goes through water treatment to be neutralized.
Either way, water cremation appears to be gaining steam in the U.S. It is currently legal in 28 states—and 15 of them approved it within the last decade.
Human composting turns bodily remains to soil through a highly controlled process—very different from food composting that can be done in your backyard. In a sealed container, a body is cocooned in a mix of natural materials like wood chips and straw. Over a month or more, the vessel heats up from active microbes that start to break the body down. Fans blow oxygen into the container, which is regularly rotated to reactivate the microbes.
After 30 to 50 days, bone and any non-organic matter are taken out. The bones are then ground down and returned to the material. It takes another few weeks to “cure,” as microbes finish their work and the soil dries out. The end result is a cubic yard of compost that families can use or donate to environmental causes.
There are environmental costs to human composting, also called natural organic reduction (NOR). Fuel is needed to transport elements like wood chips, and electricity is used to power air pumps, fans, and the vessel rotation.
“We’re just getting started as a company tightening [those elements] up,” says Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, the first NOR facility in the country located in Seattle, Washington. Still, she says the company’s own assessment of the process showed just over a metric ton of carbon savings per person over traditional cremation or burial.
Human composting is rare. It’s only legal in six states—most recently in New York in January. But a Massachusetts lawmaker has also proposed a bill to allow human composting, and advocates like Spade believe that a number of states will legalize it in 2023.
But even if you’re not interested in an eco-friendly afterlife, advocates say that these burial alternatives come with another advantage: Families can be more involved in the death care of their loved ones, from bathing and dressing them at home to lowering their body into the grave if they choose a green burial.
“It’s not required. But it’s always encouraged to do what you can, if you wish,” Bixby says, adding that most families embrace being part of the process. “You’ll watch them go through the gamut of emotions… then when they’re done, they’ll have this genuinely serene smile on their face. They found a greater sense of acceptance of that passing through the process.”
Americans are looking for greener ways to die, and a new wave of deathcare startups are rising to the occasion.
After death, bodies are typically handled in one of two ways: embalmed and buried in a casket, or incinerated and turned into ashes. But both of these options have contributed to the environmental crisis – with fossil fuel-intensive cremation emitting chemicals such as carbon monoxide into the air, and burials taking up large swathes of land.
As interest in alternatives rises, startups aiming to disrupt these practices are gaining steam. New York in January became the sixth state in the US to legalize human composting, also known as “natural organic reduction”, which uses heat and oxygen to speed up the microbial process that converts bodies into soil.
The growth in demand comes in part due to Covid-19, experts say. The pandemic brought death to the forefront of the public consciousness and exposed concerns about its environmental destruction, as places like Los Angeles had to suspend air pollution rules to allow an influx of bodies to be processed.
Human composters are pitching themselves as part of the solution – and trying to dismantle the funeral industry in the process. The potential to alter an age-old practice has brought together former Silicon Valley types, celebrity investors and mission-driven entrepreneurs as interested in lofty green goals as they are in changing our relationship to death.
Providers say they are seeing unprecedented demand. The human composting startup Return Home has seen 20 people from California, where human composting is not yet legal, transport loved ones to the company facilities in Washington state – including five who drove with bodies in tow.
“The fact that we are now seeing so many Californians flocking to Return Home in order to pre-purchase services for themselves and their loved ones is proof-positive that [our technology] is the future of funeral services,” said Micah Truman, the company’s CEO and founder.
Founders paint a picture of an industry that is both collegial and competitive, where entrepreneurs connect at meetups and through group chats but often find themselves looking over their shoulders for people entering the industry with less altruistic views. This is especially true as old guards of the funeral industry seek to cash in on the new trend, Truman said.
“It’s interesting because to create disruption, we are going to have to have outsiders coming in,” he said. “Because everyone in the funeral industry is so invested in existing technologies, you need outsiders to help with thinking outside the box – no pun intended.”
An industry poised to explode
Natural organic reduction is a relatively new process, recognized throughout the industry as having been pioneered by a woman named Katrina Spade. In her graduate thesis in 2013, Spade investigated methods farmers had been using to compost animals and found they could be applied to human bodies. When remains are placed in a container with natural materials like straw and wood chips, the microbial process that converts bodies into soil can be accelerated. Composting a human currently takes eight to 12 weeks, and is estimated to use just one-eighth the energy required for cremation.
In the ensuing years, Spade worked with lobbyists, lawmakers and investors to legalize natural organic reduction in Washington in 2019. By December 2020, her company Recompose had made it available to consumers for $7,000 – in line with the median cost of cremation, at $6,971, and the median cost of a funeral with burial, at $7,848, not including cemetery plot costs, which can run upwards of several thousand dollars.
In the years since, at least three companies have sprung up in Washington alone, some of which have secured millions in funding from venture capital firms. And with more states catching on, entrepreneurs say the industry is livelier than ever.
At least six states have legalized the process so far, and California, the most populous US state, will allow human composting in 2027 after a law passed last year goes into effect, opening up the potential for millions of new customers.
“In Washington, where human composting has been legal for some time, the industry is concentrated and hyper-competitive,” Truman said. “But I’m sure everyone is going to be doing pushups and getting ready to go to California as soon as it opens.”
The commercialization of alternative deathcare is already creating tension in an industry built on a fraught product. It’s difficult to get people to talk about death, much less invest in it. This has left deathcare entrepreneurs and advocates for greener death grappling to balance altruistic goals with the demands of startup culture, according to Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and author of several books about death and the funeral industry.
“There is a newer disconnect between the fundamental idea of ritual around death in human composting versus a bizarre appeal to Silicon Valley that is emerging,” she said. “It is a fascinating development.”
With the traditional funeral market worth $20bn, it is no surprise new technologies have piqued the interest of tech investors. A 2019 survey from the funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green-burial options, and experts have estimated that the emerging market opened by legalization efforts in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and New York could create a market value in the $1bn range.
There is also a growing market in Gen Z and millennials, who have been called the “death positive” generation – more willing to discuss after-life plans at younger ages and try green alternatives. Startups are rising to the occasion with social media outreach: Return Home has more than 617,000 followers on TikTok, where its employees answer questions like “what happens to hip replacements in the human composting process?” and “how does it smell during the process?”
Human composting is not the only alternative deathcare option that is seeing increased interest. Others include aquamation, a process legal in 28 states by which the body is turned into liquid and then powder. Green burial, in which bodies are interred without embalming or a casket and allowed to decompose naturally over time, is legal in almost all states, but laws vary as to where the body can be buried.
But of all the alternative options, human composting seems to have gotten the most attention, said Doughty.
“I do see the composting space as being uniquely competitive in a way that I haven’t seen with [other processes] like aquamation or even cremation,” she said. “It seems uniquely positioned at a nexus of climate change policy and new technology that appeals to the Silicon Valley ethos.”
A focus on ethics
The environmental benefits of alternative deathcare have become a large selling point for companies as green investments trend upwards. Transcend, a New York-based green burial startup that promises to turn human bodies into trees after death, highlights its goal of mass reforestation and eco-friendly burial in its advertising, stating on its website: “Every Tree Burial creates a healthier foundation for all life on Earth.”
Its founder and CEO, Matthew Kochmann, has a Silicon Valley background, counting himself as one of the first employees at Uber. He came to the deathcare industry after meditating on the spiritual nature of burial options, he says.
“I was thinking about how I personally would like to become a tree after death, and I realized that there weren’t any options out there to make that happen – I’d have to do it myself,” he said. “I am a huge advocate of helping heal humanity’s relationship and fear around mortality.”
Through Transcend’s process, the body is buried in organic biodegradable flax linen along with a unique blend of fungi-enriched soil, and a young tree is planted in the ground above it. The company says the mushrooms then “work their magic” to ensure “a direct connection between the nutrient-rich body and the tree’s root system so that the body can literally become the tree”.
The company has piqued the interest of investors and celebrities, with Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, counting himself among the company’s advisers. Still, fundraising hadn’t always been easy, Kochmann said, adding that some investors had told him: “We don’t invest in taboo areas like pornography or death.”
“Putting death on par with pornography just shows that there’s still a lot of work to do in our culture and our society to get people more comfortable with it,” he said.
Recompose, the original human composting startup, has raised nearly $18m – none of which, its founder is quick to point out, came from traditional venture capital funds, but instead from accredited “values-aligned investors”, Spade said – investors who “are first and foremost investing for the mission and the vision” of Recompose.
Spade said the company had prioritized fundraising models that allow it to stay true to its roots as an advocacy group while still creating sustainable funding. It has also launched a “community fund” to help subsidize its services for clients who cannot afford to pay full price.
The company has worked directly with legislators to pass laws that allow for human composting while creating a framework that supports strong ethics in the burgeoning industry.
“We want to be sure that any kind of human composting operator that’s working with grieving families is doing so within the utmost ethical practices,” she said. “It is not only about how to decompose, operate, and care for our clients – but also, how can we support an industry that always has the most ethical, rigorous operations?”
Spade said although her company had been the first to pioneer human composting, she was “thrilled” to see the movement grow. And although the new frontier of deathcare is getting increasingly crowded in some places, those involved say there is an environment of camaraderie and support as they work towards a common goal: taking down the monopoly that the traditional funeral industry has on death.
“This is a community that has to prioritize solidarity,” said Kochmann. “You are fighting for legislation, you are fighting regulatory battles, and you are fighting an uphill consumer battle because people don’t want to think about death.”
I’m standing at the summit of Fernwood Cemetery just outside San Francisco. Live oaks sprout from the hills like leafy castles. A red-tailed hawk turns circles in the sky above me. And below me, hundreds of bodies are slowly returning to the earth. Thisvista takes in one of the largest natural burial sites in California. Every person here (or their loved ones) decided that their last act should be as green as possible.
My own mother died in July with no instructions on how she wanted to be laid to rest. My sister and I faced wrenching weeks planning her funeral. We had to navigate a disorienting “death care” marketplace, as the industry is called. I faced the unenviable task of sorting through options such as Titan Series Steel Casket, Bahama Blue Granite Cross Grave Markers and something called the Athena Urn Vault. These were only the accessories. Securing a burial plot in my area — even with just a shroud and no headstone — could cost $15,000.
Overwhelmed, my family finally chose a simple cremation, scattering my mother’s ashes in a small park under a Monterey pine. Cremation was not the most climate-friendly choice, but it felt like the best we could do in the crush of the moment.
Dying in modern America has never presented so many difficult (or expensive) choices. Tradition once circumscribed us. In the 20th century, 95 percent of Americans had one kind of death ritual: embalming and then viewing the body in a funeral setting, says Shannon Dawdy, a University of Chicago anthropologist.
But a distinct shift is underway in how we approach death. More than half of Americans are seeking greener funerals, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and the percentage is rising. The funeral industry is responding: You can now be entombed in a coral reef. Donated to science. Freeze-dried and shattered into thousands of pieces. Set adrift in an ice urn. “Purified” by mushroom suits. Or, in a return to the past, simply buried in your backyard.
What makes a funeral green? I found lots of claims — and a few studies — about the things that make a meaningful difference for the environment. The search also raised some discomforting questions: Just how open was I, for example, to dissolving my body in a vat of lye? (I’m in. I think.)
So I’ve marshaled the best available evidence to help you make a more informed decision for yourself, or someone else. The most important step, no matter what you choose, is just to start. In the United States, only 24 percent of Americans plan their own funeral. That leaves it up to your loved ones during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Here’s your chance to decide.
Casket burial vs. cremation
For Jacquelyn Day Hovakimian, 35, a librarian in Lakewood, Calif., her funeral was too much to face. She wanted her death to leave the world a bit better, “but every time I initially tried to look into it, I got too emotional,” she said. “Oh God, death. But the more I faced it, it took away the taboo and emotions, and I could make a logical and unbiased decision for myself.”
She eliminated the idea of cremation or an elaborate coffin burial. While these account for 94 percent of all funerals in the United States, they are also the worst for the environment. Each year, cemeteries in the United States use 64,000 tons of steel and 1.6 million tons of concrete — enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge — in addition to more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, according to the nonprofit Green Burial Council.
Each cremation, which incinerates bodies with propane torches, emits greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving 500 miles in a car. Both methods are relatively new, having displaced millennia-old traditions of simple shrouds or pine coffins in just the past century or so.
“The modern American way of death is really a post-Civil War phenomenon,” says David Sloane, an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book Is the Cemetery Dead? “And it’s clear modern funerals are the worst environmental polluter by far.”
Next, Hovakimian looked into human composting. This method places human remains into a steel vessel with nothing more than water, heat, mulch and preexisting microbes, accelerating natural decomposition. After about 45 days (and some turning of the vessel), the body becomes a cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil and bones.
Tom Harries, the founder of Earth Funeral,an Auburn, Wash.-based firm offering the service, says “soil transformation” has been done for all ages, from fetuses to centenarians. The soil is returned to loved ones or spread across reforested land on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where soil and trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air.
The environmental impact is negligible, consuming about 40 gallons of water and a modest amount of electricity. Human composting is already legal in California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Colorado, as well as for anyone willing to ship a body to those states.
Natural or green burials account for a tiny but growing share of all funerals in the United States. Bodies are buried in a shroud or biodegradable caskets made of wood, bamboo or cardboard. No embalming, grave liners or conspicuous headstones are allowed.
Some cemeteries offering green burials may protect and restore wildlife habitat, while others, such as Life After Life in Brooklyn, plan to turn industrial brownfields and urban sites into cemeteries serving local communities with new parks. Natural burials, like human composting, have minimal environmental impact — perhaps even positive. The Green Burial Council estimates the process sequesters 25 pounds of carbon dioxide while avoiding energy-intensive mowing, fertilizing and watering.
There’s no single standard for natural burials, but at least 368 cemeteries offer them in the United States, while some state organizations will help you plan a burial on your property. You can also hire someone like Elizabeth Fournier, known as the “Green Reaper,” an independent undertaker in Oregon and author of the Green Burial Guidebook.
Water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis)
None of these options worked for Hovakimian. Human composting wasn’t available in her state at the time, and she felt a burial plot, however green, would make it hard for her family to “let go.”
Instead, she picked a process called alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, through the California-based company Pisces. The technique, first used by funeral homes around 2011 and legal in about 28 states, immerses bodies in a vat of hot, highly alkaline water (95 percent water, 5 percent potassium hydroxide). The soft tissues dissolve within a few hours. The resulting tea-colored liquid — a sterile mix of salts, sugars and amino acids unwound from DNA — is safe to pour onto the ground as fertilizer, or down the drain. As in conventional cremations, the bones are ground up into a fine powder.
The roughly four-hour process uses a modest amount of electricity and water (about 400 gallons). While a bit more expensive than conventional cremations, greenhouse gas emissions from the process are negligible.
For Hovakimian, choosing water cremation “was incredibly easy.”
“I’d rather put less crap in the air, and maybe leave the place a little better for the future,” says the librarian, whose family came around to the idea after initial resistance. “It also just seems a little nicer than being set on fire.”
Measuring the impact of a green funeral
How can you pick what’s right for you? Consider your culture and whether you want something traditional — knowing today’s “traditional” funerals date back, at most, to just after the Civil War, says Sloane.
For perspective, consider the work of Dutch sustainability researcher Elisabeth Keijzer. She has tabulated the environmental impact of everything from the cotton lining in coffins to the emissions from driving a hearse. Not all emissions, or effects, are direct. Composting and alkaline hydrolysis do not directly emit much greenhouse gas, but building the facilities where they take place consumes significant energy.
Given these differences between funerals (and countries), it was hard to pin down exact numbers for each process. But in a 2017 study, Keijzer found a clear pattern: Burials and cremations had the largest impact, particularly on the climate, while options such as human composting or green burials were much lower, if not dramatically different from one another.
Ultimately, she questioned the focus on funerals entirely. Compared to other activities during a person’s lifetime, the climate change impact of a funeral is “very small,” she wrote. The most carbon-intensive conventional burial represents just over 0.03 percent of the average Dutch citizen’s lifetime emissions. In the United States, where per capita emissions are about twice as high, this share would probably be even lower.
Ultimately, one eco-friendly burial will not outweigh a lifetime of emissions. So choose a green funeral, if you wish. But from a climate perspective, the way you live will always eclipse what happens after you die.