‘Being the Smoke’: One Man’s Choice to Be Cremated Under the Open Sky

A small Colorado town maintains the country’s only public outdoor funeral pyre. Philip Incao saw it as his own perfect ending.

The cremation of Dr. Philip Incao at the country’s only public open-air funeral pyre in his adopted hometown, Crestone, Colo. His shrouded body was laid on a metal grate and covered completely with wood.

By Ruth Graham

Philip Incao was about 6 years old when he asked his mother if it was true he would die. Yes, she replied. And what happens afterward? he asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “You just die, that’s all.”

It was a profoundly unsatisfying answer, and one that Dr. Incao later identified as the starting point for a lifetime of study.

He pursued a path that wound through medical school, training in holistic healing and devotion to the early 20th-century esoteric Rudolf Steiner, a polymath who theorized that the spiritual world could be explored through scientific methods.

Decades of searching led him all the way to an unconventional decision about what would happen to his body after his death.

Before Dr. Incao died of prostate cancer on Feb. 28 at age 81, he arranged for a cremation in his adopted hometown, Crestone, Colo., at the country’s only public open-air funeral pyre.

“All the old forms, all the old rituals, are being loosened up,” he explained in interviews in the months before his death. And through this type of cremation, he planned to be a part of that shift.

He knew his body would be wrapped into a simple shroud, carried on a wooden stretcher into an enclosure, and placed on a platform a few feet from the ground. His sons and his wife would light the fire and watch his body burn for several hours. The next day, they would collect the ashes. He had attended several cremations at the pyre, and he was ready.

Dr. Incao’s family members carried his body to the pyre.
Dr. Incao’s family members carried his body to the pyre.
The pyre itself is a utilitarian structure: two waist-high stuccoed concrete walls lined inside with firebrick, and spanned by a plain metal grate.
The pyre itself is a utilitarian structure: two waist-high stuccoed concrete walls lined inside with firebrick, and spanned by a plain metal grate.

About 70 people have been cremated at the pyre in Crestone since it opened more than a decade ago. Its services are restricted to residents and landowners in Saguache County, with a population of less than 7,000 people spread across some 3,000 square miles.

Set inside a circular wooden fence a few miles out of town, with the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains looming in the background, the pyre itself is a utilitarian structure: two waist-high stuccoed concrete walls lined inside with firebrick, and spanned by a plain metal grate.

The simple design represents a defiant upending of American death rituals. Instead of a body being whisked away by a funeral home, it stays on view at home for several days. And rather than being chemically “preserved” and placed in a sealed coffin, it remains on ice, but otherwise in its natural state.

“Burial as a practice in the U.S. is basically designed so that the American family doesn’t have to deal with the dying,” Dr. Incao reflected in December. By then, he was mostly confined to his bed, where he rested, met with friends, sorted through his belongings, and read books about reincarnation and near-death experiences.

More than half of Americans are cremated after death, a remarkable change from the 20th century, when it was “completely against American sensibilities,” said Gary Laderman, a professor in the department of religion at Emory University. But Crestone’s approach goes even further, defying one of traditional cremation’s core promises, to make the body disappear quickly and invisibly. A body on the pyre turns into ash and smoke while friends and family keep vigil for hours under the open sky.

Community cremation sites are commonplace in some parts of India, but they remain taboo in the United States. A Buddhist retreat center in northern Colorado maintains a private pyre, but efforts to open public sites like Crestone’s have faltered, running up against squeamish cultural sensibilities about death.

“Burial as a practice in the U.S. is basically designed so that the American family doesn’t have to deal with the dying,” Dr. Incao reflected in December.
“Burial as a practice in the U.S. is basically designed so that the American family doesn’t have to deal with the dying,” Dr. Incao reflected in December.
Dr. Incao spent his life exploring the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which guided his interest in philosophy and spirituality as well as his approach to his medical career.
Dr. Incao spent his life exploring the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which guided his interest in philosophy and spirituality as well as his approach to his medical career.

“Folks who haven’t had direct experience of open-air cremation, whether it’s in Colorado or in Asia, can have some pretty strange associations,” said Angela Lutzenberger, a hospice chaplain who bought 63 acres of land in Dresden, Maine, that she hopes to turn into a pyre site. “They build up creepy ideas about what it could be.”

It is not a coincidence that Crestone is the pyre’s home. About 200 miles south of Denver, the former gold mining town has attracted a population drawn to Eastern religious practices and wisdom traditions for decades. Its reputation solidified in the 1980s, when a Danish-born spiritual seeker and her oil magnate husband established a sprawling development just outside town that bills itself as the “largest intentional, interreligious and sustainable living community in North America.”

The winding roads around that development — with street names like Serene Way and Jubilant Way — lead to several towering Buddhist shrines, retreat centers and a spiral ziggurat commissioned in the 1970s by the father of Jordan’s Queen Noor. Some locals refer to a “vortex” of energy in the area.

“There’s no other place quite like this in America,” said Dr. Incao’s son Sylvan, who visited his father there often over the years.

Sylvan had come to Crestone on a chilly week in March that would culminate in his father’s cremation. Fliers with information about the ceremony were posted at the health food store and the cafe next door, which function as the town’s social center. “Please carpool whenever possible,” the flier read. “Pyre lit at 8 AM.”

Bruce Becker, left, and Noah Baen, treasurer of the Crestone End of Life Project, stood in the smoke during Dr. Incao’s cremation.
Bruce Becker, left, and Noah Baen, treasurer of the Crestone End of Life Project, stood in the smoke during Dr. Incao’s cremation.Credit…
A vista of the San Luis Valley above Crestone.
A vista of the San Luis Valley above Crestone.

Dr. Incao had moved to Crestone with his second wife, Jennifer, in 2006, after practicing “anthroposophic” medicine — a Steiner-inspired holistic approach that many mainstream physicians characterize as pseudoscience — in upstate New York and Denver.

Dr. Incao graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, but his career radically changed course when he was introduced to alternative medicine and Steiner’s work. Steiner lectured widely on topics including philosophy, Christianity, finance, architecture and art. His ideas about education led to the Waldorf school movement; his thinking on agriculture inspired biodynamic farming.

Steiner’s view of medicine was a revelation for Dr. Incao. He went on to spend his life exploring the teachings of Steiner, whose work guided not just his interest in philosophy and spirituality but his medical career.

He believed in reincarnation, which he felt gave a sense of purpose to life. And he was devoted to the idea of what he considered a “natural” approach to medicine.

For Dr. Incao, that meant choices that would seem extreme to many, even some members of his family. He strongly opposed vaccination, publishing articles and offering testimony against childhood vaccines and eventually opposing the Covid-19 shots. When he became sick, he declined traditional treatments for his cancer, including chemotherapy. He was at home in Crestone, where many residents are skeptical of traditional medicine.

Dr. Incao believed that the moment of death was just the beginning of “the process of separation of the human identity,” which he said took about three days.

And why be cremated outdoors? “You do it because it makes a lot more sense than the alternative, which is giving the body over to the undertaker,” he said. He decided on cremation after moving to Crestone, and officially signed up about four years ago.

Sylvan, 49, and his brother Sebastian, 47, supported their father’s plans, which they saw as in keeping with his spiritual sensibility and nonconformist streak. “He loved nature,” said Sebastian, an acupuncturist in New York. “It seemed like a very powerful way to liberate his spirit.”

Sebastian, right, and Sylvan supported their father’s plans, which they saw as in keeping with his spiritual sensibility and nonconformist streak.
Sebastian, right, and Sylvan supported their father’s plans, which they saw as in keeping with his spiritual sensibility and nonconformist streak.
Stacks of cedar are carried to the clay oven.
Stacks of cedar are carried to the clay oven.

Their older brother, Quentin, 51, was not so sure. He knew his father was a nonconformist, but he was still shocked when Dr. Incao told him about his intentions, on one of Quentin’s visits from his home in Montana. “It just didn’t make sense to me, I couldn’t understand it,” he recalled. He had agreed to be a pallbearer, but he was dreading the action of physically placing his father’s body on the pyre.

At a memorial service a few days before the cremation, the three brothers, their families and others gathered in Jennifer’s backyard art studio for a ceremony and eulogy delivered by a priest from the Christian Community, a small religious movement inspired by Steiner.

Dr. Incao’s body lay in repose at the front of the room, with wreaths of fresh carnations and other flowers on his body. “Into the calm of soul being walks the soul of our dear Philip,” the priest said, reading from a hand-transcribed book of sacred texts. “He is now on the other side of the threshold but his love has not stopped.” At the small outdoor reception afterward, deer grazed in the yard.

“It’s one of the most beautiful volunteer activities,” said Fane Burman, who has assisted at about a dozen cremations, helping stack the wood and tending to it as it burns. The nonprofit that operates the pyre, the Crestone End of Life Project, provides about a dozen local volunteers for each cremation. Although Mr. Burman does not always know the person who has died, “once the fire gets burning it brings tears to my eyes.”

Funeral guests delivered offerings of flowers and juniper boughs atop Dr. Incao’s body.
Funeral guests delivered offerings of flowers and juniper boughs atop Dr. Incao’s body.
About 70 people have been cremated at the pyre in Crestone since it opened more than a decade ago.
About 70 people have been cremated at the pyre in Crestone since it opened more than a decade ago.

On a cool Saturday, the family gathered at 7 a.m. to accompany Dr. Incao’s body from his home to the pyre about four miles west. A volunteer had wrapped the body in a shroud of sheets the night before and covered it in roses. The stretcher was carefully loaded into the back of Sylvan’s black pickup truck, and Quentin and Sebastian rode in the back with their father — “our last moments with him,” Quentin said. The truck slowly turned right at a small hand-painted sign reading “Pyre.”

By 7:30 a.m., about 70 people lined the path into the pyre site. A volunteer rang a bell to signify the start of the ceremony, and another played a tune on his handmade flute as the procession wound its way to the inside of the fence. The pallbearers laid the stretcher on the metal grate.

Dr. Incao’s ceremony began with family members and friends laying juniper branches and flowers on the body. Incense burned in a terra cotta pot tended by a volunteer, while others added logs until they were piled above the rim of the pyre. Then Jennifer and Dr. Incao’s sons lit large sticks in the incense pot and ignited the pyre together.

As the fire started to burn, Sylvan put his arm around Sebastian. A harpist played a tune as the flames crackled. Quentin wiped tears from his eyes, from smoke or emotion or both.

Smoke billowed thickly for about 10 minutes, and died down. By then, fire was putting off enough heat to warm the circle. Flaky ashes swirled in the air, which smelled of incense.

A “threshold choir,” which specializes in singing for the dying, performed some of the tunes they had sung for Dr. Incao in his last few months. “Safe passage, pilgrim of the spirit,” they sang. “We are all just walking each other home.”

Sylvan spoke about how he had always teased his father about wearing so many layers, always being cold. “With the fire going, he’s warm enough,” he concluded with a smile. Another friend performed a “hallelujah” — another Steiner concept — in which she solemnly circled the pyre, lifting and lowering her arms, moving forward and backward.

Quentin, who had questioned his father’s plans from the start, watched the ceremony quietly and intently. “It was almost like a weight lifted, to know he’s moved on,” he said later, as the crowd dispersed and the ashes smoldered.

He knew, in the end, it was what his father had wanted.

“He was looking forward to being the smoke.”

Complete Article HERE!

We Need to Talk about Mortuary Makeup

Societal beauty standards follow us to the grave.


It’s impossible to aestheticize death, but we still try. Shortly before the pandemic reached lockdown level last year, my 101-year-old grandmother died. When my mom proposed that I help her dress the body for the viewing, I obliged despite the fact that I creep out with ease. My grandmother was such a central figure in my life and I wanted a more private opportunity to say goodbye.

The experience fulfilled that expectation, but it also taught me that the process of prepping a body for burial is a vivid reflection of our relationship with societal beauty standards—an interminable dance that continues even after we die.

When we arrived at the funeral home the day before the viewing, the staircase leading us to the room where her body was kept felt like it spanned miles. What if she suddenly reanimates? If I tugged on a limb too hard, would it detach from the rest of her body? Once we got started, my anxieties were assuaged but my curiosity piqued. I knew that mortuary makeup was a common practice, but I didn’t anticipate how thorough the grooming would be; her skin had to look supple, her cheekbones had to look lifted and her complexion had to appear even and, at minimum, rosy-adjacent, given the circumstances.

The most shocking sight, though, was seeing the funeral director stuff my grandmother’s bra. After eight children and 101 years, the jig on perky breasts had long been up. So, what was the reason?

“I don’t know how I feel about stuffing bras, but it’s definitely something that embalmers do,” says L.A.-based funeral director Amber Carvaly. “It’s very commonplace and the idea is that people will look different laying down. But they’ll obviously look different because they’re dead and they’re lying in a casket.”

In a 2018 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Carvaly gave Kim Kardashian—who is, by many standards, an archetype of the eternal fascination with youth and beauty—a step-by-step on mortuary makeup. To elucidate the idea behind the practice to me, Carvaly compared it to the philosophy behind Kardashian’s controversial Balenciaga Met Gala look. Basically, we each have distinct signatures that we like to be known by while we’re alive and ideally, these become the attributes that we’re remembered by after we’re gone. Which means that it’s never ideal for a dead person to actually look dead.

“Kim’s image and who she is and what she looks like is so iconic that you don’t even have to see her face or an article of clothing. She can just be draped in black and you know exactly who she is. Like that’s her brand and her icon.”

In the funeral industry, this would be likened to a “memory picture”, a term Carvaly introduced me to during our chat. In essence, it refers to the lasting image of a decedent that’s ingrained in the minds of their loved ones. “It’s a memory of who they used to be,” she explains.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken our desire to make the dead look life-like to the ongoing obsession with looking younger, or to attribute the latter to a society-wide fear of dying. This is something that can’t be color-corrected, concealed, or glossed over.

“We are obsessed with image as society and as individuals,” Carvaly says. “But this idea is implanted while we’re alive. As women, we’re so obsessed with anti-aging and it sort of emerges from a fear of death.” Carvaly says that this even shows itself in how beauty trends evolve. “They change to keep us looking younger and if you wear a trend that’s from the past, it dates you,” she says.

We want the memory picture to capture our loved ones at their best, so the measures that we go to to bring corpses to a perceived standard are just symptoms of the widespread idea that younger is always better.

“We’re a death-denying society,” Carvaly adds. “We don’t like to talk about it, we don’t like to accept it, we don’t like to look at dead bodies because all of it just reminds us of our own mortality. We do so much of that while we’re alive, so of course it carries into death. We don’t even want to look at old ladies on screen—we only want to see people when they’re young and beautiful.”

But while this is a reflection of Western culture’s image-conscious underbelly, the process itself was therapeutic for me. My grandmother died overnight and I slept through my mom’s calls and texts to come to the hospital. Helping to dress her felt like an atonement for not being there, beckoning back to times when I would paint her nails, help to pick her church hats, or watch her apply baby powder with a glamorous, fluffy powder puff. It’s how I cared for her and how she cared for herself. “I think that from a standpoint of beauty as a ritual and beauty as a way to care for people, it’s something different. It’s grooming as a form of love instead of beautification to suit industry standards,” Carvaly tells me.

When Carvaly’s friend Maria passed away, applying makeup to her corpse was a way of honoring how she liked to be seen; while she was alive she was seldom seen without a red lip. “If someone had been like, ‘Don’t put lipstick on her!’ or, ‘She’s dead. Don’t glam her up,’ she would have haunted us,” Carvaly recalls.

Both my experience and the concept itself are multifaceted: I was comforted by the ritual, but alarmed at the extent to which it was practiced. We beautify the dead mostly with the living in mind: to filter the intensity of seeing a corpse, to create a comforting pre-funeral ritual, and to pacify the most pressing reminders of our own mortality. But our discomfort with aging and death is tampering with how we live, and that’s something that no amount of makeup can mask.

Complete Article HERE!

Inside the rise of human composting and other green burial practices

The quest to save the planet doesn’t end when your life does.

By Vanessa Taylor

Everybody’s going to die. That’s a fact of life. And there’s one thing everybody who dies has in common: We all got bodies. And when we die, something needs to happen with them. Most of the time, this involves cremating or embalming and burying — processes that tend to emit a lot of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. But with our climate apocalypse creeping ever closer unless we change our ways, conventional funerary practices are no longer cutting it. Enter: the green funeral movement.

Many Americans have been trying to pursue green funerals for a while. Traditional embalming and bury-in-a-coffin approaches involve the use of about 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of formaldehyde and other embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel, according to the Green Burial Council. Cremations are increasingly popular, likely because they’re often billed as the more environmentally friendly option of after-death care, but it’s harmful in its own way: It’s estimated that cremations in the U.S. alone account for about 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

If you look online for truly green funeral practices, you might see the more creative forms like eternal reefs or biodegradable burial pods. There are also companies like Return Home, which specializes in human composting, getting into the game. Return Home’s human composting method is a 50-day process that begins with the body being placed into a wooden cradle with organics like alfalfa and sawdust at the bottom. From there, the body is covered with more plant material and placed into a special HVAC system.

“The most important part of this [is] that we believe the body should not be altered at all,” Return Home CEO Micah Truman tells Mic. “By that we mean we don’t cut, grind, or separate at any point.” At most, Truman explains, Return Home sometimes has to reduce down the remaining bone at the end of 30 days to make for a suitable end product. But after that, he says, “We have soil that we give back to the families.”

In order to make a burial “green,” says Caitlyn Hauke, president of the Green Burial Council International, you just need “to not inhibit decomposition, allowing the body to go back to the earth naturally.”

That means a green burial can be as simple as ditching aspects of conventional burials that are bad for the environment. For example, each year, over 8,000 gallons of formaldehyde — one of the chemicals used in embalming — is put into the ground with dead bodies. But this chemical doesn’t stay inside of dead bodies forever; it leaks. Forgoing the embalming process can do a lot for sustainability.

Caskets themselves can be quite an issue, too. According to Milton Fields, the amount of casket wood buried each year is equivalent to about 4 million acres of forest. There’s also the use of concrete. As Carol Lilly, a professor of history and the director of international studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, tells Mic, “Many cemeteries insist on using concrete vaults for all burials because they help to prevent ground sinkage and thus serious maintenance problems.” But to produce just a single pound of concrete releases 0.93 pounds of carbon dioxide.

“Green burial” is a new term for an old practice.

Changing the funeral industry to be more sustainable might seem like a big undertaking. But the problems with conventional funerals are actually quite new. As Lilly explains, “Death rituals and funerary practices in the United States have changed dramatically over the past 200 years.”

And because funeral traditions vary widely between different faiths and groups, some communities’ death rituals are closer to being sustainable than others. “Funeral service is a highly segregated industry, both in terms of race and in terms of religion,” Truman, the CEO of Return Home, explains. “I’m Jewish, and there are Jewish funeral homes. There’s an African American funeral home downtown that builds a lot of community there. And that’s the way it’s always been.”

This separation isn’t necessarily bad. Sarah Chavez, the executive director of the Order of the Good Death, a death acceptance organization, tells Mic, “There are often so many small details that need to be adhered to [in funerals] … It can be a big comfort to know that your needs will be accommodated without having to teach someone what has to be done, and explain why it is so important.”

In looking at how death rituals vary, it’s important to remember that “green burial” is a new term for an old practice. “What we call green burial has always been practiced by people of Muslim and Jewish faiths because of their beliefs,” Chavez says. In Islam, it’s customary for bodies to be washed and shrouded, in a process known as ghusl. The bodies are then buried as quickly as possible either without a coffin (if local laws permit) or in a plain wooden one, which is biodegradable. Similarly, in Judaism, bodies are washed without embalming, wrapped in a plain shroud, and buried in a wooden casket without any metal or nails.

In the U.S., handling the dead used to be much more of a family affair. The phrase “funeral parlor” comes from visitations once being held in a family’s home “parlor” room, Lilly explains. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that embalming become hugely popular and funerals became professionalized. Death rituals — once deeply personal — were gobbled up by the new funeral industry.

“Although funeral home employees are largely well intended … Americans have become too far distanced from our deceased loved ones as a result, which may make the grieving process even more difficult,” Lilly tells Mic. “Death in American society during the 20th century became overly sanitized and often almost invisible.”

The U.S. has once again been taking up a cultural transition — this time towards green burials. In 2018, a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that nearly 54% of Americans are considering green burials, and 72% of cemeteries said they were seeing an increased demand, too.

“Our younger generations are teaching us how to die better.”

Since its launch in July 2020, Return Home has helped 45 families across various communities. Truman has found a bittersweet theme among his clients. “One of the most amazing things that’s happened to us is that young people are personally requesting it,” he shares. “It’s been unbelievable. Painful, but amazing. … We’re realizing that our younger generations are teaching us how to die better.”

But this shift in learning how to die better is about more than changing how people are buried. Overall, it’s a massive reexamination of how death is approached in the U.S. As Chavez says, it’s not just about “how these spaces can be used to care for the land, but each other — especially people from historically marginalized communities who are often not able to access the end-of-life options they desire.”

This can take shape in a number of ways. There can be community funds to help address funeral costs. Green burial practitioners can also do more to honor cultural differences, like accommodating ancestral rituals that need to be held at gravesites or holding ceremonies like Quinming, Obon, or Dia de los Muertos on funeral grounds. In the same vein, cemeteries can also respond to tragedies within their communities, rather than seeing themselves as a depoliticized site.

“Community altars are often created in response to deaths stemming from violence or police brutality,” Chavez says. These altars are often torn down by state officials in ways that can compound a community’s trauma. “Green burial grounds might consider creating a community altar or garden, providing an alternate space for collective mourning.”

Death itself isn’t evil. And while some might find it uncomfortable, neither is decomposition. At the end of the day, people are from the earth, and we’re meant to return to it. As Truman says, “It’s absolutely vital that we make sure the last thing we do on this planet is give back.”

Complete Article HERE!

The stunning rise of cremation reveals America’s changing idea of death

It’s now more popular than a traditional casket burial, and twice as common as it was two decades ago. What does that say about us?

An urn-filled atrium inside Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory building in Brooklyn. By 2040, 4 out of 5 Americans are projected to choose cremation over traditional burial.

By Karen Heller

In his half-century in the death business, Richard Moylan has never experienced years like these.

As president of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, he spends his days managing the historic site where families have spent the past couple years tending to loved ones lost to the pandemic. But the bigger change had been building before then: the choice to routinely cremate over traditional casket burial of years past.

At the height of the pandemic, Green-Wood’s crematory burned constantly, 16 to 18 hours daily. A wall recently collapsed. Maintenance costs spiked. Last year, 4,500 bodies entered the five chambers, a 35 percent increase over 2019.

So many ashes to ashes, so much dust to dust. Cremation is now America’s leading form of final “disposition,” as the funeral industry calls it — a preference that shows no sign of abating.

In 2020, 56 percent of Americans who died were cremated, more than double the figure of 27 percent two decades earlier, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). By 2040, 4 out of 5 Americans are projected to chose cremation over casket burial, according to both CANA and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

>This seismic shift represents potentially severe revenue losses for the funeral industry. It’s leading innovators to create a growing number of green alternatives and other choices that depart from traditional casket funerals. And rapidly shifting views about disposing with bodies have also led to changes in how we memorialize loved ones — and reflect an increasingly secular, transient and, some argue, death-phobic nation.

“Some people want it over and done with. You wonder if they’ll come to regret that later,” Moylan says of cremation. “With cremation families, a lot of them don’t want to know what we do or how we do it or don’t care to know what you can do with a cremated body. This generation just doesn’t want to do the three-day-long funeral home thing.”

The stunning increase in cremation is “the single greatest change in our funeral practices in our generation or, I’d venture to say, in the last couple of centuries,” says Thomas Lynch, a Michigan poet and funeral director of 50 years. “People want the body disappeared, pretty much. I think it reminds us of what we lost.” In the United States, Lynch notes, “this is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”

Other countries have been quicker to embrace the practice, like Japan, with a rate of almost 100 percent, in part because of its high density and paucity of burial grounds. Cremation is central to Hindu and Buddhist funeral practices, releasing the soul from the body. But Judaism, Catholicism and Islam resisted it, because of views about the sanctity of body and spirit in death. Though the United States’ first crematory opened in 1876 in Washington, Pa., Americans were slow to acceptance. They were just queasy about the practice. It took a century or more to evolve.

The rising cremation rate is “upending truly conventional ideas of how death and commemoration work,” says University of Southern California professor David Charles Sloane, the author of “Is the Cemetery Dead?” who grew up in one, his father a cemetery superintendent in Syracuse.

Traditional burials often use valuable space in high-density areas and may involve embalming chemicals, and non-biodegradable caskets with metal linings. But critics of cremation counter that it is dependent on fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases.

They argue that cremation can also have a desensitizing effect on families. It can be too easy. For some, it’s drive-through death. For others, cremation offers the opportunity to control and personalize life’s final ritual.

CANA estimates that 20 to 40 percent of cremated remains are interred in a cemetery — placed in the ground or a columbarium, a storage area for urns — while 60 to 80 percent are buried in another location, scattered (Walt Disney World a favored site) or kept at home, on the mantel or stashed in a closet. Some families bypass any ritual, be it saying goodbye to the body at the crematory, holding a funeral or establishing a permanent memorial. There’s resonance in a body that forces families to deal with death. “The body is the incarnation of our mortality and our emotional loss,” Lynch says.

“Some families see it as: ‘I did my job. They’re cremated.’ They just get frozen about making a decision from there,” Sloane says. “I don’t think it’s a lack of caring. It’s just confusion

CANA executive director Barbara Kemmis counters, “There’s this assumption that the funeral director is the only person who can provide a meaningful death ritual.” Her family chose to travel to Colorado and scatter her brother’s remains in a national park, a celebration that still resonates almost three decades later. “The cremation rate is 100 percent being driven by the general public. It’s all about what grieving families want. They’re creating their own traditions, their own experiences.”

For most of history, death was a constant of daily life. Disease was rampant. Children died all the time. Mothers died in childbirth — where often the child died, too. Wars created entire graveyards of young men and boys. People acknowledged life’s transitory nature by placing reminders on the paths they traversed routinely — not by sticking cremated remains in an urn in the basement. The dead were laid out in homes and buried on family property. They were memorialized in art and photography; their hair became keepsakes tucked in lockets and pins. They were commemorated in stone, both modest and grandiose

In the 19th century, “rural” cemeteries at the edge of growing cities, like Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. (1831), Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836) and Green-Wood (1838), were welcomed as parks.

Six decades ago, when the U.S. cremation rate was less than 5 percent, Jessica Mitford advocated for it as an affordable option in her searing, best-selling expose of the funeral industry, “The American Way of Death.” Her advice was not widely heeded, even with the Catholic Church’s 1963 lifting of its prohibition on cremation (though Islam and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism still prohibit it). Rates barely budged for years.

“Of all the rituals that humans do, death rituals are the most stable and least likely to change,” says Boston University professor Stephen Prothero. In the two decades since he published Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America,” Prothero has been astonished by the soaring acceptance. “I’m a historian. I’m always skeptical of projections. I thought they were way too high — but I was wrong.”

Cremation finally skyrocketed as America became increasingly secular. Last year, the number of people belonging to a house of worship dropped below 50 percent for the first time since Gallup launched the poll in 1937.

Americans also started to recognize the convenience of cremation and its lower cost. Comparisons are challenging because of the many options, but the median price of a funeral with burial and viewing is $7,848, according to the NFDA, while the median cost of direct cremation is a third of the price at $2,550. Cremation with viewing and funeral is comparable to traditional burial, with a median cost of $6,970.

For families scattered across multiple states, there often seems little point in investing the effort and expense to bury a loved one in a cemetery no one will visit. Like pet food and leisure footwear, cremation is now available through direct-to-consumer websites such as Solace and Tulip.

Cremation is more popular in states that vote Democratic, include large transient populations or endure brutal winters that make the earth frozen solid. (Canada’s rates are notably higher than those of the United States.) Cremation rates already hover near or over 80 percent in Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Maine. They remain half that in Utah and many Southern states with large religiously observant populations.

Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, advocate and author, says funeral directors haven’t done enough to address contemporary Americans’ wishes.

“The cremation rates are telling us something. They’re screaming at us that people are not happy with what is available,” she says. “Cremation is more a rejection of the traditional funeral industry than an acceptance of cremation.” She craves innovation and meaning: “We need safe, beautiful ways to engage with death.”

The pandemic generated profound loss. In 2021, almost three-fourths of American counties reported more deaths than births. The age-adjusted death rate spiked more than 19 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following a nearly 17 percent increase the previous year

Americans are nowhere near finished with spikes in death. The number of residents over 65 will nearly double in the next three decades, according to the Social Security Administration. The nation will experience a quarter more deaths by 2050 than it did in 2019. Deaths are projected to peak in 2055, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

Despite these escalations, many families have become no more adept at planning for the inevitable. “There is this hyper-optimism of America. You’re supposed to look on the sunny side of life, which also mitigates a full experience of grief,” Prothero says. Mourning is not always accorded its due. Bereavement leaves transpire in days.

Some who have lost a loved one revel in defying convention and remaining joyful. Families uncomfortable with the solemnity of traditional funerals have replaced them with birthday-like celebrations of life

When families choose cremation, they sometimes do so without a sense of long-term consequences. Elisa Krcilek, a funeral home vice president in Mesa, Ariz., where 80 percent of the families request cremation, says: “We’ve got to do a better job informing people that there’s a time to say goodbye and a place to say hello. The moment you scatter someone, you’re done. People need a memorial, to be remembered.”

As our supermarkets make clear, Americans crave choice. And with an increase in annual death has come more choice for dealing with bodies.

Many new ideas pick up on people’s willingness to eschew a casket, but are considered more environmentally viable than cremation. They include green burials (where the body is interred in a shroud or a biodegradable container so it naturally decomposes in the ground), natural organic reduction (human composting), promession (freeze-drying the body), infinity burial suits (a mushroom suit accelerating decomposition), and alkaline hydrolysis (a water-based, energy-efficient cremation process).

“If there’s anything that is going to slow down or reverse the cremation rate in the United States, it is green burials,” says Kemmis, the CANA executive director. “People are looking to the greenest final disposition so that our deaths will reflect our lives.”

Founded in spring 2019 Recompose in Seattle is the nation’s first company to offer natural organic reduction. The body is laid in a vessel on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw and transformed into soil over 30 days, enough to fill a pickup truck, for a flat fee of $7,000. Some families take some soil for personal use; about half donate it to a forest or farm. Subscribers to Recompose’s newsletter about “the death care journey” have swelled to 25,000. “People are looking for different options,” says Recompose outreach manager Anna Swenson. “Cost is a factor. Cultural beliefs are a factor. Guilt is a factor. The environment is a factor.” Recompose plans to expand to 10 facilities during the next decade.

New initiatives have met resistance from state legislatures and the funeral industry. Change is costly for the nation’s 18,874 funeral homes, many operating on slim margins, with consolidation frequent. Cremation, where the chamber heats to an optimum temperature of 1,400 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, requires an average of two to three hours; alkaline hydrolysis, with Bio-Response Solutions’ machines starting at $174,000, can take 16 to 20.

Natural organic reduction is legal only in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Promession is approved in Sweden and South Korea. Alkaline hydrolysis, which requires expanding the legal definition of cremation to include water, has been approved in 22 states but is available for humans in only 14.

Pets are another matter. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in suburban Philadelphia is home to the state’s first alkaline hydrolysis machine, which resembles an oversize fish poacher. In four years, 90 pets have been reduced to a fine white powder similar to baking soda, beginning with a five-foot-long alligator named Sheldon.

With a move away from burial and as families opt for less expense, some industry officials worry that some cemeteries will fall into disarray. “We’ve always had dead cemeteries, family cemeteries where family died out or the farm got sold or the church was disbanded,” Sloane says. With fewer burials, he notes, many cemeteries “are struggling to maintain themselves.”

Older, urban ones have different challenges. “The march toward cremation is a good thing for a cemetery like Green-Wood that’s running out of room,” Moylan says

Many historic sites have transformed themselves, hosting cultural events, membership programs and death cafes where people discuss life’s final passage. Hollywood Forever, founded in 1899, was on the brink of foreclosure in 1998 before new ownership added author discussions, podcasts, outdoor movie screenings and a massive Dia de los Muertos celebration. These events not only provide additional funding but build awareness at a time when cremation is king. “Ultimately, we’re building affinity with the community,” says Laurel Hill and West Laurel Cemeteries president Nancy Goldenberg.

Cemeteries are adapting to attract families interested in green alternatives, promoting them as a return to earlier practices. At West Laurel Hill, 258 people have pre-purchased space in the natural burial site, which was once the cemetery’s landfill site. In a century, the burial ground will be transformed into forest. Graves are hand-dug by shovel, rather than a gas-fueled backhoe loader. “People want to return to the earth in a very purposeful way,” says arboretum manager Aaron Greenberg.

More Americans are choosing to die at home or in hospice with loved ones nearby, according to a 2019 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, as people did for centuries, rather than in hospitals. “Passing away at home is bringing death into a place that matters,” Sloane says. “This could lead to more personalization and how we memorialize.”

Lynch, the poet and undertaker, says he would like to see more cremations that are witnessed, with families present at the last moments before the body enters the chamber. “Cremation should be public, not private.”

Death needs to be honored as it long was, advocates contend, as fully observed as life’s other events. “It would be great if more emphasis was placed on something special for the individual. If it’s personalized, it will have more meaning for the family,” Moylan says. He’s excited about green burial and alkaline hydrolysis, choices that are better for the environment. And when his time comes, Moylan says he will probably choose cremation, “probably because it’s the easiest thing to do.”

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Living Coffin makes sure we continue the Circle of Life even in death


Very few people are comfortable discussing matters related to death. In some cultures, it’s even taboo to do that. Despite social mores and psychological hurdles, there are businesses that thrive around the passing of family members and friends. The state environment might be the last thing on people’s minds when burying their loved ones, but it might shock them to learn that, even in death, we continue to harm the planet that has given us so much in our life. Since it’s a rather morbid topic that very few probably want to broach, it took vision, courage, and ingenuity to design a product that offers comfort to the bereaved while also giving back something to the environment, making sure that we continue to live on, even if in a completely different form.

Designer: Loop

Unless we have relatives or friends in the funeral business, we probably never give much thought to what pretty much becomes the last bed our body lies in. Presuming, of course, you don’t go for cremation or other practices and traditions. Few might have given any thought to the materials used for coffins, for example, and simply presume that they eventually decompose and disintegrate along with the human body. That, unfortunately, isn’t the case, and most of our funeral practices, be it burial or cremation, actually continue humanity’s crimes against Mother Nature.

The Living Coffin, which also goes by the less morbid name of Living Cocoon, shatters those misconceptions and even offers a way for people to make amends with the planet once they’ve ended their earthly journey. Instead of the typical materials used in coffins, which often use harmful chemicals or non-biodegradable materials, the “box” is actually made of mycelium. Or rather, the coffin is grown from a type of mushroom that is known for being nature’s biggest recycler.

The idea is not only for the coffin itself to return to the soil but also to transform dead organic matter into nutrients needed to grow plants. Yes, it basically turns your dead body into compost that could nurture new life. Instead of a cemetery filled with concrete, dead matter, and pollution, a burial site can actually become the start of a new forest, with each tree forever marking where your loved one was laid to rest. Inside the coffin is a bed of moss, rather than fabric or plastic, which helps the process along without poisoning the soil.

It is admittedly a novel concept that could unsettle some folks, but it is also a simple yet effective way to make sure that we leave behind a good legacy, no matter how we have lived our life. One of the things that people are advised to do in order to live forever is to plant a tree, but few of us are able to do so during our lifetime. The Living Coffin ensures that we’d still be able to do that after our death and could even have a tree to our own name.

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Americans are bad at talking about death, and it’s hurting the environment

The path to more eco-friendly burials starts with uncomfortable conversations about death

By Rachel Ashcroft

How often do you think about your own death? The answer is probably along the lines of “rarely, if ever.” Death denial is commonplace in the United States; indeed, in Western countries, people tend not to die at all, but “pass on” or “slip away” instead. Our own death, in particular, is something we try to avoid thinking about until we really have no choice in the matter.

This is perfectly understandable behavior. Thinking about death can be scary for many reasons, from fears about dying in pain to contemplating what happens after death. Longer lifespans and medical advances have made it easier to delay thinking about mortality. But death denial has many disadvantages, too. Avoidance can actually increase — not lessen — anxiety. We also risk leaving behind grieving loved ones who aren’t clear on our final wishes. Death denial is not just bad for individuals, either: There’s plenty of evidence to show that it is harmful to the environment, too.

Traditional funeral options are less than eco-friendly. In the U.S., some estimates suggest that cremation emits approximately 360,000 metric tons of CO2 each year. According to the Green Burial Council, heating a furnace at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours produces roughly the same emissions as driving 500 miles in a car. Burials pose their own set of problems: Caskets and vaults use a large amount of natural resources. Casket wood alone requires the felling of 30 million board feet of wood in the U.S. each year, and thousands of tons of steel and concrete are used to construct vaults. Embalming fluid (which contains carcinogenic chemicals) can contaminate groundwater around cemeteries.

At a time when large corporations are regularly held to account for their green principles, the funeral industry is one of the few players to escape the scrutiny of its practices. A culture of death denial facilitates this situation. In a society where death is considered “morbid,” who wants to build their activism around something that most of us avoid discussing? Prominent figures like Greta Thunberg rarely venture into the murky world of deathcare. On Instagram, eco influencers are far more comfortable snapping pictures of avocado on toast than discussing the perils of embalming fluid.

Things weren’t always this way. In the early 1900s, Americans lived in close proximity to the dead and dying. Bedside vigils, in which the entire family gathered around a dying relative, were extremely common. Most people died in their home, leaving family members to prepare the body. Historians argue that this changed when end-of-life care moved to hospitals and funeral parlors began looking after dead bodies. Death became far less visible. When people today view an open casket, the corpse is altered so as to hide the physical effects of death. This evolution from death in close proximity to death being hidden and painted over has fueled a tendency toward death avoidance which, when compared to many other world cultures, is a complete anomaly.

Fortunately for our planet, change is on the horizon. Several environmentally-friendly deathcare options are springing up across the United States. From water burials to natural organic reduction or “human composting,” the green deathcare industry is taking root. But in order to fast forward the process of offering people legalized, eco-friendly deathcare choices, we have to talk more openly about death and dying to begin with.

In practical terms, avoiding death talk allows myths and assumptions about funeral care to flourish. Just over half of Americans choose cremation each year, partly due to a (false) perception that it’s good for the environment. Caitlin Doughty, a prominent mortician and “death positive” advocate, has also reported instances of bereaved families being informed that embalming is a legal requirement — it isn’t. No state requires embalming or even burial inside a vault. If you’ve lived your whole life trying to reduce your carbon footprint, understanding what is and isn’t legal can help make your death greener, too.

People often say they “want to be a tree” after they die. But when we don’t examine traditional deathcare closely enough, it’s easy to overlook the fact that ash from cremated remains doesn’t enrich soil, while traditional burial prevents bodies from mingling with the earth. Setting aside time to explore other funeral options reveals the different ways that our remains can help plants grow. “Green burial” generally describes an unembalmed body placed in a shroud or biodegradable coffin, which is lowered directly into the ground. This allows the body to decompose into the surrounding earth. No state laws forbid green burial, and a growing number of cemeteries are offering this service. Human composting uses a combination of microbes, oxygen, and organic matter to convert corpses directly into soil. It’s legal in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, and bills are being considered in several other states.

There are some disadvantages to green deathcare. At the moment, price can be an issue. For society’s poorest, direct cremation (no viewing or visitation) costs as little as $1,000. Human composting, on the other hand, is priced between $7,000 to $10,000. There may also be religious issues pertaining to human remains; Washington’s legalization of human composting was opposed by Catholic groups who argued that composting didn’t show enough respect for the deceased body.

However, green deathcare will only become more affordable and widespread (for those who want it) if we learn how to talk about death in the first place. Of course, it can initially be uncomfortable to think about ourselves turning into ash or soil. But having as much information as possible about a topic is always empowering — even when it comes to your own death.

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A New Take on Death and Dying

In “The Future of the Corpse,” co-editors Karla Rothstein and Christina Staudt review the spectrum of death and offer ideas for change.

Christina Staudt, left, and Karla Rothstein are co-editors of “The Future of the Corpse.”

By Eve Glasberg

Around the globe, roughly 165,000 people die every day. The Neanderthals were the first human species to bury their dead, entombing them with stone tools, animal bones, and other artifacts in shallow graves.

The Future of the Corpse: Changing Ecologies of Death and Disposition, edited by architect and GSAPP Professor Karla Rothstein, founder and director of the GSAPP DeathLAB, and Christina Staudt, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Death, reviews the spectrum of death.

American society today is in a pivotal period for reimagining end-of-life care, funerary services, human disposition methods, memorializing, and mourning. The book’s editors and contributors outline the past, present, and future of death care rituals, pointing to promising new practices and projects that better integrate the dying and dead with the living, and create positive change that supports sustainable stewardship of the environment.

Rothstein and Staudt discuss the book with Columbia News, as well as what it was like to collaborate on the volume, and who they would invite to a joint party.

Q. What was the impetus behind this book?

Karla Rothstein: After discovering my graduate architectural design studio syllabi online a decade ago, Christina invited me to present to and then join the University Seminar on Death. In 2016 the seminar and GSAPP DeathLAB jointly organized a daylong colloquium—Designing for Life and Death—which brought academics and industry stakeholders together to probe New York City’s relationship with death, corpse disposition, and the potential for new forms and civic-sacred space. This book contains chapters by many of the colloquium’s interdisciplinary panelists, sharing their expertise on the complex and evolving aspects of dying, death, and remembrance.

Christina Staudt: The colloquium produced so many substantive and thoughtful ideas that we felt compelled to bring the content to a larger audience in a comprehensive volume on postmortem issues.

Q. What are some of the innovative projects and practices in the book that better integrate the dying and dead with the living, and create positive change supporting sustainable stewardship of the environment?

KR: Many cemeteries across the globe are facing dire limits on burial space. Cemeteries are cultural assets and provide crucial open space in dense cities, but the American expectation of a burial plot in perpetuity for each individual is at odds with the density and spatial limits of urbanity. The resource consumption of prevailing casketing and cremation practices are also considered wasteful by those prioritizing ecological impact.

Cemeteries can serve their current communities through new, sustainable forms of corpse disposition that engage the body biologically, and contribute to enduring civic-sacred spaces supporting grief and remembrance. We and others are developing mortuary options that are gentle on the earth while also remaining proximate to where we live.

CS: A growing rejection of embalmment and resource-intensive coffins among environmentally conscious families parallels a movement toward direct disposition—i.e., the body is moved from the deathbed directly to the burial site. More time is spent with the deceased at the site of death—where the family washes and cares for the body—rather than having the corpse whisked away to a funeral home. Individualized rituals and services that reflect the character of the deceased, often planned in advance with family and loved ones, occur by the deathbed and the place of final disposition. Advocates of green burial are leading the way.

Q. How has COVID accelerated and highlighted the need to address the changing death-care landscape?

KR: Never before in our lifetimes has death been so present. Society has a desperate need for spaces of healing—from the traumas of COVID, as well as other forms of grief and grievances, including confronting and repairing racial, environmental, and economic injustices. Civil and dignified contexts are crucial to societal care. A sense of community and ritual are important scaffolds around life’s transitions, and we need options and practices commensurate with current individual values and planetary priorities. Relative to just a decade ago, the public interest and willingness to engage in discussions of death and disposition are truly remarkable.

CS: The sheer volume of pandemic fatalities alone would have forced healthcare industries and the funerary complex (funeral directors, crematories, and cemeteries) to retool their practices, but the necessity to isolate because of COVID has been a stronger impetus to change. Telemedicine, deathbed goodbyes on Facebook, Zoom funeral planning, livestreaming and recording of funerary services, and online memorializing have all advanced exponentially, and are here to stay.

The social inequities of the pandemic, with much higher death rates for the poor and minorities, has added urgency to our need to address systemic change.

Q. What was it like to produce a book together?

KR: We both have high standards, and we’ve earned each other’s trust and respect. We have different styles: We’re both pragmatic idealists, but Christina is perhaps more straightforward, and I sometimes tend toward the poetic. We complement one another well.

CS: The collaborative process was pleasantly smooth. Karla and I hardly ever disagreed. Rather than feeling I was compromising my position in discussions about the book, I found that our dialogues gave me new insights and expanded perspectives.

Q. Have you read any books lately that you would recommend, and why?

CS: In Notes on Grief, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her experience after the death of her father during the pandemic. She allows her pain and reactions to emerge on the page with compelling power. Her suffering, questioning, search for meaning, and desire to honor her deceased father touch on themes common in bereavement—the bodily sensation of grief, the failure and support of rituals, the need for time and space alone and for community. Her dual project of memorializing and finding a way to live with grief is a gift to the reader.

KR: I would add Elizabeth Kolbert’s recently published Under a White Sky. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a continuation of her excellent research and writing on the impacts we humans have wrought on the planet, and I reference her earlier The Sixth Extinction regularly. Taking responsibility for the consequences connected to our actions is a timeless ethical imperative.

Q. You’re both hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

CS: With no restrictions to the invitation list, I will aim high: It would be a treat to reunite the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, so they can continue their charming lunch banter, recounted in their The Book of Joy— Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. As a foil to these two “mischievous” (as they describe themselves in the book), male faith leaders, I will invite a female atheist who can match their wit, perhaps the Barnard graduate Zora Neale Hurston, or maybe the early women’s rights leader, Ernestine Rose, said to possess “a rare sense of humor.”

We may end up touching on postmortem issues directly, but no matter where the talk leads, mortality remains foundational to human life and is never fully absent.

KR: My days are overflowing with teaching, research, and the building projects of my architecture practice, so I would be thrilled to participate in this exceptional evening!

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