Comparing green funeral options

— From composting to natural burial to water cremation

Throwing a funeral that leaves Earth a bit better off, maybe

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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. This vista 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.

A snow-covered grave at Herland Forest, a natural burial cemetery in Wahkiacus, Wash., on Saturday.

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.”

Human composting

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.

A “cradle” is used for natural organic reduction at Herland Forest.
A body inside the “cradle.”

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 burial

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.

The tree canopy at Herland Forest.
Walt Patrick, senior steward of Herland Forest, visits his own grave at the natural burial site. Patrick placed a stone from his time in Nevada to mark the site.

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.

Complete Article HERE!

Want A Viking Funeral?

— Only State That Allows It Is Colorado

celtic, vikings, saxons, native americans, slavics…

By Mark Heinz

There’s a slim chance you legally shuffle off this mortal coil legally with as much flair as Darth Vader in “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi,” but there’s no way you’ll get to depart this world like King Arthur in “First Knight.”

In the former film, the deceased Sith lord, still in his full black armor, is set ablaze atop a funeral pyre on land. In the latter, the body of the mythical king of Camelot is pushed out to sea in on a floating pyre, then one of his knights sets the vessel ablaze with a flaming arrow. 

It’s illegal to burn a body in a floating boat anywhere in the U.S., and a single town in Colorado is the only place in the country where you can legally burn a corpse on a dry-land funeral pyres.

No Wyoming Demand

The popular conception of what are commonly called “Viking” funerals – a flaming longship – aren’t historically accurate anyway, said Joe E. Pray of Pray Funeral Home in Charlotte, Michigan.

“They (Vikings) were more likely to drag the boat ashore and burn it on dry land with the chieftain’s body and his possessions inside, or just bury the entire boat without setting it on fire,” Pray told Cowboy State Daily. 

He and his family offer unusual or themed funerals.

And Wyomingites don’t seem interested in Viking funerals, regardless of whether they’re historically accurate or more fanciful, Joey Casada told Cowboy State Daily. He’s the head of the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association and funeral director at Jacoby Funeral Home in Rawlins.

“We haven’t heard of any requests for Viking funerals, open funeral pyres, the human composting or any of those sorts of things,” he said. “Most folks in Wyoming are apparently OK with the standard methods of cremation or burial in a casket.”



Pyres Offered In One Colorado Town

In the United States, open-air cremation is legal only in Crestone, Colorado, according to the US Funerals Online blog. However, only a handful of such pyre services are allowed each year, and they’re exclusively for Crestone residents.

And people might want to think twice about open-air cremation, Pray said.

“I’ve seen it, and it’s actually a gruesome process,” he said. “It’s probably not something I’d want to watch happen to a loved one.”

Original ‘Stairway To Heaven’

Pray said he learned about Viking burial practices during a trip to Norway – and the real thing didn’t match most people’s imaginations.

Contrary to popular belief, the mighty Northmen didn’t honor their dead by setting longships with bodies in them ablaze upon the fjords, he said.

Instead, when a Viking of prominence died, his body and possessions – sometimes including horses and livestock – were placed inside his grounded longship.

“They included all the stuff they figured the deceased would need for his journey to Valhalla,” Pray said.

Norse historians claim that in at least one instance, a deceased chieftain’s concubines were slain so that they, too, could accompany him.

Oftentimes, the entire thing was buried, Pray said.

“There still are some of those burial mounds around Norway,” he said.

In other instances, the ship was burned ashore. 

“The smoke from the funeral pyre was called the ‘stairway to heaven,’ so they (Vikings) came up with that long before Led Zepplin did,” Pray said.

It Wouldn’t Have Worked Anyway

Even if Vikings had wanted to burn their dead in floating longships, it wouldn’t have worked, Pray said.

“A boat on the water is just going to burn to the waterline and then stop burning,” he said. “We’ve seen that here on Lake Michigan when some drunk people accidently set their boat on fire. If we know that’s what happens, then the Vikings probably knew that too.”

For those who really want at least a facsimile of Viking honors, Pray said his funeral home offers burial or cremation vessels “that are shaped like a Viking ship.”

Complete Article HERE!

Preparing Jewish bodies for burial, an artist finds inspiration

‘I could have painted landscapes,’ says Karen Benioff Friedman. Instead, she’s portraying the rituals around death.

Angels of Mercy Embrace the Dead, 2023, oil on canvasboard.© 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

By Stewart Ain

When a Berkeley rabbi in 2004 announced that he wanted to form a chevra kadisha, Hebrew for a group that cares for the dead before burial, an artist in his congregation signed herself up.

Karen Benioff Friedman had a mostly secular upbringing, and hadn’t known much about Jewish burial societies, but she knew she wanted to be a part of one.

“What I found compelling is the idea that we never leave the dead alone,” she said.

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Thresholds: Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Placing the Metah into the Casket, 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ten years later, while Friedman was studying human anatomy and classical realism at an Oakland art school, she learned of 18th century paintings of Prague’s chevra kadisha. They depicted tahara, the rituals of the burial society.

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Thresholds – Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Tying the Avnet, 2023, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

As part of these rituals, bodies are placed in a white shroud before they are lowered into a casket. Coincidentally, Friedman had been painting images of shrouded figures. Seeing the Prague paintings made her think that tahara could be her subject too.

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Tahara, 2021, graphite on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“I could have painted landscapes or pets, but this is what really moved me,” said Friedman.

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Taharah: Pouring the Second Bucket, 2017, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Since then, Friedman, now 59, has drawn, painted and etched more than 150 images of tahara, each a window into a ritual so private that many Jews have little idea what it looks like. Those who perform tahara wash the body, and sit by it through the night, reciting prayers and psalms.

In her paintings, gauzy figures, some enveloped in light, attend lovingly to the dead, cradling their heads and pouring water over their bodies. The mood is somber, despite the daubs of bright blue she often uses for the aprons of the women of the chevra kadisha.

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Thresholds, Attending Grandmother’s Passing, 2020, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Tahara calls for men to care for men and women for women, so Friedman’s subjects are mostly female, because, she said, that is what she knows from her own participation.

Respecting tahara, which means “purification,” Friedman would never try to draw or take photographs of the deceased. But she didn’t work solely from memory either. She hired models to impersonate both the living and the dead. One model did a “pretend tahara while another pretended to be a body that was dressed in a shroud,” she said. She worked from the photographs she took of them.

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Angels of Mercy Embrace The Dead, 2019, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

 

Friedman paints in oils and makes monotypes, a form of printmaking. All her drawings are in charcoal.

Many of her works depict angels. “One of the main pieces of liturgy we talk about is the one about the angels of mercy who embrace the metah — the female body,” Friedman said. “Angels come up a lot, including standing outside the gates of heaven. I love the concept of the angels.”

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Angel of Death Holding an Infant, 2022, monotype on silk. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ultimately, she said, she wants her works to teach about the mostly hidden work of the chevra kadisha, and its commitment to respect the dead, no matter who has died.

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Shmira (Guarding the Dead), 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“We are all equal in death,” she said. “We all wear the same thing and are buried the same.”

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A Soul, 2023, monotype. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

An exhibit of Friedman’s work will open on Feb. 5 at  San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel and run through March 19.

Complete Article HERE!

How Hospices Can Support Families Seeking ‘Green’ Burials

By Holly Vossel

Hospices can assist terminally ill patients and their families who have questions about “green” burial options by connecting them with services like death doulas or by educating staff on those practices.

Interest in natural or green funeral and burial options has been growing year-over-year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Around 60.5% of respondents in a NFDA 2022 consumer awareness and preferences survey indicated that they would be interested in exploring natural funeral options, a rise from 55.7% in 2021.

Respondents cited cost savings and potential environmental benefits as leading drivers of their interest.

Demand for natural burials also has grown among hospice patients and their families, according to Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy.

“I’ve definitely seen a growing trend of natural burials really appealing to a lot of people who are on hospice,” Webster told Hospice News. “A lot of people on hospice services want to run the whole spectrum of that holistic care and tend to be more open to the idea. They are finding a different way to do the disposition, recognizing that natural burials are less expensive than the traditional funeral burial or cremation services most of the time.”

Webster has co-founded organizations such as the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA), the Conservation Burial Alliance and the Funeral.org partnership. Additionally, she has served in leadership positions at the National Home Funeral Alliance and the Green Burial Council.

Natural burials are another way for families to take care of the dying in “the least invasive way possible,” according to Webster. “Much like hospice, it’s a continuum of creating a seamless transition to death” she said.

Though natural burials represent roughly 5% of all funerals nationwide, nearly three-quarters (72%) of cemetery operators have reported increased demand for these services, according to NFDA.

The global green funeral market reached $571.54 million in 2021 and is anticipated to reach an 8.7% growth rate by 2030, according to 2022 projections from Emergen Research.

As more hospices partner with death doulas, they can leverage those collaborations to help families and staff understand the four pillars that define a natural burial, Webster said. Death doulas also can help hospices connect families with natural burial resources and services.

One pillar is the use of biodegradable materials or containers that are designed to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation associated with traditional caskets made of wood, plastic and cement mixtures.

The other three pillars include the use of natural, noninvasive preservation methods instead of chemical embalming practices; avoiding the use of vaults and completing burials at 3 ½ to 4 feet.

Patients and families seeking these also need to understand state laws and limitations around natural burial methodologies.

Human composting, for example, is only legal in six states, according Lauren Carroll, co-one of the founders of Deathwives, a death doula provider. Additionally, water cremation is only available in 26 states, she added.

Death doulas can help expand hospices’ knowledge around their local natural burial options that they otherwise might not have built into their staff education and training, Carroll said.

“[The] knowledge aspect of understanding that comes from death doulas isn’t something a hospice necessarily has a place for in its staff education,” Carroll told Hospice News. “That education aspect is the biggest part of communicating all these different burial and funeral options to families so they have a better understanding.”

Hospices can help the family by preparing the necessary documentation bereaved families will need to arrange a natural burial, according to Webster.

“Each state has different requirements about when death certificates need to be filed and when families are able to bathe, dress and prepare their loved one for a natural burial,” Webster said. “Another important thing to know is that the hospice is not liable for anything that the family does with the body after they’ve signed that death certificate.”

Complete Article HERE!

Eight Green Burial Options

— Some Are Greener Than Others

Innovation and interest in green burial practices are growing fast in the U.S. fed by concerns about the environmental impact of modern burial and cremation. 60.5% of Americans are interested in eco-friendly burial choices according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Yet most people know little about their green burial options.

By

  • Green burial is a way to care for the dead without damaging the earth.
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    Perhaps the greenest option is a simple, natural burial.
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    Other green options include human body composting, tree pod burial, biodegradable urns, water cremation, Tibetan sky burial, and sea burial.
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    Not all countries or states allow each option. Knowing your choices empowers you to choose a deathcare practice that matches your personal values.

What is green burial?

According to the Green Burial Council (GBC), green burials care for the dead by restoring and conserving natural resources and habitats, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting mortuary workers from embalming toxins.

As more Americans notice problems with the funeral industry, many are jumping on the green burial movement’s bandwagon.

In lacquered caskets and cement vaults, we currently bury our dead using an estimated 1.6 million tons of concrete, over 64,500 tons of steel, and four million gallons of toxic embalming fluid every year.

Meanwhile, fire cremation uses about 30 gallons of fuel to cremate one body – a deep carbon footprint.

In urban areas, cemeteries occupy precious space while urban dwellers and city planners need land for new housing.

These practices injure the earth and separate us from nature as if dead bodies poison the ground. Green burial advocates say death nourishes the earth with the right deathcare practices.

Green cemeteries certified by the GBC do not allow toxic embalming, vaults, non-biodegradable products, herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. They encourage sustainable management practices, land conservation sites, and creative and natural ways to mark graves.

Some green burial options are greener than others. Know your choices before you plan your final legacy.

Natural burial: let earth do the work

Perhaps the greenest option is a simple natural burial, a return to the way many of our ancestors were buried.

Natural burial uses only biodegradable products to bury the deceased. Families choose simple shrouds and earth-friendly caskets. You can even be buried without a casket and wrapped only in the shroud.

No cement or plastic vaults are installed into the ground for natural burials. Without vaults, holes for the deceased are shallower, about 3-4 feet deep, disrupting less soil.

Natural burial lets the earth do its genius work transforming the human body into rich, healthy soil to nourish the ground, which feeds plants and animals. A green burial saves the earth from toxins and replenishes healthy, organism-rich soil through organic decomposition.

Modern American embalming started when the bodies of Civil War soldiers were returned to their loved ones far from the battlefield. Caretakers preserved the bodies so loved ones could see them one last time.

Today, morticians embalm bodies primarily for funeral viewings, a fading practice in America. Without viewings, preserving the body is rarely needed.

For those who do want a funeral viewing, however, there are green alternatives. Bodies can be kept cold at a funeral home for days to months while waiting for a funeral. Green embalming fluids are another option. The GBC certifies four green and effective products to preserve loved ones.

If you can bury the body within 48 hours, you can usually hold a viewing without refrigeration or preservation. Some families today cleanse and prepare the bodies of their loved ones and keep them in the home for viewing and last visits from friends and family.

Today’s median cost of burials with viewing ceremonies is $7848, not including cement vaults and headstones. Green burial costs an average of $2000-$3000. Some states allow natural burials in places other than cemeteries, often lowering the cost even further.

You can also donate your body to forensic science and education. Scientists bury your body naturally in “body farms” and study the decay. For body donation, you don’t have to pay burial costs, but you may need to pay transportation costs todeliver the body.

Burial laws differ from state to state. To customize your burial as much as possible, read your state’s laws and find a local funeral home offering natural burial.

Body compost: a faster decomposition

Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), also called human composting is a new and innovative death care option. Like natural burial, it transforms the human body into rich, living soil but at a much faster rate of 30-45 days.

Washington state was the first state to legalize human body composting. Since then, Colorado, California, Vermont, and Oregon also legalized it.

The NOR process begins by wrapping the body in a biodegradable cloth and cradling it into a vessel, usually made of steel. Under and over the body is a blanket and bed of organic matter like alfalfa, wood chips, straw, and wildflowers.

For about 30-45 days, funeral staff tend to the body and vessel. During the process, the temperature inside the container reaches about 140°, creating the prime environment for microbes to transform the body into soil.

When the flesh is decomposed, bones and teeth remain. They are ground – just like cremation – and returned to the soil.

Medical devices, metal fillings, and implants also remain. Funeral staff carefully separate these items and often recycle them.

Loved ones can take home some or all of the composted soil to spread as a memorial in gardens or around trees. Some people choose to donate the soil to local land restoration projects.

The cost of composting your body is comparable to current burial costs. It can range from $3500 to $8000 depending on the company and the services rendered.

Manufacturing, distribution, and building is still required to develop composting sites. NOR doesn’t completely reduce your carbon footprint, but it’s better than current burial and cremation practices. It feeds the earth while leaving a lasting green legacy.

Tree pod burial: become a tree

In 2016, a fascinating new idea hit the deathcare industry. Two Italian designers, Adriano Del Ferro and Francesco D’Angelo, unveiled their dream of burying bodies under a tree seedling. They call the concept Capsula Mundi, a cocoon tree pod burial.

In a meaningful design reminiscent of new birth, the body is wrapped in a natural fiber shroud and placed into an egg-shaped capsule. The womb-like vessel is lowered into the ground, and a tree is planted directly over it.

As the body decays and transforms into healthy soil, it nourishes the tree. Some consider the process a physical transformation into the tree – a rebirth in the cycle of life.

The concept is still developing, but the vision is to plant the cocoons in restoration and conservation areas. Rather than visiting a tombstone, loved ones can visit the tree using GPS coordinates of the burial site.

Green critics say burial in a tree pod disturbs more earth by requiring deeper holes. In addition, even though the pod is biodegradable, manufacturing, storing, and shipping the pods increase the carbon footprint.

With such a new idea, cocoon tree pod burial cost is unknown. Del Ferro and D’Angelo estimate it will be cheaper than a traditional burial in the United States.

Biodegradable urns: ashes to trees

While we wait for tree pods to hit the market, companies offer biodegradable urns as another novel option.

Innovators designed the urns to memorialize ashes in an eco-friendly way. Scattering or burying cremated remains isn’t great for the earth. While the ashes aren’t highly toxic, they have a high pH level. This increases the alkalinity of nearby soil. Cremated remains are also high in sodium levels.

To plant the urn, the ashes are placed first in the bottom. An additive to balance pH is placed on top of the ashes. Next, the roots of a young tree are set into the urn and surrounded with planting soil. The urn is planted directly into the ground, where a living memorial grows for loved ones to visit.

Always check your state’s rules on burying cremated remains before choosing your planting site. Prices of living urns with trees vary from $100-$370.

Water cremation: a tenth of the carbon footprint

Water cremation isn’t as new as you might think. Some universities in the U.S. have used the process with donated bodies since the mid-90s. The Mayo Clinic has used the process since 2006.

Water cremation advocates say it leaves only a tenth of the carbon footprint compared to fire cremation. The body gently decomposes with water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide. Scientifically known as alkaline hydrolysis, the process takes around 16 hours.

The body is first placed into a large stainless-steel cylinder. The water solution then passes around the body at a near-boiling temperature. Some systems process the body quicker using higher temperatures up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soon the body is dissolved and transformed into a liquid of amino acids, salts, peptides, sugars, and soap. Like flame cremation and human composting, the bones are ground into a fine powder and returned as “ashes” to loved ones.

Surprisingly, the liquid is so clean and altered that the solution can safely drain into the sewer system. Alkaline hydrolysis breaks down environmental pollutants in the body like drugs and embalming fluid. Waste managers say the process even improves their systems because the liquid feeds the bacteria that decompose sewage.

Water cremation uses much less energy than fire cremation. It runs on electricity instead of fossil fuels and releases no greenhouse gases, unlike open air fire cremation which is allowed only in Colorado state as of 2022.

However, alkaline hydrolysis isn’t purely green. 80 gallons of water are used to process one body. Manufacturing, storing, and distributing the machines also leaves a carbon footprint.

In the U.S., more than 20 states allow alkaline hydrolysis as a burial option, and more than 80 machines will be in operation by the end of 2022. The cost typically starts around $2000.

Mushroom suit: not as great as it seems

In 2011, artist Jae Rhim Lee presented an alluring idea to a fascinated TED audience: a burial suit woven with fungi to hasten the decomposition process. She argued natural burial doesn’t thoroughly break down normal human toxins.

Despite the great idea, her science was unfounded. Nature’s process is brilliant at transforming the many toxins hidden in the human body before they leach into the earth.

Naturally, the body’s own bacteria are the first organisms to start decomposition. Fungi from the earth join the process later. Adding them to a burial shroud doesn’t necessarily speed up the process.

Currently, production of the $1500 mushroom suit has stopped, and whether it will start again is unknown.

Sea burial: possibly eco-friendly

Sea burial is still practiced around the globe. In 2020, 2544 sea burials were permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the sole regulator of burial at sea. However, whether sea burials are eco-friendly isn’t a highly discussed topic.

The EPA allows only biodegradable items to be used, except metal to ensure the body sinks adequately. They recommend a metal chain connected to a body or a metal casket drilled with holes for rapid sinking.

Casting metal into the sea isn’t the only questionable issue. The EPA requires bodies to be buried at least three nautical miles offshore and in waters up to 1800 feet deep for certain locations. For some, this requires a fair amount of fossil fuel to travel to an authorized site.

As for scattering cremated remains, according to the EPA, you can spread them on a non-windy day or use a biodegradable, sea-friendly urn. There is no sea depth requirement for scattering cremated remains. Still, the scattering must also take place three nautical miles offshore.

If burial at sea holds deep meaning for you and you seek earth-friendly burial options, a green sea burial is possible with a little creativity and research.

Tibetan sky burial: let the animals feast

Tibetan sky burials are not permitted in the U.S. even though they’re largely gentle to the earth.

Sky burials are practiced by Tibetan Buddhists to connect the body back to one of the four elements: Air. The bodies are laid in the open air for vultures and other animals to consume.

Traditional Tibetans believe a dead body is an empty vessel best used to nourish animals. The Tibetans call the ritual ‘jhator’, but it can also be called a bird burial or celestial burial.

Final thoughts

Green burial options are scientifically fascinating, but they’re not always as green as you may think. Still, they’re a great way to customize your burial to your beliefs, ethics, and spirituality. Personalizing your death care plans increases your peace with dying.

To leave a green legacy, first decide what provides meaning to your life now. Combine those meaningful values with your environmental concerns and apply them to your death plans. Find products and resources to match your ethics and check your state’s burial laws.

Once you’ve made your death care plans, update your advance directives and inform your loved ones and health proxy.

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Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Before she died in May 2022, Anne Lang told her daughter Zoe Lang, right, that she wanted her remains composted.

By Stewart Ain

New York could soon become the sixth state to legalize the composting of dead people, a practice prohibited by Jewish law, but one which a small but growing number of American Jews have come to embrace.

Axios has called it “the hot new thing in death care.” For proponents, human composting aligns with an ecological mindset that sees human beings as part of nature, obligated to care for the Earth even after they die.

A shrouded mannequin lies near a composting vessel at Recompose, a Seatte funeral home specializing in human composting in October 2022.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 31 to sign a legalization bill into law. She has not yet tipped her hand on the measure, which passed both houses of the legislature easily. Several Jewish lawmakers voted for it.

Traditional Jewish burial, which calls for plain wood coffins, is considered relatively green. But human composting is touted as one of the greenest options available — there are no coffins to bury or bodies to burn.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis, however, hold that halacha, or Jewish law, clearly forbids human composting, for many of the same reasons it forbids cremation, which has overtaken traditional burial in the U.S. as the most popular option for American families after the death of a relative.

Still, Jews are beginning to consider and choose human composting, and say it can be done in keeping with their Jewish values. Recompose in Seattle is among several companies in states where the process is legal that have composted the bodies of Jewish clients. Some rabbis, from more liberal Jewish traditions, are willing to support the choice.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington — the first state, in 2020, to approve human composting — has not yet presided at the funeral of someone who chose to be composted. But some of his congregants have asked about it.

“It is not something I was on the front lines for,” or for cremation either, said Goldstein, who was ordained in the Reconstructionist tradition.

But Goldstein is willing to work with those who favor composting, and said he would figure out ways to incorporate Jewish ritual into the funeral rather than to turn a family away.

“Human composting seems more in line with Jewish practice than cremation in terms of the practices and values that surround it,” he added. “It is something that has a lot of environmental value.”

From dust to dust

Anne Lang

Human composting — also called terramation and natural organic reduction — generally involves placing the deceased in a vessel, which can be cylindrical or boxlike, atop a bed of organic material — wood chips, alfalfa and sawdust are commonly used. The body is often wrapped in a cotton shroud, and air and moisture are pumped in.

Microbes found naturally in the body and the organic material take about two months to decompose it. What remains is about one cubic yard of soil and bones, which are then ground into a powder. Any medical devices or hardware is removed from the soil by hand.

Survivors can scatter the soil in a cemetery, their backyards or in a natural spot special to the deceased.

That’s what Anne Lang wanted.

“When it is my time, I would like to be composted,” she told her daughter Zoe. The Jewish woman from Boulder, who died of lymphoma in May, loved the outdoors and lived in Colorado, which legalized human composting last year.

At her mother’s deathbed, said Zoe Lang, the family said the Mourner’s Kaddish though they are not particularly observant. “It felt like something my mom would do and I wanted to honor her,” she said.

The funeral took place outside, with a view of the Flatiron rock formations. The Natural Funeral, a company not far from Boulder, took care of the composting. Two and a half months later, Anne Lang’s body was soil.

“The company asked if we wanted to pick it up and we chose to have it return to the Earth because that is what my mom would have wanted. So it was brought to a farm that grows flowers and trees,” Zoe Lang said.

The service cost the family between $7,000 and $8,000, and would have cost about $12,000 had they bought a coffin and a burial plot, Zoe Lang said.

It doesn’t bother her that she has no particular place to visit to mourn her mother.

“She is still with us,” Zoe Lang said. “I think she would be thrilled to know she is coming back as a flower or a tree with a beautiful view.”

More human composting businesses are opening as more states allow it. In addition to Washington and Colorado, it’s been legalized in Oregon, Vermont and California.

Washington has at least three such businesses — Recompose, Return Home and Earth, which promises a “carbon neutral alternative to cremation” and allows families to take a portion of the soil created from a body. It sends the rest to a land restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula.

Objections

Traditional Jewish burial forbids many common funeral practices that are also rejected by proponents of human composting.

A small box of soil made from human remains sits on a table at the Recompose funeral home in Seattle.

Jewish law, for example, prohibits embalming, a process that many who favor composting consider unnatural and polluting. And it shuns crypts, cement liners and other containers for the body, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, the nation’s leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.

Cremation, which some environmentalists object to for the pollutants it produces, is also forbidden under Jewish law, which requires specific steps after a person dies that include the washing and quick burial of the body. In Orthodox tradition, cremation is a defilement.

But composting is similarly problematic, according to Shafran. “The idea of ‘utilizing’ a body as a growth medium is anathema to the honor due to a vessel that once held a human spirit,” he said.

Or as Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, put it: “Reverence for the dead through proper burial traditions has taken place throughout the generations.” He added: “The idea of grinding the bones is at odds with Jewish law.”

The Conservative movement, which lies between more traditional Orthodox Judaism and the more liberal Reform movement, has not taken a position on human composting, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who leads Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan. But he has studied the issue on its behalf and concluded that making a profit from human composting does not align with Jewish tradition.

“There is a difference between returning [a body] to the Earth — which is the point — and using the soil for a business,” he said.

A tallit atop a vessel that contains the remains of a Jewish person at Return Home, a Washington state funeral home that specializes in human composting.

In general, he continued, dead bodies shouldn’t be used for tangible benefit, even if it’s not strictly commercial. That’s why, he said, “it’s dishonorable to eat fruits or pick flowers growing directly above graves, nourished partly by decomposing human flesh.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., had no comment on human composting.

Goldstein, the Washington state rabbi who has fielded inquiries about human composting, is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which he said not taken a position on it.

But even though he’s not an advocate, Goldstein said for some Jews, human composting dovetails nicely with their Jewish environmental values, which call them to be good stewards of the Earth. He advises other rabbis to be prepared for the conversation.

“I have to serve my people,” Goldstein said. “This is not an issue we can shy away from. It is reality and we have to deal with it.”

Coffin? Casket? Cremation?

— How to make your death more environmentally friendly

By and

We can all agree humans need to reduce their impact on the environment. And while most of us think of this in terms of daily activities – such as eating less meat, or being water-wise – this responsibility actually extends beyond life and into death.

The global population is closing on eight billion, and the amount of land available for human burial is running out, especially in small and densely populated countries.

To minimise environmental impact, human bodies should return to nature as quickly as possible. But the rate of decay in some of the most common traditional disposal methods is very slow. It can take several decades for a body to decompose.

In a one-of-its-kind study, our team analysed 408 human bodies exhumed from grave pits and stone tombs in the north of Italy to find out what conditions help speed up decay.

We conducted research on bodies exhumed from the La Villetta cemetery in Parma, Italy.

The environmental cost of traditional burials

Funeral rituals should respect the dead, bring closure to families and promote the reaching of the afterlife in accordance with people’s beliefs. This looks different for different people. Although the Catholic church has allowed cremation since 1963, it still prefers burials. Muslims are always supposed to be buried, while most Hindus are cremated.

In Australia, however, the latest census revealed almost 40% of the population identifies as “not religious”. This opens up more avenues for how people’s bodies may be handled after death.

Most traditional burial practices in industrialised countries have several long-lasting harmful effects on the environment. Wood and metal fragments in coffins and caskets remain in the ground, leaching harmful chemicals through paint, preservatives and alloys. Chemicals used for embalming also remain in the ground and can contaminate soil and waterways.

Caskets made out of processed materials like metal and wood are bad for the environment.

Cremation also has a large carbon footprint. It requires lots of trees for fuel and produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as toxic volatile compounds.

There are several alternatives to traditional burials. These include “water cremation” or “resomation” (where the body is rapidly dissolved), human composting, mummification, cryonics (freezing and storage), space burials, and even turning the body into trees or the ashes into diamonds or record vinyls.

However, many of these alternatives are either illegal, unavailable, costly or not aligned with people’s beliefs. The vast majority choose coffin burials, and all countries accept this method. So the question of sustainable burials comes down to choosing between the many types of coffins available.

What leads to faster decomposition?

Coffins range from traditional wooden caskets, to cardboard coffins, to natural coffins made from willow, banana leaf or bamboo, which decompose faster.

The most environmentally sustainable choice is one that allows the body to decompose and reduce to a skeleton (or “skeletonise”) quickly – possibly in just a few years.

Our research has presented three key findings on conditions that promote the skeletonisation of human bodies.

First, it has confirmed that bodies disposed in traditionally sealed tombs (where a coffin is placed inside a stone space) can take more than 40 years to skeletonise.

In these sealed tombs, bacteria rapidly consume the oxygen in the stone space where the coffin is placed. This creates a micro-environment that promotes an almost indefinite preservation of the body.

We also found burial grounds with a high percentage of sand and gravel in the soil promote the decomposition and skeletonisation of bodies in less than ten years – even if they are in a coffin.

That’s because this soil composition allows more circulation of air and microfauna, and ample water drainage – all of which are helpful for degrading organic matter.

Finally, our research confirmed previous suspicions about the slow decomposition of entombed bodies. We discovered placing bodies inside stone tombs, or covering them with a stone slab on the ground, helps with the formation of corpse wax (or “adipocere”).

This substance is the final result of several chemical reactions through which the body’s adipose (fat) tissues turn to a “soapy” substance that’s very resistant to further degradation. Having corpse wax slows down (if not completely arrests) the decomposition process.

A new, greener option

In looking for innovative burial solutions, we had the opportunity to experiment with a new type of body disposal in a tomb called an “aerated tomb”.

Over the past 20 years aerated tombs have been developed in some European countries including France, Spain and Italy (where they have been commercialised). They allow plenty of ventilation, which in turn enables a more hygienic and faster decomposition of bodies compared to traditional tombs.

They have a few notable features:

  • an activated carbon filter purifies gases
  • fluids are absorbed by two distinct biodegrading biological powders, one placed at the bottom of the coffin and the other in a collecting tray beneath it
  • once the body has decomposed, the skeletal remains can be moved to an ossuary (a site where skeletal remains are stored), while the tomb can be dismantled and most of its components potentially recycled.
An ossuary is full of skeletal remains forming a pillar and lining the walls – with a large white cross in the centre of a back wall.
Arguably one of the world’s most famous ossuaries, the Paris Catacombs is an underground labyrinth containing the remains of more than six million people.

Aerated tombs are also cheaper than ordinary tombs and can be built from existing tombs. They would be simple to use in Australia and would comply with public health and hygiene standards.

Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about what will happen to our bodies after we die. Perhaps we should. In the end this may be one of our most important last decisions – the implications of which extend to our precious planet.

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