Burial and cremation are the most common ways we dispose of the dead, but while these methods are steeped in tradition, they’re far from environmentally friendly. Embalming bodies requires cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde and phenol — in fact, every year in the U.S. we bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid. Plus, caskets are often made from mined metals, toxic plastic or endangered wood. U.S. cemeteries use 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 180,544,000 pounds of steel and 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze annually. Casket burials also prevent a corpse from decomposing efficiently, and this slow rotting process favors sulfur-loving bacteria, which can harm nearby water sources.
Cremation may seem like a greener alternative, but the process requires a lot of energy and creates air pollution. While new burners and filters have made cremation more efficient and less-polluting, crematoriums still release chemicals like dioxin, carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere, and the energy used to cremate one body is equivalent to driving 4,800 miles.
Not only is greening your burial good for the planet, but it's also easy on the wallet. The average funeral costs $6,000, but you can cut back on a lot of funeral expenses and save serious green if you opt for some of these eco-friendly choices. So if you want to be as green in death as you are in life, check out these eco-friendly burial options.
Interring a body in earth in a manner that allows it to decompose naturally is perhaps the greenest option available, and so-called green burials are gaining popularity. According to the Green Burial Council, there are more than 300 approved eco-friendly burial providers in the U.S. today — there were only a dozen in 2008. And a 2020 survey commissioned by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association found that a quarter of those polled liked the idea of a natural burial.
People who choose green burials don’t use vaults, traditional coffins or any chemicals. Instead, they are wrapped in biodegradable shrouds or placed in pine coffins and laid to rest where they can decompose and become part of the earth. Often, bodies are buried in graves that are just 3 feet deep to aid decomposition. Natural burial grounds that prohibit chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials are located throughout the U.S., but there are also hybrid cemeteries that offer both traditional gravesites and green ones.
Natural burial in a biodegradable coffin reduces carbon emissions by 50 percent compared with traditional burials, according to the Natural Death Centre. There are a variety of options out there when it comes to eco-friendly coffins, and these final resting places are made from a variety of materials, including paper, formaldehyde-free plywood, fair trade-certified bamboo and hand-woven willow. Ecoffins offers several woven and fair trade coffins, and Ecopod is known for its innovative designs, which are made from recycled newspapers and come in a variety of colors and designs. If you can ensure that the coffin isn’t transported too far from the place of manufacture, that helps, too.
Looking for a multifunctional coffin you can also enjoy in life? Check out William Warren's “Shelves for Life.” Instead of buying a brand new coffin, this unique shelving system allows you to store books and tsochkes during life — and your body after death. The shelves can be easily transformed into a coffin when the time comes, which really makes it shelving to die for.
If you insist upon being cremated, there are even ways you can green this process. One option is “resomation,” which mimics the natural process of decomposition — but on fast-forward. It involves disposing of human remains through alkaline hydrolysis: The body is sealed inside a tube filled with water and lye and steam-heated to 300 degrees for three hours. When the process is complete, all that remains of the corpse are some powdery bone fragments and about 200 gallons of fluid. Unlike the traditional cremation process, resomation doesn’t release chemicals into the air, and it utilizes 80 percent less energy than standard cremation.
What do you do with that liquefied human body? Well, you could use it to help feed living humans. The fluid makes a great fertilizer — if you’re comfortable eating from a garden fertilized by corpse juice.
If you’d prefer to be a little less green and be cremated in the traditional sense of the word, you can always make an environmentally conscious urn choice. Select a wooden urn made from sustainable sources, or opt for the Bios Urn, a biodegradable urn made from coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose that contains the seed of a tree. Once remains have been placed in the urn, it can be planted and the seed germinates and begins to grow, giving new meaning to “life after death.” You can even select the kind of tree you want to be.
While you can’t just toss a human body into the backyard compost pile, there is one interesting option. A Swedish company called Promessa has developed a way to turn a corpse into compost material in just six to 12 months. Here’s how it works: A corpse is frozen and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. The brittle body is then bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. Finally, this powder is sent through a vacuum chamber, which evaporates all the water. The remaining powder is nutritious and quite fertile, making it perfect for planting a tree, shrub or garden.
Other green options
If you want to make your funeral as eco-friendly as possible, here are some other ways you can ensure a sustainable farewell.
Eco-invites: Friends and family can sprout new life in your memory with Remembrance Tree Papers. This eco-friendly paper is chlorine-free and embedded with wildflower seeds that can be planted directly in the ground. The paper can be used for funeral invitations, memorial bookmarks or thank-you notes.
Flowers: Request that floral tributes not be bound with plastic-covered wire — opt for raffia instead. And avoid flowers that come in polystyrene foam, which doesn’t biodegrade.
Transportation: Avoid gas-guzzling limos and encourage funeral guests to carpool to the burial site. Perhaps you can even skip the hearse altogether — a funeral home in Eugene, Ore., is going the extra carbon-free mile by offering a bicycle hearse.
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Click for photo credits
Photo (shelving): William Warren
Photo (Bios Urn): Martin Azua
Photo (bike hearse): Sunset Hills Cemetery
MNN homepage photo: iStockphoto