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, in 2007 in the U.S., we buried more than 5 million gallons of embalming fluid, according to the Property and Environment Research Center. Plus, caskets are often made from mined metals, toxic plastic or endangered wood. U.S. cemeteries use 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 90,000 tons of steel and 17,000 tons of copper and bronze annually, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. 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, according to Bob Butz, author of "Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial."
Not only is a green burial good for the environment; it's also easy on the wallet. The average funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000, but you can cut back on a lot of funeral expenses and save serious green if you opt for eco-friendly choices. So if you want to be as green in death as you are in life, check out these 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 2010 survey commissioned by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association found a quarter of those polled liked the idea of a natural burial.
People who choose green burials don’t use vaults, traditional coffins or toxic chemicals. Instead, they are wrapped in biodegradable shrouds or placed in pine coffins and laid to rest where they can decompose more naturally. Bodies are often buried just 3 feet deep to aid decomposition. Natural burial grounds that prohibit harmful chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials are located throughout the U.S., but some hybrid cemeteries offer both traditional grave sites and green ones.
Larkspur Conservation in Tennessee is one of the latest environmentally-friendly burial grounds slated to open in 2018. The cemetery will be part of a nature preserve, and traditional caskets, headstones and vaults will be forbidden.
"People [who] choose to be buried in this area are the people who want wildflowers blooming on their grave and butterflies fluttering about," Larkspur Executive Director John Christian Phifer told NPR.
For people opting for a natural burial, it's also about wanting a peaceful setting. Josephine Darwin is choosing not to be buried in the same cemetery as nine generations of her family. "When my ancestors first were buried in the cemetery in Nashville, it was wild and peaceful. But now, as Nashville has grown, their plots overlook a very, very busy road. I know that's not what they would like. It's definitely not what I want," Darwin told NPR. "I love the quiet, I love that it's a wildlife refuge, and I love that no one for any generation will be surrounded by concrete or fake flowers."
There's also a newer trend in natural burials that aims for even bigger ecological benefits. Known as a conservation burial, it follows the same principles of a natural burial described above, but uses the cost savings to fund the acquisition, protection, restoration and management of land for wildlife conservation. According to a 2017 study, this idea could make a big difference if it becomes mainstream.
Led by Matthew Holden, an applied mathematician at the University of Queensland in Australia, the study calculated how the U.S. might benefit from widespread adoption of conservation burials. About 45 percent of Americans who die today are embalmed, but if they opted for conservation burials instead, Holden found that U.S. burials could generate $3.8 billion in yearly conservation revenue. And as New Scientist points out, an earlier study found that reducing the extinction risk of all threatened species on land would cost about $4 billion per year.
"People are looking to create some sort of tangible legacy, which is why we spend all this money on fancy coffins and tombstones," Holden told New Scientist. "Maybe we can use this money to provide a conservation legacy instead."
The Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable wicker caskets. (Photo: Natural Burial Company/Facebook)
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 the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable coffins and urns made of wicker 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 on 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 about 200 gallons of fluid and bones. The bones are then ground up into ash. Unlike the traditional cremation process, resomation — also known as water cremation or aquamation — 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, 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.
As coral reefs around the world are dying due to climate change and a rise in ocean temperatures, why not allow your remains to support marine live and nourish coral and microorganisms for hundreds of years. To create an eternal reef, cremated remains are combined with an environmentally safe cement mixture to create an artificial reef, which is then placed in the ocean at your or your loved ones' chosen location. In case you're wondering, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved these reefs, and they're only placed in areas designated for recreational fishing and diving.
According to Coral Reefs Inc. in Florida, friends and family "can help mix the remains into the concrete and personalize the memorial with hand prints and written messages in the damp concrete. Small personal mementos can also be included."
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.
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, Oregon, is going the extra carbon-free mile by offering a bicycle hearse.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in December 2011 and has been updated with more recent information.
Additional photo credits: shelving: William Warren; bike hearse: Sunset Hills Cemetery