Do you live green? If so, have you considered the impact of your death on this earth? Many of us are aware of the number of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint while we are alive, but what about in our death?
Burial and cremation have been the most easily accessible options for disposing of bodies after we die, but neither of them are environmentally friendly. In a traditional burial, there are caskets to manufacture and ship, often using unfriendly materials and chemicals. Embalming a body prior to burial uses chemicals like formaldehyde and phenol which are then released into our water supply. We bury more than 800,000 gallons of it yearly. The traditional practice of burying bodies 6 feet deep in a concrete vault meant to block the earth from caving in on the coffin also means that the corpse decomposes without the benefit of oxygen. Bodies sludge-ify and begin leaking out methane—a greenhouse gas that traps heat. With as many bodies a year that are buried, this also creates a significant demand for land. Most people choose cremation as a tidier option. But is it really?
Cremation has long been held as the earth friendlier alternative to a traditional burial but its simply untrue. While new burners and filters have made cremation more efficient and less polluting, the average cremation still produces about 250 pounds of CO2 equivalent, or about as much as a typical American home generates in six days. A single cremation requires about two SUV tanks worth of fuel and uses similar energy to driving up to 4800 miles. Cremation also uses about 2,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity per body. Additionally, there is a staggering amount of mercury pollution that comes from teeth fillings burning.
In order to keep your commitment to the earth and not destroy it further by leaving it, here’s a list of ideas to green up the process!
1. Natural burial: The greenest process which currently exists is a natural burial. While this means different things in different places, the process referred to here is where a body is buried in a biodegradable covering—either a shroud or an earth friendly vessel—and a shallow grave with no concrete vault. These graves are unmarked topically and the family is given a set of GPS coordinates to visit if they so choose. For more information and to find a location, visit www.greencouncil.com. And for beautiful and earth friendly caskets and urns, visit www.finalfootprint.com.
2. Water cremation: If you’d prefer not to be put in the ground, aquamation or resomation mimics the natural process of decomposition through alkaline hydrolysis. The body is immersed in a tube filled with water and lye and steam-heated to 300 degrees for three hours. What remains at the end is powdery bone fragments and about 200 gallons of fluid. The liquid can be used for fertilizer! It doesn’t release any chemicals into the air and uses about 80% less energy than a standard cremation.
3. Recomposition: While not yet readily available, recomposition envisions human composting to turn bodies into soil after death. Created by the Urban Death Project, bodies would be placed inside a mound of nitrogen-rich material with added moisture to jumpstart the microbial activity. As bacteria mixes with enzymes, tissue will break down and ultimately create a nutrient rich soil like substance which can be used for planting.
4. Promession: Somewhat similar to recomposition, the process of promession offers a way to also turn a body into fertilizer through liquid nitrogen. A corpse is frozen and submerged in the liquid solution before being bombarded with sound waves which break what remains down into a white powder. After being sent through a vacuum chamber, what remains is nutritious, fertile, and perfect for planting. It is not yet available in the States, but the tide towards green is growing.
5. Burial pods: To take it a step even further, burial pods feed trees and turn bodies into fertilizer. The concept uses a large egg-shaped pod made from biodegradable materials to house a corpse in the fetal position. The pod is buried and a tree seed is then planted on top of it, using the decomposing body as fertilizer. While it still remains a concept, it envisions turning cemeteries into memorial forests where the trees rather than tombstones will serve as living memorials.
6. Natural urns: If you’d still like to be cremated but would like your ashes to give back to the earth, you can select a BioUrn. It is a biodegradable urn made from coconut shell, compacted peat, and cellulose that contains the seed of a tree. When the remains are placed in the urn and planted, the seed will germinate and begin to grow into a tree of your choice! Also available is a POETREE urn which mimics the stages of grief through a similar concept. The germination process begins at home in a ceramic biodegradable urn. As the plant grows, the urn is transferred into the ground and all that will remain is the ceramic collar which will also serve as a marker with the birth and death dates of the deceased.
The process you choose ultimately depends on your level of eco-consciousness. Some of these methods are not yet available in the US which makes them an option for those with no plans to die soon (good luck with that). At the very least, state your intentions for your death and burial to leave as light a footprint as possible to honor the core tenet of living greener and bring new meaning to the term life after death.