TREND: DYING WELL
Innovative and Eco-Friendly Burial Practices
The ways that different cultures return their dead to the universe varies wildly. Tibetans still practice sky burial, leaving bodies on mountaintops to be picked clean, while the Caviteño in the Philippines place bodies in hollowed-out tree trunks. The US and Canada are unique for adopting embalming, a just as bizarre (if you really think about it) practice that started during the Civil War and involves replacing the blood with a formaldehyde-based fluid so the body can then be displayed in a decorative casket and buried in a concrete or steel vault in a grave. Most people in the world where customs are ancient (from Europe to Asia) embrace some form of cremation.
But now, as our cemeteries become overcrowded landfills and people have become more aware of how environmentally toxic embalmment, vaulted burial and even traditional cremation is, there is a sudden inventiveness and surge in eco-friendlier (and simpler and cheaper) “burial” options.
We’re seeing some seriously out-of-the-box thinking about how we want to dispose of and commemorate the dead.
Replant me: Back to nature burials surge
The embalmment and nondegradable casket method of burial is an Earth killer: Every year in North America, for example, 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic and contaminating formaldehyde is dumped into the soil, along with 115 million tons of casket steel, 2.3 billion tons of concrete, and nondegradable hardwood for caskets that equals four million acres of forest—all of which take centuries to degrade.
Cremation is relatively less environmentally destructive, but estimates are that the energy required to cremate one body is equal to driving 4,800 miles—and cremation still spews toxic carbon dioxide, dioxin and mercury into the atmosphere. Cremation, in general, is on the rise, in part because of the much lower costs: Since a traditional funeral and viewing hits $9,000, now more people are following David Bowie in his choice for a no-frills direct cremation (where ashes are simply returned to friends and family for scattering) at the cost of around $1,000.
Yes, people are more eco-conscious now, and they’re digesting these facts, but the powerful demand for much greener burials also represents a deep psychic need we have to somehow return to nature, to be restored after death to our place in its mysterious, eternal cycling and recycling.
That’s why green, or woodland, burials are really on the rise, where everything that goes into the ground or sea must be as biodegradable as the body. It goes like this: The body is wrapped in a plain shroud made of natural fibers (the company Vale offers personalized, artisanal ones), and the body is either placed directly in the ground or in a biodegradable coffin made of bamboo or seaweed or unfinished pine or oak or handwoven willow baskets, such as those available at Ecoffins or the Natural Burial Company. There is no concrete vault to bury, so the hole is dug only a few feet from the surface: far enough down so it’s protected from animals but shallow enough so the aerobic bacteria can digest the cells.
With green burials, there are typically no tombstones, just simple markers such as trees or only identifiable by GPS—and people are typically buried in unspoiled woodland rather than crowded cemeteries. In North America, the Green Burial Council has certified more than 300 green funeral homes and burial grounds and, in the UK, the Association of Natural Burial Grounds has helped create over 250 woodland burial sites.
Cremation is also going green. People are insisting on biodegradable urns, such as those from Bios Urn®, made of a coconut shell and peat that contain the seeds of the tree that you most want to become. More people are choosing “wet cremation” (or resomation or alkaline hydrolysis), which uses water and a salt-based solution to rapidly dissolve human remains, returning only ash to the family, and releases no chemicals and uses 80 percent less energy than regular cremation. It’s legal in 15 US states and three Canadian provinces, with some countries in Europe considering approval now. Washington just became the first US state to legalize human composting (recomposition), which involves placing bodies in a vessel that speeds their decomposition so a nutrient-packed soil can be returned to families. So, they can let their loved one re-bloom.
The green burial wave is pushing the envelope. You can buy a mushroom burial suit (such as those from Coeio) lined with flesh-eating fungi that speed up your return to nature—the choice of famed organic chef Alice Waters. You can be turned into an “eternal reef” and become part of a living ocean habitat: Your cremated remains are mixed into a cement artificial-reef formation (such as those provided by Eternal Reefs). A Swedish company called Promessa has created a way (using liquid nitrogen and sound waves) to break down a body into compost in just 6–12 months to grow a tree or garden. An Italian art project recently made waves with its biodegradable egg-shaped burial pods called Capsula Mundi, where a buried body or ashes feeds a tree planted directly above it—the perfect (and Instagrammable) eco-memorial.
Architects and urban planners are thinking way beyond the overcrowded, segregated cemetery (and the old, one-two of burial and cremation) to completely reimagine new, eco-friendly public spaces that could revolutionize how we accommodate and remember the dead—and make them more part of everyday life. Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation DeathLAB is the visionary here, with such mind-opening projects as Constellation Park, where glowing pods that are illuminated by the organic energy given off by your loved one’s biomass get suspended from a Manhattan bridge—lighting up the night skyline—so you and the entire city could experience their presence from miles away. The light from each burial vessel would twinkle for a whole year and be forever replenished by additional new “sky burials.”
Wherever you look, you see a world thinking beyond the rickety old cemetery. In a high-tech columbarium in Tokyo, ashes are stored in crystal Buddhas that line the walls, and, when visitors come, they simply type in a name and “their” Buddha glows a different color. People’s ashes are being turned into records (complete with recordings of the loved one’s voice) or jewelry, such as Eterneva, which turns human ashes into diamonds. Companies (such as the Russian SpaceWay) will send your ashes off into the stratosphere, and your family can watch your final space launch on GoPro cameras.
Forecasting The Future
- As more people become secular and agnostic and create their own spiritual identities—with formal religions not “handling” as many of our deaths as they used to—new burial and commemoration rituals will continue to rush in.
- The “green burial” trend will continue to be driven by concern for the environment, but it also represents a rising psychic need we have to return to nature, to be restored after death to our place in its mysterious, eternal cycling and recycling.
- Architects and urban planners will think beyond the overcrowded, segregated cemetery (and the old, one-two of burial and cremation) to completely reimagine new public spaces that could revolutionize how we accommodate and remember the dead—and make them more part of everyday life.