If you’d like your last hurrah to mean something sustainable and everlasting, then please, read on. This is very personal, it’s about your decomposition and what effect your funeral will have on the planet.
In America, 2.5 million people die a year. In England, the figure is about 500,000 people and in Australia, 140,000. This means there’s a staggering number of caskets going into the ground made of woods, metals, and plastics – and dare I say, corpses filled with toxins.
That’s the reality of it. Does it have to be this way? Well, no. Fortunately, there are some very innovative ‘death acceptors’ who are putting a lot of thought into ways to return your body to the earth with minimal impact on the environment. In the process, they are encouraging us to rethink our relationship with nature and death.
Deaths are inevitable but burials are not. The multi-billion-dollar death industry is going through big changes. Cremation has overtaken burials as the preferred funeral practice, as more people move away from religion, tradition, and family plots. There’s the price factor too, on average a cremation costs one-third less than a traditional burial. Great, shouldn’t we go the cremation way then? Cremation is a good thing in that it’s space-saving but it isn’t without issues.
Firstly, it requires quite a bit of fuel. Burning a corpse pumps dioxin, carbon dioxide, and mercury into the air. Also, not all bones turn to ash which requires them to be crushed so what your family receives of your remains at the end of the process is a mix of ash and bone that has been ground into powder. Then still, they have to do something with it: one-third bury the ‘ashes’, one-third scatter them and one-third keep them. However, of the two-thirds returned to nature, it’s not actually of any use because ash is inorganic and therefore, nothing can grow from it.
There are other options available to traditional burial or cremation, like natural burial, and in some places, bio-cremation (alkaline hydrolysis), and there are others currently in development that offer exciting solutions to some of our environmental problems. Many of these have been inspired by the natural burial movement and are in their infancy, however, they are promising enough to have captured the attention of environmental advocates, scientists, and the media.
1. Use dry ice & essential oils
As soon as you die your body begins to decompose because your immune system is no longer functioning to fight off bacteria, which then begins to break down your bodily tissue. A common deathcare practice, especially in America (carried on from the Civil War) is embalming which temporarily preserves a corpse, making it appear ‘life-like’ (asleep rather than dead) and odourless during viewing.
Embalming is a particularly toxic practice and in many instances quite unnecessary. In the process of embalming and restoring your dead body, an embalmer removes bodily fluids and gasses from your organs and intestines and injects your vascular stream with (cancer-causing) chemicals like formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and phenol to slow decomposition and give firmness to tissue. Wax substitutes, fillers, and wiring may be used to return you to your prior appearance, especially if you were injured in some way. Your body is then dressed and placed in a casket, eyes are closed and hands crossed. Cosmetic products are applied and your hair styled.
Embalming may be the best option in circumstances where a corpse requires transporting from overseas or interstate, or the funeral is otherwise delayed, but it’s not needed if your funeral can be arranged within three days of your death. This way your body can still be viewed, and not be filled with toxins that will poison the earth or air when your body fully decomposes or cremated. The notion that viewing the deceased is somehow therapeutic is disputed – that it doesn’t aid the bereavement process, or aid it any more than by viewing the corpse in its natural state of gradual decay.
An alternative embalming fluid to formaldehyde is alcohol. A corpse that is not embalmed is commonly refrigerated after death in a mortuary or funeral home to keep it as fresh as possible until funeral arrangements can be made for its disposal. Your body can be preserved in the casket and avoid toxins altogether with the use of dry ice. Place a little on the chest to freeze any liquids in the heart and lungs. Essential oils can be used to conceal mild odours, they are antibacterial and smell very nice. Of course, if (you or) your family opts for no viewing at your funeral, there is no need for embalming.
2. Go the natural burial way
According to a 2015 survey by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, 64 percent of respondents indicated an interest in green funerals, up from 43 percent in 2010. The most authentic green funeral today, which is again gaining in popularity, is the natural burial which has been practiced for thousands of years. In this way, you are buried in a shallow grave, without any use of chemicals, in a sustainable coffin made of unlacquered, basic wood, cardboard or wicker, a burlap sack or shroud.
These are natural materials that break down easily and do not impede the decomposition process of your body, leaving little impact on the environment. This is unlike the traditional caskets often used in burials, which are made of more expensive and endangered woods, mined metals, and toxic plastics. Rather than a heavy headstone, a natural burial will have a flat rock, plant, or tree as a grave marker – or no grave marker is used at all. The only obstacle to a natural burial is being able to find suitable woods, property, or cemetery that allows for it by law.
In America, you can go to the Green Burial Council Directory or view the burial laws state by state here to find out where you can be naturally buried. In the United Kingdom, you can go to the Association of Natural Burial Grounds to source similar information. In Canada, the Natural Burial Co-operative provides a Directory of Natural Burial Grounds. In Australia, there is no natural burial council or association, so you may like to contact your state’s cemetery board or the Australian Funeral Directors Association to source relevant information.
3. Wear a mushroom suit
Artist Jae Rim Lee is the founder and CEO of Coeio and the designer of an exciting sustainability burial suit which has really caught the media’s attention. It is made of mushroom mycelium (rather than spores as first presented in her TED talk). Two types of mushrooms found in nature are built into a handcrafted biodegradable garment, along with other microorganisms. These emit enzymes then break down dead human tissue. Additionally, and here’s the real magic, the mushrooms eliminate toxins, all the 219 kinds that are apparently present in your body when you die, leaving a clean compost that will provide rich nutrients to plant roots.
Coeio currently provides the following products for purchase:
- Infinity Burial Suit
- Infinity Burial Shroud
- Infinity Casket Liner
- Also available is a green burial container for your pet.
4. Be freeze-dried & made into compost
Organic Promessa AB is a Swedish company founded by biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. She has developed a way to turn a corpse into compost material in an automated process of dry-freezing called Promession (to date only tested on dead pigs). It goes like this…
Your dead body is frozen and sprayed with liquid nitrogen, resulting in it being crystallized. Sound vibrations then disintegrate your brittle body into powder in just a few minutes. Water is removed from the remaining particles, reducing your remains to thirty percent of their original weight. Metals are separated from the remains. And finally, the remains are sealed in a biodegradable coffin made of corn or potato starch. It is then up to your family what they wish to do with the remains, but if buried it will break down in topsoil in 6-18 months, therefore providing rich compost for any garden or tree life growing above it.
5. Be woodchipped & turned into soil
One of the most revolutionary urban design projects is undoubtedly the Urban Death Project from Seattle, created by architectural designer Katrina Spade, who was inspired by the green burial movement, and livestock mortality composting which is practiced in some American states. Her model could be the future approach to death care in cities around the world. It promises to deliver new meaning to death and the cycle of nature in an urban setting.
The Urban Death Project is a proposed system of decomposition that turns corpses into the soil. When you die your body is taken to a human composting facility in the city. Your body is wrapped in a shroud and laid into ‘a core’ by your family. Your body is then covered with woodchips and so begins the transformation from the body to soil. Over weeks microbes and bacteria break your body down naturally, and at the end of a process called ‘recomposition’, you will have become a rich earthly soil that can be used to grow plant life in your community. The facility welcomes ceremony and ritual by family and friends. Part of the facility will be a memorial, where loved ones can come to reflect. Spade is currently working towards the building of the first Urban Death Facility in Seattle.
It is easy to imagine as the public becomes increasingly aware and responsible for their impact on the environment, new cost-efficient, ethical and ecological death care practices will become apparent in our communities. Do any of these eco-friendly death care practices interest you? I’d love to know!
To view an infographic about the impact of funerals on the environment, click here.
To view an infographic about pre-planning your natural funeral, click here.