Living Low Waste, Even in Death

With covid deaths on the rise, especially in the US, it is time to talk about what we want our death to look like and how we can make it less harmful to the planet. Years ago, I decided I would donate my body to science when I die. This seemed like the best option since standard burial is incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.
Since then, however, I have learned there are a bunch of environmental options for death, usually called Green Burials. An eco-friendly death is exactly what I would want. There are more options than you would expect.

The problems with standard burials:
According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, cemeteries in the US bury these materials every year:
> 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which leech into the ground water, as well as having negative impacts on morticians and groundskeepers.
> 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
> 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets), usually a form of ‘rare’ or exotic wood
> 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
> 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
> > These materials have to be created and transported, which means mining and more emissions.
As for the cemeteries, they take up space, which we are sorely lacking; over 1 million acres of land in the US is used for graveyards. They also require maintainence (think mowing, fertilizer/chemicals, and an abundance of water).

The problems with standard cremation:
According to Natural Death Center, one cremation uses as much gas and electricity as a 500 mile road trip and releases over 800lbs of carbon dioxide into the air, as well as other pollutants, such as mercury.
Regarding donating to science, most of the organizations that use cadavers will cremate the body in this way when they have finished with it.


Green options:
Green burial means not using embalming chemicals and using biodegradable materials that are sustainably sourced. Most states and parts of the world do not require embalming to be used; however, without embalming, some states require the burial to take place within 72 hours. In Minnesota, a burial vault is also not required but some cemeteries do require it. Check with your preferred cemetery about their burial requirements and see if they have green options. If not, consider telling them you will be looking at other places for green options. This way, they understand they may be losing customers by not offering environmental choices.
In case you’re wondering, green burials/funerals are almost always cheaper than standard versions.

Burial with a coffin: If you wish to use a coffin, you can choose sustainably sourced, untreated wood, bamboo or wicker. Here is an example of a site that offers these products. It turns out you don’t have to buy from the funeral home directly.

Burial without a coffin: I would want to be buried with as little material as possible, including no coffin. The most common way to do this that I found is to be buried in a cotton shroud. Some places use a wicker or bamboo body board with the shroud so that the body can be carried by pall bearers. You can use your own shroud/sheet, as long as it is a natural material, or you can buy one on sites like I mentioned above.

Green cremation: In Minnesota and 17 other states, there is a flame-free cremation process called alkaline hydrolysis, which uses lye, water and pressure to turn a body to ash. Since there is no flame, it requires less energy than a standard cremation. It is offered in a few locations in Minnesota but is not widely used/accepted yet. The machine itself is expensive, so until there is a higher demand for green cremations, it will be a while before most funeral homes offer it, but more and more states are making it a legal option.

Burial at sea as a reef: If you love the ocean, this may be the option for you.
A company called Eternal Reefs uses a person’s ashes (hopefully from a green cremation) to create a “reef ball.” The ball is shaped to resemble a reef so that creatures can make it a new home. If you live near the coastline where the reef will be placed, your family can help with the casting, including putting handprints or oceanfriendly items into the mixture. On the day of the burial, family members can ride aboard the ship to witness the placement into the ocean. —You do not need to live in the area to use this company. Your ashes can be shipped to them. I think they offer a virtual viewing of the ceremony as well.

Burial as a tree: Much like the urn, this most often requires cremation. In this situation, your ashes are placed in a biodegradable container and planted with a tree of your choice. This way, your ashes help the tree grow. China uses this method often to help lower costs and save space. One company, Capsula Mundi, is planning to create a body-sized urn so you don’t have to be cremated first but it isn’t completed yet.

Mushroom suit: I found this article just two days ago, so I know the least about this idea but I plan to learn more. A woman, Jae Rhim Lee created a burial suit made of mushrooms that will decompose the body naturally and filter out the toxins that we carry. It looks like this is not available yet but she is in looking for people interested in being the first test subjects, so it may be an option. Watch her TED talk here.

Burial for Pets: Green burial is an option for pets as well. The Green-Pet Burial Society has more on that.

There are interesting, creative options all over the world that are not realistically available to those living outside the area, so research your state/city/provence/etc, see what your locals have come up with.


If you are interested in learning more, here are a few extra articles:
Site selling green burial materials
The Order of the Good Death
Independent Funeral Advice, a NonProfit
Funeral Consumers Alliance of America
Green Burial Council
Body compost company in Seattle, Washington

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