Though the subject of body disposition remains somewhat taboo in Western culture, it is important to have discussions with family and loved ones about what we want done with our bodies when we die. For many, embalming, burial, or cremation are the only familiar options. However, these traditional methods are more detrimental to the environment than one might realize.
Fortunately, options beyond these traditional ones are available. Modern advancements in end-of-life care and final disposition methods ensure that no one has to worry about their final contribution to this planet being a massive toxic footprint. There are several eco-friendly burial options available today that are not only better for the environment- some directly benefit the planet!
Are traditional cremation and embalming methods really that bad for the environment?
Though the exact methodology has varied over time, most cultures employ two basic categories of human body disposition: burial and cremation.
Throughout most of human history, burial has been a simple process. Bodies are either placed in holes or settled on the ground and covered with stones. There have been an incredible number of variations on this theme, but until very recently, burial was rarely more impactful than chopping down a tree to create a wooden coffin. Bodies were buried relatively close to habitation locations, and in many cases the body was honored and buried respectfully long before the first signs of decomposition began to show. In certain cultures, alternative methods of preservation (such as embalming with salt and dehydration in Egypt, or Alexander the Great’s immersion in honey) were employed, but simple coffin burials were the most common.
This changed rapidly during the 17th century. British doctors and anatomists like William Harvey and William Hunter, along with Frenchman Jean Gannal—whose writings were translated into English and widely spread—pioneered a process called arterial cadaver preservation—a manner which became known as modern embalming.
Over a century later, the American Civil War secured the future of this new practice. Thousands of soldiers died in battle hundreds of miles from home. In order to ship their bodies home for proper burials without risking terrible decay, the creation of a new way to delay the decomposition process became essential. This predicament was solved by Dr. Thomas Holmes, who embalmed thousands of bodies during the War, leading to the acceptance of embalming practices by President Lincoln.
The adoption of this technique permanently altered the funeral industry. Civil War era embalming methods set the precedent for modern practices, which have continued largely unchanged for the last hundred-plus years. Modern embalming fluid is a potent mix of strong solvents, including formaldehyde, methanol, and humectants. In every cadaver, over three gallons of fluid is used to preserve the body’s tissues for funeral services. However, this chemical cocktail lasts far longer than the few days between death and open casket funerals. Embalmed bodies often take over a decade to decompose, and in some environments, can last even longer. A recent cemetery excavation undertaken to move historic remains out of an active construction zone revealed skeletons buried for over 100 years. They still retained some intact tissue and sections of scalp and hair, largely a result of the embalming fluids used when they were interred.
The primary impact of this modern process is not the impact on the body, but on the environment. After the embalmed corpse is sealed into a casket and buried, the body breaks down and the integrity of the casket begins to degrade. Embalming fluids previously injected into the body slowly leach into surrounding soil. Because a significant amount of water is used to maintain the green lawns at cemeteries, these embalming chemicals also swiftly seep into the groundwater. Embalming bodies results in over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde buried in the ground yearly, which eventually makes its way into the earth.
Recently burial, long the most popular American disposition choice, has been overtaken; in 2016, cremation became the most common method of disposition in the United States.
Cremation in the most basic sense—simply placing a body atop a funeral pyre—or in the romanticized “Viking funeral” where a ship containing the body is launched and then set aflame, leaves little negative environmental impact given the fact that so few large scale cremations were performed a few thousand years ago. Ash and bone are left behind, which provide sustainance for vegetation and plant life, with bone acting as an essential nutrient for animals looking to supplement their diets with calcium and bone marrow. The amount of smoke released into the atmosphere is negligible in comparison to naturally occurring wildfires.
Today’s cremations are a different story.
The modern cremation process involves incinerating the body in a furnace at temperatures of 1,500-1,800°F for up to 90 minutes, a practice which releases 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Modern fillings and appliances in the body release heavy metals when burned, and on average, the process consumes close to 30 gallons of non-renewable fossil fuels. Approximately half of America’s decedents are now cremated.
For obvious reasons, neither cremation nor embalmed burial can be considered truly “eco-friendly” body disposition methods. So what are the alternatives, and how can we wade through all of the myth to find reliable, scientifically-backed eco-friendly disposition methods in use today?
What options are available for eco-friendly burial today?
First, we will dispel some common myths about eco-friendly burial options and examine the feasibility of some approaches that are making headlines.
Jae Rhim Lee is an artist who focuses on environmentally responsible human body disposition. Creator of the Infinity Burial Project, Lee is a strong proponent of the “decompiculture” approach to body disposition. This mindset is one that encourages individuals to come to terms with the inevitability of decomposition and death, and supports honest, open discussions about environmentally responsible burial options that give back to the earth rather than contribute to pollution and chemical leeching.
Lee’s approach goes far deeper than simply choosing an appropriate disposition method. At the heart of the “decompiculture” movement is the notion that, regardless of the specific method utilized, people will remain uncomfortable with any postmortem options until they accept the reality of death, an acceptance which necessitates letting go of traditions that require dead bodies be pumped full of toxic chemicals for them to be honored and respected.
That said, Lee’s proposal is still far-fetched, even for the most accepting among us.
She spearheads the “Infinity Burial Project,” which proposes that mushrooms can filter the toxic, poisonous chemicals used in burial before they can reach the environment. The project has created a biodegradable suit of mushroom spores and microorganisms designed to feed on decomposing flesh and “aid in the decomposition process” in the place of a traditional coffin.
When carefully examined, however, Lee’s process seems to raise more questions than answers. Which of the toxins in the human body are actually detrimental to the environment? How do mushrooms remove those toxins from the body and prevent them from leeching into surrounding soil?
Lee’s FAQ section does attempt to address some of these questions, but it is far from satisfying. When answering the question: “Do the level of toxins in humans really matter?” Lee’s website states: “By being buried in the Infinity Burial Suit, you are helping the environment, which we believe is a valid cause, no matter how small the contribution.” While this sentiment certainly has some truth to it, it is difficult to trust a garment that has yet to undergo thorough testing and cannot provide solid evidence of its environmental impact.
Perhaps in time this eco-friendly burial method will be fully researched. Until then, there are other eco-friendly burial options which have been proven to be more environmentally beneficial.
Egg Pods/Tree Pods (Capsula Mundi)
The Egg Pod, an intriguing take on green burial, seeks to solve the modern issue of environmentally destructive disposition methods by planting more trees. Capsula Mundi—known as “egg pods” or “tree pods”—are biodegradable urns designed to be filled with the ashes of the deceased and buried in the ground. Trees are then planted on top of the urns, creating a series of “memorial forests” where the trees are nourished by the ashes of the deceased, memorializing their lives in living bark and leaves.
While the concept of a memorial forest is a lovely and touching idea, the Capsula Mundi are not really eco-friendly. Placing the cremated ashes of a loved one under a newly planted tree may feel good, but the process still requires cremation, which pollutes the air and consumes huge quantities of fossil fuel. Although these effects are to some degree counteracted by planting a tree, it would still be preferable to use a disposition method that avoids the cremation process entirely.
The Capsula Mundi company is planning to eliminate the use of cremated remains at some point by offering large burial pods which could hold bodies in the fetal position. However, these pods have not yet been manufactured or tested, and there is a good chance that they will be far more expensive than other green options. A common motivation for choosing green burial is to avoid the astronomic costs associated with traditional funerals and burial; raising the cost of these pods counteracts that purpose.
While the aforementioned methods are certainly interesting areas for continued research, many are not yet legal and are not practical to pursue at this point. However, there are alternative methods that are more closely aligned with accepted scientific research and are shown to have greater positive impacts on the environment.
The following eco-friendly burial options are available today and are less harmful to the environment than traditional disposition methods, while still honoring the body of the deceased. When complete, some of these options serve to benefit the environment by returning nutrients back to the earth. Legislation approving these methods has been passed in Washington State and is in progress in state legislatures across the country.
The most basic of eco-friendly burial options, green burial involves a completely natural burial process where the body is not embalmed, cremated, preserved, or treated in any way. The goal of green burial is to care for the dead without impacting the environment. In cemeteries dedicated to green burial, each person is buried in biodegradable shrouds or coffins, without vaults or embalming. The coffin is made of simple, untreated wood, and is allowed to decompose naturally over time.
Until the 1930s, it was standard for family members and loved ones to prepare the body of the deceased in their own home. The body was bathed and dressed, which served as a beautiful way of celebrating life and saying final goodbyes. It is now far more common for a funeral home to collect and prepare the body. With green burial, family and friends have the freedom to choose what best suits them. If the family wishes, a funeral home can assist with cleaning and preparing the body without having the body embalmed. This approach is known as a “blended” funeral.
There are many variations on green burial, and legislation varies by state. Learn more about this burial method here.
Alkaline Hydrolysis (Water cremation)
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “water cremation,” “bio-cremation,” or “green cremation,” was patented in the 1880s; the same process, essentially, is used today. The body is placed inside a water-tight chamber, and a mixture of 95% water and 5% alkaline chemicals such as lye are then added. The chamber is sealed and heated to approximately 300°F for up to 16 hours. At the end of the process, the acids, fats, proteins, and other components that make up the soft tissue of the body are drained away with the alkaline/water mixture, leaving behind the bones. These are pulverized (just as they are in a traditional cremation), creating ‘ashes’ which loved ones can scatter, bury, or place in an urn.
In water cremation, the final disposition of the body could be considered “incomplete.” The soft tissue that breaks down as a result of the process is sterile and safe to pour down the drain, but the process “separates” part of the body, and all the family receives is the pulverized bone, which could make some uncomfortable.
Water cremation is relatively gentle, and there are no harmful emissions or other negative environmental impacts. The electricity required is far less than that needed to power a traditional cremation chamber. Scientifically speaking, alkaline hydrolysis is a highly eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation.
Human Composting (Terramation)
Arguably the option least harmful to the environment, human composting has just been legalized in the state of Washington. Also known as terramation or natural organic reduction, the process closely resembles the manner in which a body returns to the earth in a natural environment. It just speeds the process up considerably.
How do human bodies break down?
In nature, when a living being dies the decomposition process begins immediately – nothing to goes to waste. Bodies naturally contain all of the microbes and bacteria required to completely break down remains after death. Decomposition is the process by which nature reclaims our bodies, and returns them to earth.
Stages of decomposition
Some mortuary scientists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scientists devote their careers to the study of decomposition, and there are a near-infinite number of variables that contribute to the speed, conditions, and outcomes of the decomposition process. In general, however, decomposition takes place in four distinct stages.
First, the fresh body begins to digest itself. Without oxygen circulation, waste cannot be removed from the body and begins to build up. Enzymes within the body break down the tissues.
Gases from the self-digestion process begin to accumulate, causing swelling and discoloration of the body. The bacteria and microbes which reside inside of the body increase their activity, and strong odors are produced.
The bloating ceases when the gases find release through some vent in the body. Soft tissues such as muscles and organs begin to liquify and decompose.
By the last stage, most if not all, of the soft tissue has decomposed and only the bones remain.
Environmental conditions needed for decomposition
Decomposition is the inevitable end of all natural, organic beings when left untouched. However, the length of the process may vary depending on a variety of environmental factors. Chief among them is temperature.
To demonstrate the effects of temperature on decomposition, let’s use an example of a hiker who lost their way and died in an unfortunate accident. When the hiker passes away, the decomposition process begins immediately. If the hiker perishes in the middle of summer, the heat encourages the action and reproduction of bacteria and microbes that will break the body down, causing bloating to quickly begin. Bugs and scavenging animals—which are more active in the heat of summer—will go to work, and advanced decay will quickly transition the body to the skeletal stage of decomposition.
Now imagine that same scenario occurring during the winter. The hiker is bundled up in a coat, hat, boots, and more. This time, a snowstorm covers their body overnight, effectively slowing the microbes and stopping the decomposition process. After the snow melts days later, the warmth from the sun begins to heat the body, wakening the bacteria and microbes. But as night falls and temperatures plummet, those microorganisms slow down again. The bugs are little help, as they are inactive in winter. The entire process is drawn out over weeks or even months, until the warmth of spring and summer return and put the body back into active decomposition.
This same concept applies for human composting. The controlling of variables—such as maintaining a higher temperature—is essential for the rapid decomposition of the body.
How does human composting (terramation) work?
In terramation, decomposition takes place organically, though some natural agents are added to speed up the process.
Laying In: First, the body is placed in a vessel containing alfalfa, wood chips, and sawdus. Bodies generate heat during the terramation process; these materials help retain that heat and naturally increase the overall temperature, speeding the decomposition process. Over the first few days, the temperature of the body slowly rises to approximately 140°F as the process progresses.
Terramation: As the body continues to rise in temperature, pathogens and any potentially harmful bacteria are killed. During the first month, all of the soft tissue of the body largely transform to soil, leaving only harder tissues such as bone and teeth behind.
Removal of Inorganics: At this point, all inorganics such as joint replacements, stents, screws, and pacemakers are removed from the vessel.
Processing: Just as in a traditional cremation, the bones, teeth, and cartilage are pulverized and returned to the soil, to cure for another month.
Curing: The new compost is left for multiple weeks to “cure,” allowing decomposition to finalize and organic matter to finish stabilizing. Finally, the natural, chemical-free, terramated soil can be delivered to the family, or if the family wishes, donated to parks, land trusts, and other regional groups.
A Note on Cultural Perceptions of Death and Disposition
Terramation is a highly eco-friendly disposition method that creates rich, fertile soil that can be used wherever the family wishes. Unlike other eco-burial options which are still undergoing research and approval, terramation is happening now. Learn more here.
Cultural approaches to death vary greatly across the world. In much of Western society and especially the United States, there is a stigma surrounding mortality which makes it incredibly difficult for us to have conversations about our death, specifically how we want our body to be disposed of after we die. This is why the funeral industry takes over so much of this role for us. For many of us, it is easier to pay others to deal with our death than it is to force ourselves to sit through uncomfortable conversations about dying.
That said, these conversations are essential.
Making decisions about final disposition is an incredibly personal, emotional process, and many people are actively striving towards a goal of re-kindling death positivity. The concept of “the good death” promotes the acceptance of death as natural while at the same time striving to show people that we do not need to feel such deep fear about death related issues. By celebrating the natural cycle of life and death, as well as discussing end-of-life experiences, we can work to advocate for positive, healthy societal change.
Green burial is just one small way to begin the conversation about what it means to have a “good death,” one that doesn’t cause crushing debt or devastate the environment. Instead, a green burial turns death into new life. At Return Home, we can’t think of a more honorable or respectful disposition than that.