Organic burial pods, green burial, or human composting are forms of eco-friendly burials.
The subject of body disposition remains somewhat taboo in Western culture. Yet, it’s essential to discuss with family and loved ones what to do when we die.
For many, embalming, burial, or cremation were 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. Now, there are modern advancements in end-of-life care and final disposition methods. These ensure that no one has to worry about their final contribution to this planet is a massive toxic footprint.
Finally, there are eco-friendly burial options available that are not only better for the environment- some directly benefit the planet!
Are traditional cremation and embalming methods that bad for the environment?
Most cultures employ two basic categories of human body disposition: burial and cremation. However, the exact methodology has varied over time.
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 has 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. Burial happened relatively close to habitation locations. And in many cases, the body was buried respectfully long before the first signs of decomposition began to show.
In certain cultures, there were alternative methods of preservation. For example, embalming with salt and dehydration happened in Egypt. And Alexander the Great was immersed in honey. However, simple coffin burials were the most common.
Burial changed rapidly during the 17th century. British doctors and anatomists like William Harvey and William Hunter, and Jean Gannal pioneered arterial cadaver preservation. This form of preservation 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. As a result, bodies needed to ship home for proper burials without risking terrible decay. Therefore, embalming became essential because it delayed the decomposition process. Dr. Thomas Holmes solved this predicament. He embalmed thousands of bodies during the War, leading to President Lincoln’s acceptance of embalming practices.
The adoption of this technique permanently altered the funeral industry. Civil War-era embalming methods set a precedent for modern practices. Unfortunately, these practices have continued primarily unchanged for the last hundred-plus years.
Modern embalming fluid is a potent mix of strong solvents, including formaldehyde, methanol, and humectants. Every cadaver uses three gallons of fluid 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. For example, a recent cemetery excavation moved historic remains out of an active construction zone. This excavation revealed skeletons buried for over 100 years. Nevertheless, they still retained some intact tissue and sections of scalp and hair. Further, intact remains were primarily a result of the embalming fluids.
The immediate impact of this modern process is not the impact on the body but the environment. First, the embalmed corpse is sealed into a casket and buried. Then, the body breaks down, and the integrity of the coffin begins to degrade.
Embalming fluids previously injected into the body slowly leach into the surrounding soil. Due to the significant amount of water it takes to maintain the green lawns at cemeteries, these embalming chemicals also swiftly seep into the groundwater. Embalming bodies result in over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde being buried in the ground yearly. Eventually, that embalming fluid makes its way into the earth and water supply.
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, is simply placing a body atop a funeral pyre. Cremation may be the romanticized “Viking funeral” where a ship containing the body is launched and then set aflame. Viking funerals left little negative environmental impact.
A few thousand years ago, there were no large-scale cremations performed. Ash and bone were left behind, which provided sustenance for vegetation and plant life. Furthermore, bone is 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. Bodies incinerate for up to 90 minutes. The practice of modern cremation releases 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. In addition, 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 cremated.
There are “eco-friendly” burial methods, like organic burial pods, that use cremation. However, neither cremation nor embalmed burial is genuinely “eco-friendly” body disposition methods. So what are the alternatives? And how can we wade through all of the myths to find reliable, scientifically-backed eco-friendly disposition methods in use 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 encourages individuals to come to terms with the inevitability of decomposition and death. Also, it supports open discussions about environmentally responsible burial options. Furthermore, this mindset gives back to the earth rather than contributes to pollution and chemical leaching.
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 technique utilized, people will remain uncomfortable with any postmortem options until they accept the reality of death. Further, this acceptance necessitates letting go of harmful traditions. Such as the traditions that require dead bodies to be pumped full of toxic chemicals.
That said, Lee’s proposal is still far-fetched, even for the most accepting among us.
She spearheads the “Infinity Burial Project”. This project proposes that mushrooms can filter the toxic, poisonous chemicals used in burial before reaching the environment. The project has created a biodegradable suit of mushroom spores and microorganisms designed to feed on decomposing flesh—also, the suit “aids 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 detrimental to the environment? How do mushrooms remove those toxins from the body and prevent them from leaching into surrounding soil?
Lee does attempt to address some of these questions, but it is far from satisfying. For example, 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, it isn’t easy to trust a garment that has yet to undergo thorough testing and cannot provide solid evidence of its environmental impact.
Perhaps in time, research may back up this eco-friendly burial method. But, until then, other eco-friendly burial options have proven to be more environmentally beneficial.
The Egg Pod, an intriguing take on green burial. It seeks to solve the current issue of environmentally destructive disposition methods by planting more trees. Capsula Mundi—egg pods, tree pods, or organic burial pods—are biodegradable urns. These urns are filled with the ashes of the deceased and buried in the ground. Then, trees are planted on top of the urns for an eco pod burial.
Consequently, this creates a series of “memorial forests” where the deceased’s ashes nourish the trees. Thus, lives live on in living bark and leaves.
While the concept of a memorial forest is a lovely and touching idea, the human burial pods are not eco-friendly. Placing the cremated ashes of a loved one under a newly planted tree still requires cremation. Further, cremation pollutes the air and consumes vast quantities of fossil fuel. These effects are to some degree counteracted by planting a tree. Preferably, we avoid cremation entirely.
The Capsula Mundi company is planning to eliminate cremated remains at some point by offering organic burial pods. These organic burial pods (or cremation tree pods) could hold bodies in the fetal position. However, these eco-friendly burial pods are not manufactured or tested. And, they will likely be far more expensive than other green options.
A common motivation for choosing green burial is avoiding the astronomic costs of traditional funerals and cremation. Raising the cost of these organic burial pods counteracts that purpose. Biodegradable burial pod costs are still too high to justify this method.
Are organic burial pods legal in the US? While the methods above are certainly interesting areas for continued research, many are not yet legal. And many are not practical to pursue at this point. However, there are alternative methods that are more closely aligned with accepted scientific research. And these methods are shown to have more significant 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. Most importantly, they honor the body of the deceased. In addition, when complete, some of these options benefit the environment by returning nutrients to the earth. In Washinton State, legislation has approved some of these methods. Also, some ways are in progress in state legislatures across the country.
The most basic of eco-friendly burial options, green burial, involves an entirely natural burial process. In short, a green burial means 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. Cemeteries dedicated to green burial use biodegradable shrouds or coffins without vaults or embalming. Instead, the coffin is made of simple, untreated wood and can decompose naturally over time.
Until the 1930s, it was standard for family members and loved ones to prepare the deceased’s body in their own homes. The body was bathed and dressed. Further, this 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.
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “water cremation,” “bio-cremation,” or “green cremation,” was patented in the 1880s. The exact process, essentially, is used today:
At the end of the process, the acids, fats, proteins, and other components that make up the body’s soft tissue are drained away with the alkaline/water mixture, leaving behind the bones. Pulverizing the bones is the next step (just as they are in a traditional cremation). This creates ‘ashes’ that loved ones can scatter, bury, or place in an urn.
In water cremation, the final disposition of the body is “incomplete.” In other words, the soft tissue that breaks down and 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. In addition, the electricity required is far less than that needed to power a traditional cremation chamber. Therefore, scientifically speaking, alkaline hydrolysis is a highly eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation.
Arguably the option least harmful to the environment, human composting has just been legalized in Washington state. Human composting is essentially another form of green burial. Also known as terramation or natural organic reduction, the process closely resembles how 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 break down remains after death completely. Decomposition is the process by which nature reclaims our bodies and returns them to earth.
Which of the following types of body disposition will delay decomposition the most?
Some mortuary scientists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scientists devote their careers to studying decomposition. A near-infinite number of variables contribute to the decomposition process’s speed, conditions, and outcomes. 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. Second, enzymes within the body break down the tissues.
Gases from the self-digestion process begin to accumulate, causing swelling and discoloration of the body. In addition, the bacteria and microbes which reside inside of the body increase their activity and produce strong odors.
The bloating ceases when the gases find release through some vent in the body. Then, soft tissues such as muscles and organs begin to liquefy and decompose.
By the last stage, most, if not all, of the soft tissue has decomposed, and only the bones remain.
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. Suppose the hiker perishes in the middle of summer. In that case, the heat encourages the action and reproduction of bacteria and microbes that will break the body down, causing bloating to begin quickly. Bugs and scavenging animals—which are more active in the heat of summer—will go to work, and advanced decay will soon transition the body to the skeletal stage of decomposition.
Now imagine that same scenario occurring during the winter. The hiker is 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, awakening 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 takes weeks or even months until spring and summer’s warmth returns and puts the body back into active decomposition.
This same concept applies to human composting. Again, controlling variables—such as maintaining a higher temperature—is essential for the rapid decomposition of the body.
In terramation, decomposition takes place organically, though adding natural agents to speed up the process.
Laying In: First, the body is placed in a vessel containing alfalfa, wood chips, and sawdust. 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 body’s temperature slowly rises to approximately 140°F as the process progresses.
Terramation: As the body rises in temperature, killing pathogens and any potentially harmful bacteria. During the first month, all of the body’s soft tissue primarily 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 stabilize. Finally, the natural, chemical-free, terramated soil is delivered to the family, or if the family wishes, donated to parks, land trusts, and other regional groups.
Terramation is a highly eco-friendly disposition method that creates rich, fertile soil that the family can use wherever they wish. Unlike other eco-burial options, which are still undergoing research and approval, terramation is happening now. Learn more here.
Cultural approaches to death vary significantly across the world. In much of Western society and especially the United States, there is a stigma surrounding mortality. The stigma 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. Then, 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. Simultaneously, this openness shows people that we do not need to feel such deep fear about death-related issues. By celebrating the natural cycle of life and death and discussing end-of-life experiences, we can 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.” Furthermore, human composting 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.