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I have some bad news, fellow humans: none of us is getting out of this life alive, and nothing can erase your crimes against nature. I say that because, as it turns out, dying (and being disposed of after death) is pretty bad for the environment. Great.
As it stands, I know of two ways I could lay my mortal remains to rest: traditional burial in a wood or metal coffin (in a designated burial plot) and cremation. These methods are the most traditional and most popularly employed by the United States’ recently deceased. Unfortunately, these methods have serious environmental repercussions. Fortunately for us, there's such a thing as 'green' and eco-friendly burials.
First of all, what even is a "green" burial?
As defined by the Green Burial Council, a "green" burial is one where “bodies are respectfully cared for in a way that minimally impacts the environment.” This means, among other things, bodies are not embalmed before they are laid to rest and only non-toxic, biodegradable urns, coffins and shrouds can be used as vessels. Instead of having a designated burial plot in a standard cemetery, bodies are buried on land that is allowed to grow and return to nature.
Before we press on, let me just say this: I'm not here to tell you how to live your after-life. Whatever you choose to do with yourself after you shuffle off this mortal coil is up to you, your beliefs and your loved ones.
Coffins, Caskets and Urns (Oh My)
Let’s start with the hallmarks of burial: the vessels. In the U.S alone, 12 people die every second, a number that is only expected to grow as the population increases. The problem with this? Approximately 43 percent of these people elect to be traditionally buried, and traditional burials take up a loooot of space. According to an article by Vice, though it may seem gruesome to think about, “burials bring with them the same sort of issues as that of a mass landfill.” Yikes.
The solution? Go green! Skip embalming your remains and use vessels that are designed to break down slowly over time in the Earth or in water. Instead of being made of wood, eco-friendly caskets are made from sustainably-grown and biodegradable substances including:
If you're one of the 50% of Americans who'd prefer to rest eternally in an urn, you're in luck because there are even more options available to you. I found urns of every shape and size available for purchase and, though you can go as traditional as you care to, aesthetically speaking, I've chosen to list the most interesting options I found including:
- This paper turtle (or tURNtle, if you will)
Mushroom shrouds gained notoriety recently after singer Luke Perry was buried in one after his untimely death. Before that, I had no idea they existed. Essentially a classy, organic-cotton pajama set, the mushroom shroud is impregnated with flesh-eating fungi spores and other microorganisms that naturally assist the body’s decomposition. The mushrooms break down human remains and distribute them back into the soil while leeching away any earth-harming toxins left in the corpse.
Currently, cremation is the funeral service of choice for the majority of Americans. But not only does it take a lot of energy to burn a human body to ashes, but it also releases a lot of harmful carbon dioxide (a contributor to climate change) into the environment.
Burning grandma in fire seems to be violent. In contrast, green cremation is 'putting grandma in a warm bath.' Philip Olson, Professor at Virginia Tech
Fortunately, there’s a new method of cremation in town. Also called “Alkaline Hydrolysis,” water cremation is an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional after-death by fire. Instead of breaking down remains by burning them, water cremation involves placing a body in a warm solution comprised of 95 percent water and 5 percent alkaline chemicals (usually either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide). In this bath, skin, tissue and organs dissolve to leave a pristine skeleton that is then ground into pearly dust to be placed in an (eco-friendly) urn or disposed of. The person soup that is left in the tank is completely sterile (all tissues, fats and remains having been broken down to their organic forms) and can be disposed of or as Mother Nature Network suggests, used as an effective fertilizer. In addition to being eco-friendly, many feel this method is also gentler on the emotions of relatives. In an interview with The Atlantic, Virginia-Tech professor Phil Olson, put it this way: “Burning grandma in fire seems to be violent. In contrast, green cremation is ‘putting grandma in a warm bath.’”
Human composting, or "recomposition" as it's also known, is the next hot thing on the death-care scene. Designed to let men and women live on by nourishing the land, human composting starts at a special facility that according to Katrina Spade, a self-proclaimed decomposition nerd and CEO of the alternative burial company Recompose, is “part public park, part funeral home, part memorial to the people we love." In the process devised by Recompose, remains brought to the facility are placed in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, which work to decompose the body. After several weeks, microbes break down the body into soil that can be given to the deceased's family to use in their gardens as a growing memorial or given to local conservation groups to be spread out on the countryside.
The best part? Human composting uses one-eighth the energy of cremation and saves one metric ton of carbon dioxide for every person who uses it. Sign me up!