It was during a romantic weekend trip to Louisville, KY when my husband and I first seriously discussed what we would do with the other’s body in the event that they died first. He having just audited a divinity class in which the professor had recently scattered the ashes of his wife, and I having been kept busy at work composting tilapia from failed aquaphonic experiments (as well as chickens who had the misfortune of meeting an area fox), the conversation was natural and, oddly enough, anything but morbid. So, in a little cafe over spinach risotto, we decided to do the most loving and environmentally friendly thing we could think of at the time and cremate the other person’s body when the time came.
That conversation was about four years ago, and while I still prefer cremation to a burial that involves pumping my body full of toxic, preserving chemicals and placing it in a non-biodegradable metal box, learning of the energy usage and pollution that results from cremation each year was more than enough reason to look into other options. Here are my top five available or up-and-coming eco-friendly burial options:
1. Urban Death Project
From dust we came, to dust we shall return, and I really can’t think of a better way to return to that dust than to be composted. The up-and-coming Seattle-based Urban Death Project seeks to create safe, 3-story decomposition sites in communities, while also providing a meaningful send-off and grieving process for family and friends of the deceased. Friends and family dress the deceased in a simple shroud, then carry them up a winding hall to the third story of the composting site to say their goodbyes and place the body in a mixture of wood chips and sawdust. Once decomposition is complete (a speedy 4-6 weeks), the family returns and gathers some of the compost, to essentially fold their loved one back into the community. The project received over $90,000 from their kickstarter campaign, so hopefully communities can expect to see this option in the near future.
2. Infinity Mushroom
A year before leaving for Korea, I began “getting into” mushrooms. While in some circles, this statement may have bad connotations, I can assure only the most innocent motivations. Encouraged by my farming mentor, I attended mushroom workshops and was soon growing blue oyster mushrooms in my bedroom, of all places. In the chicken yard, we dabbled with mycoremediation, and I quickly began to revere mushrooms for more than their flavor. Given this, my comfort-level that mushrooms should one day metabolize my body shouldn’t be too surprising. Mushrooms are nature’s champion decomposers, able to clean up oil-spills, radiation, and your run-of-the-mill rotting log. But if Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Mushroom project comes to fruition, mushrooms could be used widespread to speedily breakdown bodies. When combined with her “mushroom suit,” dried spore “make-up” applied directly on the body would quickly get down to what it does best. The project is still in need of some funding, and is currently being tested on meat. In the meantime, watch Lee’s fascinating TED Talk:
3. Natural Burial with Alternative Coffins
If your time comes before the above projects materialize, there is always good ol’ natural burial. Contrary to popular belief, aside from transporting bodies across a few state lines or time limitations that involve wakes and viewings, no U.S. state requires embalming. Also, grave liners and burial vaults are not required in any US state, though many cemeteries themselves may require these items. Search for a green cemetery (there are currently 30 green cemeteries in 20 states) and opt for a simple cloth shroud or a coffin that more readily biodegrades. Here are a few of my favorites:
These organic wool felt shrouds from UK based Bellacouche are handmade and quite beautiful.
Though many wicker coffins are UK based*, Natural Burial Company in the U.S.A. sources many of these, too.
Looking for something a bit more familiar? Purchase a wooden coffin that serves a dual-purpose, like these bookshelf/coffin combos from Shelves for Life and Last Things. It’s a great way to cut both cost and consumerism, while serving as a gentle reminder of your mortality each time you reach for that favorite paperback.
*Curious as to why so many biodegradable coffins are UK based? The UK has over 200 natural burial sites.
For those looking for the speed “over and done with” that cremation provides, resomation may be a great option. Also known as aquamation, resomation is a flameless cremation process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to reduce one’s body to bone ash. The whole process takes 2-3 hours (about the time of cremation), but uses only 1/7 of the energy of that of cremation. Developed in Minnesota, resomators are legal and used in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, and Oregon, as well.
Another promising cremation alternative, promession would use a 5-step procedure, involving liquid nitrogen, vibration, and freeze drying to reduce a body to a dry powder. The last step involves separating any metal from the powder. This step is groundbreaking, as metals from fillings and artificial joints, etc, serve as environmental pollutants, especially during cremation. The dry powder could then be given to the person’s loved ones or placed in a biodegradable casket in the upper layers of soil to ensure speedy decomposition. Though promession has been performed on pigs, a human cadaver has yet to be tested, due to lack of equipment. Fingers crossed that this option is available soon.
Uneasy by all of this death and burial talk? Take comfort in that this is a choice we must all make one day, as death is a natural part of life. And when that last sentence doesn’t make you feel better (it rarely does), read The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Then start gardening. Pay close attention to the life cycles of plants, fish, chickens, earthworms. If needed, grow blue oyster mushrooms. Then start a conversation with your family about the send-off that is right for you. Here’s to a long, happy life, and eco-friendly death!