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Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Traditional Burial

By Kim Robson:

Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to living environmentally responsible lives may have overlooked planning our very last act. Traditional burials involve toxic and carcinogenic chemical embalming fluids which can leach into the soil, and are a shameful waste of resources and money. Every year, casket burials put 100,000 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete, 77,000 trees, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid into the ground. Cremation isn’t very eco-friendly, either: one cremation uses about as much gas and electricity as a 500-mile car trip and emits about 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the Natural Death Centre.

Luckily, “green burials” are making a big comeback. Let’s explore a few of these options and perhaps discuss them openly with our families. Addressing responsible end-of-life planning is as important as addressing responsible retirement planning. Certainly, our last send-off shouldn’t harm the environment.

Green Burial

There are several different methods, but they all involve allowing the body to decompose naturally in the ground, thus returning sustenance to the Earth. No toxic embalming chemicals or cement plots are allowed. The grave can be dug by hand, either by grounds staff or even by the family themselves. Biodegradable caskets such as wicker are used, or the body may simply be placed in an unbleached cloth shroud. Many green burial grounds also double as wildlife refuges, and families can choose from a variety of wild grasses and living flowers to adorn the grave.

Ecopod Coffins

Instead of burying endangered hardwoods like teak or mahogany, imagine a coffin made from biodegradable recycled newspapers crafted with artisan skill and style. Elegant and respectful of the environment, they are hand-finished with paper made from 100% mulberry pulp, and come in a range of colors, screen-printed motifs, plain white or gold.

Willow, Bamboo, or Wicker Caskets

Eco-friendly, beautiful to behold and biodegradable, these coffins are suitable for viewing and burial, and they won’t harm the environment.

Cardboard Coffins

Many funeral homes offer inexpensive cardboard coffins for lower-income families who can’t afford a fancy wooden one. It’s amazing how beautifully funeral directors can dress up a plain cardboard box for a viewing with some satin pillows, artfully draped sheets, and mounds of flowers.

Water Cremation

This alternative to flame cremation is available worldwide. The body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, then positioned in a water chamber, where a water- and alkali-based solution speeds up the natural decomposition process. In about three to four hours, pure bone ash remains, and the body has been allowed to return to its basic organic components.

Freeze Drying

Liquid nitrogen is used to cool the body to -18C°, then freeze it to -196°, making the body extremely brittle. A gentle vibration of a specific amplitude reduces it to powder in mere minutes, leaving behind only fillings and other medical implants. The process takes about two hours, and the sterilized powder can be scattered or retained in a traditional urn, or even a starch urn that can be buried and will become fertile soil within six to twelve months.

Capsula Mundi and Bios Incube

These burial pods are egg-shaped, organic caskets or urns suitable for ashes and, eventually, bodies as well. Once buried, the biodegradable plastic shell breaks down and the decomposing remains provide nutrients to a sapling planted directly above it. The goal is to create cemeteries full of trees rather than tombstones, while also reducing waste and creating new life out of death.

Burial at Sea

Your loved one can follow in the tradition of Vikings, naval officers and pirates alike with a sea burial. While some sea burials involve dropping an entire casket to the ocean floor, many environmentally forward businesses offer natural burial shrouds (hand-sewn by New England sail makers) or water-soluble urns. A full day charter takes your funeral party out to sea, performs an open- or closed-casket service, then returns the body to the ocean. “Sleeping with the fishes” might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but many sailors consider it the most sacred of exits.

Stranger Alternatives

Celestis Memorial Spaceflights can launch a small capsule of your cremains into orbit or into deep space, but that’s not very environmentally-friendly, is it? Still, you could join luminaries such as Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry and the actor James Doohan (who played Scotty), noted psychologist Timothy Leary, and astronaut “Gordo” Cooper, Jr., one of the original Mercury Seven pilots. Fun fact: astronomer Eugene Shoemaker is the only person to have cremains left on the moon.

Eternal Reefs can mix cremains with environmentally-friendly concrete to create artificial coral reefs that support marine life.

“Sky burials” are practiced by Tibetan Buddhists. The body is placed on a high mountaintop to decompose and be eaten by scavenging animals, particularly endangered carrion vultures. This is allowed only at closely guarded sites in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia.

“Recomposting” naturally transforms bodies into soil. Wood chips, moisture and moving air work to speed up the natural process of decay into nutrient-rich soil. Families could even take the soil home and plant a tree in it. Currently not legal in the U.S.

[insert “beads” image here]

Did you know that cremains can be made into wearable jewelry? Ashes can be incorporated into beautiful art-glass beads or pendants or a paperweight, or made into a blue diamond!

The cremains are placed in a metal container and heated to over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat oxidizes everything but the carbon, which is heated until it turns to graphite, which is placed inside a diamond seed crystal then placed in a press, where it’s heated to about 2,500 degrees. The graphite is left alone to form a crystal, which takes a few weeks. The crystal is then cut and polished to your specifications and placed in a setting of your choice. Ashes also can be placed inside memorial jewelry designed specifically for the purpose, or an hourglass which could become a family heirloom and a poignant symbol of the passage of time.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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