What happens to us after we die is a matter of debate, but we do have control over what happens to our bodies. Well… a modicum of control. (It’s not like we’ll be there to enforce our decisions.) We usually have the choice between two traditional methods of burial — cremation or casket — but what if those aren’t what we want?
For the eco-conscious, the two traditional options present a number of environmental concerns. The chemicals used in embalming leach into the ground as we decompose. Caskets made with hardwood and steel don’t biodegrade. And the space dedicated to cemeteries might be green, but that is thanks to caretakers who often use chemicals to maintain the perfect lawn.
The funeral industry in the United States rakes in an estimated $16 billion per year from the fees associated with embalming and body preparation, grave space, headstones, caskets, and the ceremony itself. The cost of a typical funeral averages $11,000. For some, that’s enough to make them seek out alternatives.
Thankfully, fascinating options are available, whether you’re looking to save money, reduce your carbon footprint, or simply be immortalized in a more satisfying method.
Eco-Friendly Burial Options
The Living Urn provides an affordable, eco-friendly option for those who would prefer for their body to “return to the earth.” They ship you a BioUrn in a bamboo case, to which you (or your cremation provider) add the ashes of the departed. You can store cremated remains in the Living Urn as long as you need, so no worries if someone passes in the dead of winter (pun intended.) Then, you place the urn into a hole, add some of their special soil, and plant whatever tree, shrub or plant you desire (preferably not an annual…). The BioUrn will then slowly biodegrade and help provide nutrients for the growing tree.
They provide information to help you choose an appropriate tree for your climate and suggest conditions where that tree will be happy. They will also ship you a tree as part of that service, and they keep arborists on staff should you encounter any problems with its care. Alternatively, though, you could select one from a local nursery, or even choose a plant you already have that has sentimental value.
Resomation is a process also known as “bio-cremation,” or “aqua-cremation.” It uses heated water and potassium hydroxide to liquefy the body in a matter of hours, leaving only bones behind. The bones are then pulverized — much like in regular cremation — and the fragments are returned to the family.
This process is much more environmentally friendly than flame-based cremation. Natural-gas-fueled fire, which reaches temperatures of 1,600 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, releases carbon dioxide into the air as well as trace chemicals such as mercury from dental fillings. Resomation requires water of only 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and takes the same amount of time as traditional cremation, so it’s less energy-intensive. Also, fillings and other medical implants can be removed from the bone before the liquid — now completely sterile — is disposed of, either by the company or “scattered” by the family as one would do with ashes.
Originally resomation was only practiced by one funeral home in Florida, but it has slowly expanded across the country, with funeral homes from the Sunshine State to the West Coast providing this alternative burial service.
Invented by Swedish marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak, promession is essentially freeze-drying human remains using liquid nitrogen, which makes it very brittle. Vibrations are then used to shake the body apart, and the water is evaporated away in a special vacuum chamber. Next, a separator filters out any mercury fillings or surgical implants, and the powdered remains are laid to rest in a shallow grave. Once oxygen and water are mixed with the powdered remains, they essentially become compost.
For people with green thumbs, this is definitely appealing, although it’s not yet been used on human remains. The company developing the process, Promessa, now has a licensed branch in the United Kingdom, but they’re hoping to bring it to the U.S. soon.
Much like promession, “recomposing” is another way of turning the human body into rich soil. They place the body into a capsule with microbes, oxygen, and plant matter, and in 30 days it becomes approximately one cubic yard of soil amendment. After it has cured for several weeks they offer various options for what you can do with the soil, including donating it to be used in a nature preserve in southern Washington.
Coral Reef Reconstruction
Eternal Reefs creates a designed reef made of environmentally-safe cast concrete, mixed with ashes and placed on the ocean floor as a permanent memorial. They partnered with the Reef Ball Foundation, and together they have established new habitats for fish and other sea life around the world. The reef ball was created with a neutral pH content and textured outer surface to encourage microorganisms to land, burrow, and mature, eventually growing and becoming a permanent, living reef structure.
As carbon-based lifeforms after we are reduced to our basic building blocks, we could really become anything. And in the age of Etsy, boy are people taking advantage of that. People are using human remains to create some really cool items, which is a beautiful way to immortalize a loved one.
Diamonds are merely carbon that has been subjected to intense pressure, so it was only a matter of time (and technological capability) until we learned we could make humans into gems. Several companies offer this process, which uses cremation remains or hair to create a custom diamond (the scientific process is explained really well here.)
Most of the companies that perform this service will also create settings and pieces of jewelry to your specifications. This option isn’t inexpensive (we’re talking diamonds, after all), but it is one way to pass on a beautiful family heirloom. (“Oh wow, I love that necklace!” “Thanks, it’s my mom.”)
Music lovers could opt to have their ashes compressed into a vinyl record. The recording can be of anything: the departed telling a story or singing, a favorite band or album, even nature sounds. Only a tablespoon of remains is pressed into the “biscuit” (the term for raw vinyl), so you could do this and still have some left over for whatever type of burial you desire. The company who first offered this service, AndVinyly, is located in Great Britain, but they process records for people from all over the world.
Ashes in Art
Etsy has cornered the market on crafting, so not surprisingly, some vendors on the site have found some really creative ways to incorporate ashes into art. Some people mix ashes into acrylic paints for custom portraits, or mix them in sand for beach-themed resin pours. Glass blowers can incorporate a small amount of remains into their work, which can be used to make ornaments, jewelry, and all kinds of decorative objects. Some creators use the ashes on a lathe, carving composite rings to your specifications. One company in Spain, Narbon, has even figured out a method for combining cremation remains with 3D printing material, so you could use them to make just about anything you want. And for those who really want to go out with a bang, you can also have your remains put into a custom firework.
Science-y Burial Options
This method is hardly carbon-conscious, but it could appeal to space fans. A company called Celestis offers Memorial Spaceflights, which launch cremated remains into space. The price depends on how far you want the remains to go; Earth Rise sends remains far enough to return to Earth (and presumably burn up in the atmosphere), Earth Orbit allows the remains to circle the planet alongside numerous satellites, and they even have the ability to send remains to the moon or into outer space.
If you’d like to use your body to further various sciences, body donation is the simplest way to go. Many programs offer free cremation services after they have used the body for their purposes, so this is also very cost-effective.
You could become an organ donor, and potentially give life to someone in need, or become a whole-body donor which is a slightly different process. In her book Stiff, Mary Roach describes how some bodies get donated to the Body Farm, a place which studies how bodies decompose under various circumstances. Discoveries made there have been essential in solving countless serious crimes, and they also provide advanced training for crime scene investigators.
There are many other creative methods that people use around the world to honor the bodies of the dead, and the key is just finding one you — and your loved ones — will find most comforting.
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