Be Eco-Friendly, even After You're Gone
We all die. That’s just how life goes. But have you ever really reflected on what happens to your body after you die?
As stewards of the Earth, it is time for us to transform our limited options for burial practices into a way that honors our loved ones while nourishing our planet.
Having gone through the pain of loss in my own family, I unwittingly received a crash course on the limited death care options while making final arrangements. Burial or cremation? It seemed as simple as that, and not to be disrespectful in any way, but it was like “Please choose from this limited death care menu… dine in, or take out?”
In a world full of technological innovation and growth why are there such limited options when we die?
With no advance directive, or pre-need plan, I was grieving, and faced with a very important decision to make. I was also in an extremely vulnerable state, trying to decide what to do after the sudden tragic loss of my son. Fortunately, I had worked with a funeral services provider who had a good reputation, and I felt like I was in good hands. But still, I felt completely lost, and of the options available, none seemed to fit.
Nothing felt like it would really honor my son’s life, as the standard death care practices in the United States are rather impersonal and hands-off in the way we handle our loved ones if you do go the traditional route. Not to mention it seemed that there should be a more respectful and even environmentally friendly way available. All things considered, the processes are simply wasteful – just disposing of a body in one way or another, while also polluting our most valuable resources – air, water, soil... well let’s face it, when it comes to death and disposition, "eco-friendliness" isn’t top of mind for everyone.
These thoughts came to mind for me, because when he was younger, my son was a gentle vegetarian, an idealist who dreamed of living off the grid someday with a small sustainable business, rain catchers, and shared community resources for all to enjoy. Years later, at the time of his death, I felt that we honored him spiritually. And otherwise, given the circumstances, made the best decision possible at the time. Sure, natural burials were available, but only in a handful of cemeteries across the country. They have since taken root in more areas over the years. But overall, not much has changed in the death care industry for many, many years.
I can hardly believe that was over ten years ago. Back then, many months after going through a long period of grieving, I’d had many conversations with friends and family about spirituality and death, and felt there must be other options that provide a more peaceful, and environmentally friendly end of life process.
Then one of my friends had given me the book, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach. This sparked new conversations around death and disposition in the somewhat limited means we have legally available in the U.S., and many others around the world. Even if you are an organ donor, it’s very likely there will be leftover body parts that need to be respectfully interred, so what is one to do? I also became fascinated with the human composting concept at that time, leading me down a fascinating path of life lessons and a dead end, but that's another story.
Ultimately, we would all love a better way to honor our loved ones, and even create a living legacy after they’re gone.
It doesn’t take much to conjure up a picture in your mind of what cemeteries look like today… Now, close your eyes, and imagine a beautiful forest path lined with trees and shrubs, leading to fragrant blossoming gardens that have a variety of colorful flowers, the sounds of birds singing in the distance, a gentle fountain pouring into a reflection pond and so much new life that springs up out of the fertile soil. This is a sacred place, a real sanctuary to honor and remember our loved ones, long after they have passed. It seems so peaceful, and it is.
Rachel Carson said it best “Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we will say our work is finished.”
My question to you is, why should we stop caring for our planet when we die? It would be amazing to continue your earth-nourishing endowment long after you’re gone. Let’s face it, traditional death care practices are not earth friendly. The environmental cost of the “traditional” funeral in the United States is alarming. There is so much pollution and waste from cremations and burials, at the expense of the health of the earth and all living inhabitants.
It has been said that the amount of energy required to cremate one body is about the same as driving 4,800 miles. Think about it, from an average sized body, you are given only a few pounds of remains after the process. Where did the rest of the remains go? Cremation emissions include greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, carcinogens, and many more pollutants. Further … “One cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. Meaning that cremations in the U.S. account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.” (Matthews Environmental Solutions, “The Environmental Toll of Cremating The Dead” National Geographic, November 2019)
That’s not the only environmental damage to consider during a standard burial in the United States. There is enough embalming fluid buried every year to fill six Olympic-size pools. Embalming fluid consists of chemicals like formaldehyde, methanol and other poisonous chemicals that get into our soil and can contaminate water supplies. There is more steel in caskets alone, than was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge; and enough reinforced concrete to construct a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.
That’s just the ecological cost. There is also a considerable economic cost to think about. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) in the United States:
In 2019, industry sales were $18.1 billion
The cost of a funeral has increased 6.4% over the past five years to $7,640 and the median cost of a funeral with cremation has increased 7.3% over the past five years to $5,150
Pre-Covid-19, the U.S. accounted for about 2.4 million funerals per year
Current statistics at this time are more alarming
More data is discussed in this article from CNET
Sure, there are less common death care practices that include space burial, donating the body to science, or Aquamation, a water-based process of alkaline hydrolysis is approved in 21 states 4 provinces, as well as other parts of the world. The important question to ask yourself would be if any of these methods truly eco-friendly, dignified, or one you would choose for yourself or cherished loved ones?
Once upon a time, our parents, and grandparents had it all figured out, they bought plots, they had conversations with funeral homes, and everything was all set up. My grandmother had everything pre-planned, right down to what she’d wear for her eternal slumber.
Many years ago, when my parents purchased a plot in the cemetery where my father’s relatives have been laid to rest, they tried to encourage me to plan ahead and join them, it would mean a group discount for the family and all… But I was a little reluctant to participate. Because who knew what would happen in the future?
Bottom line, at least there was a conversation around pre-planning for death, and that was a good thing.
Fast forward, times have changed, there are new options available for final disposition. Have you thought about your plan yet? Not all of us are good planners, or have those conversations… especially when it comes to death.
Let’s say you’ve already chosen to have a “natural burial” someday. That’s great that you’re thinking about an eco-friendly option when your time comes. And you are moving in the right direction! Similar to scattering ashes, this process allows you to create a more personal, hands on ritual for family and friends, while you honor your beliefs and spirituality.
However, the natural burial process, as currently performed, still does not answer the problem as we have known it for hundreds of years. When a body starts to decompose, the toxins, and even the chemicals added after death, begin to seep into the soil and contaminate the very ground in which they were buried. That soil and surrounding soil becomes polluted and takes many years to heal.
Eventually the soil does heal, but with the current demand for burial, even natural burial, we are continuing to poison our soil and ultimately hurting our health and well-being.
Did you know that a full-sized body cannot simply “turn into soil” no matter what clever marketers try to tell you?
I won’t go into the graphic details of the decomposition process, but it doesn’t matter if you bury a decedent six feet under, or leave them on the top soil, it will take some time for the remains to break down once you’ve left the grave site. Natural burials are legal in every state, however, there are zoning limitations and guidelines in place for good reason.
I’ve talked a bit about my personal story, and what brought me here. Then I talked about some of the current death care options available. Now, let’s talk about a new method that has been proven to work in under 30 days, promotes land preservation and healthy soils.
It’s time to think outside of the box for a minute… or coffin if you will; and learn about Recompose, a Public Benefit Corporation founded in 2017 by Katrina Spade. It is a truly green burial process because it fosters new life. My hope is to provide you with a good awareness of this innovative method of ecological burial that during a small trial of deceased volunteers demonstrated that its method for “natural organic reduction” of a human body completely breaks down soft tissue. It brings a new way of thinking about death, so that funerals as we know them will be transformed into true celebrations of life.
The reality is that when an animal dies in nature, they are quickly taken care of by carnivores, who tear the bodies apart into smaller pieces so there will be no rotting process, including the smell that comes with it.
Like in nature, with this process, a body is broken down into smaller pieces, the soil itself easily takes care of the remains, in a non-odorous, aerobic decomposition, where living organisms that use oxygen, feed on the organic matter.
Simply stated, this ecological method reduces the environmental impact on some of our most important resources… our air, water, and soil.
After years of research and development that we now have this new option has been legalized in the state of Washington and in discussion for further legalization across the country. This is something we all can truly stand for, and everyone I speak with about it has great enthusiasm … and the same words come out of their mouths, young or old, “Yes! We need this!”
With Recompose, “natural organic reduction” involves just a few simple steps
Modeled on green burial, it’s designed for cities where land is scarce.
Modular, re-usable vessels are used for the natural organic reduction process.
Bodies in the vessels are covered with wood chips and aerated, providing the perfect environment for naturally occurring microbes and beneficial bacteria.
Within approximately 30 days, the body is fully transformed, creating soil which can be used to generate new life.
There are a few more technical details, but for simplicity, this is how it works.
This method follows Nature’s way of working with no negative effects on the environment. The goal is for the soils to become richer and more fertile and bring new life to plants, bushes, flowers or trees. Can’t you just imagine your grave site not as a grave site at all, but as a beautiful living plant or a tree, instead of a tombstone?
In addition to the eco-friendly benefits, the process is cost effective. You shouldn’t have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to die. As I said earlier, the unfortunate truth is that there are plenty of economical profits to be had when it comes to dying, while there is also significant ecological loss for our planet.
Big picture… Recompose was created to support the environment. It combines biological knowledge, with a dignified and ethical way of being remembered by our loved ones. And it provides a beautiful living legacy.
Ideally, this will quickly become one of the options on the death care menu throughout the country, and across the globe. And the cemeteries of the future will know how to take care of our valuable remains that will support new life in the soil.
Many of us have lived an exemplary environmentally friendly life, or at least aspire to. Recompose allows us to continue an eco-friendly existence, long after you’re gone!
Ultimately, you will choose the disposition method that is in alignment with your values and beliefs, as you should. But when my time comes, ideally many years from now, I hope that my body can be returned to the soil. Perhaps somewhat due to my California roots, I’d love my new life transformation to take root as a giant redwood tree!
We can improve our death care practices, nourish our planet and honor our family traditions. Recompose allows us to be caregivers of our loved ones, and our precious earth.
Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
It is time for a new way of thinking. After sharing my experience with you, the current death care options, and a new way to transform death into new life, I hope this information has provided you with a thirst for more knowledge and the idea of replenishing the earth feels like a great solution. Death is a part of the cycle of life. It’s time to honor and celebrate it by creating beautiful new life. Wouldn’t you like to be part of this exciting movement?
Here’s what you can do right now to get started….
Keep the conversation going, talk about death, and think about your advance directive sooner rather than later.
Visit the Recompose website, sign up to get notified about any updates in your area.
Leave a comment or email me, share your thoughts and tell me how your experiences with death care have been
Thank you for reading. May you have a long and happy life… and afterlife!
Let's talk about death! Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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