Ceremony & Tradition

All You Need to Know About Eco-Friendly Burials

Published on April 13, 2017

Article by Andrea Deerheart, PhD for Bodhi Tree

In contrast to Eastern cultures that celebrate the passage to death with elemental ceremonies, in the modern West, death and burial as a natural experience has been removed from most people’s lives. Because of our widespread fear of death and dying, the handling of the body after death is mostly turned over to paid professionals, who dress it in formal clothing and prepare it with makeup and hairstyling to give it the appearance of sleep. Atul Gawande, MD, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and author of Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters In the End, writes, “This experiment of making mortality a medical transaction instead of a natural experience is only decades old … and the evidence is that it is failing.”

As a death doula who has worked in the hospice care system and the funeral industry, my work with the dying suggests that what Gawande says is true, and that when we are physically present to death and dying, we find less fear-laden narratives. I have learned from many clients that when they face their fears and open up to death, they experience the process and their understanding of death quite differently than they had anticipated. They have even called death “beautiful” and could not imagine missing the opportunity to be present as they watched their loved one take her or his last breath.

Because of this, many have become passionate about the conversation about eco-sensitive or natural ways to dispose of a body after death, which is fueling the movement toward earth-conscious or green burials. New technologies, such as organic burial pods that turn our bodies into trees, or a mushroom suit—a burial shroud that aids in decomposition and removes environmental toxins from the surrounding soil—are becoming part of the dialogue. Interest in green burials—broadly defined as funerals meant to have a decreased environmental impact, which might include biodegradable caskets and fewer chemicals—has jumped from 43% of adults aged 40 or older in 2010 to 64% in 2015, according to a 2016 Funeral and Memorial Information Council study.

Mushroom Burial Clothes That Emit Zero Waste

Mushroom burial clothing is a breakthrough in eco-friendly entombment options. The concept is simple: return the body to the earth without harm to the environment. The clothing is biodegradable and emits zero waste. The mushrooms devour the body after burial while at the same time neutralize any environmental contaminants within the body such as pesticides, metals or preservatives. There have been a number of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate how these mushrooms aid putrefaction and repair toxins—a process called “mycoremediation”—and speed delivery of nutrients to the florae.

Jae Rhim Lee, CEO and founder of Coeio, the developer of the Infinity (Mushroom) Burial Suit, tells Bodhi Tree, “Green funerals are the final frontier of environmental sustainability, in part because death is still very much a taboo in our society. The choice to have a green burial reflects a deep understanding of our place in the larger ecosystem and the cosmos. It is the end product of a mindset that is environmentally conscious, oriented toward the ‘seventh generation,’ and understands that the food chain is not a unidirectional pipeline that ends at our mouths, but a cycle.”

Her team of experts in art, design, end-of-life planning, fashion and the funeral industry is dedicated to the goal of revolutionizing the funeral industry. Coeio was founded by Lee to reimagine the environmental impact of death and our relationship with death and dying. Coeio’s first client, Dennis White, is the subject of the documentary Suiting Dennis, directed and produced by Peabody award–winning filmmaker Grace Lee.

Organic Burial Pods That Feed the Growth of a Tree

Similar to the Infinity Burial Suit, the Burial Pod is biodegradable and turns the body into nutrients for a tree to grow above your pod. The body is placed in a fetal position in the biodegradable “coffin.” The pod appears to be like a giant womb or fossil egg. After the pod is buried deep into the ground, a young tree or seed is planted above the pod. The goal is to have a cemetery of trees, not tombstones, where families can gather and care for their loved ones after death. You can even pick your favorite tree to be buried beneath.

Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, of the Italian company Capsula Mundi, hope to offer two products: a small pod for ashes and a large pod for bodies. Bretzel says, “The main issues holding the project back are the rules surrounding eco-burials.… Rules and regulations around burials have not caught up with cultural attitudes.” The company hopes to go into production of the small pods by the end of 2016.

Bio Cremation Releases No Harmful Emissions of Greenhouse Gases

Cremation continues to evolve in more eco-sensitive ways by utilizing heated water and potassium hydroxide to dissolve the body, leaving only bones behind. In lieu of flames, bio cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis technology, uses a combination of water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide to break the body down. Only legal in 13 states, bio cremation dissolves skin, muscle and tissue, leaving only the bones, which can be crushed and returned to the next of kin. The liquid that remains is drained into the city’s sewer system or can be spread in a green space, as it is considered safe and biodegradable.

Samantha Sieber, vice president of research for Bio-Response Solutions, explains that bio cremation is eco-sensitive because it uses 90% less energy than a fire cremation and there are no emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses. “The equipment uses only electricity as the energy source—there is no propane or natural gas involved,” she tells Bodhi Tree. “The process uses 95% water, and 5% alkali to reduce the body to the minerals that compose our bones (calcium phosphate). Families receive 20% more remains in the urn, and the ash is a slightly tan or ivory powder that is very nice to spread.” Sieber says that any memorial products that work with regular cremation will work with this process: “They can still do the cremation-ash jewelry, memory glass, man-made diamonds from ash, tree urns, memorial plantings, etc. She explains that “when this choice is offered, families are choosing this option at greater than 90% over flame cremation, and this is typically at a slightly higher price ($300 to $500 more on average).”

Reef Memorials Build New Habitats for Marine Life

The new trend of memorial reefs is inspired by the idea that we all are part nature and the circle of life. Companies such as Living Reef Memorial and Eternal Reefs are dedicated to providing a burial option that allows an individual to use their remains to build a new habitat for marine life. These burial options entail the purchase of an environmentally safe receptacle for the deceased’s cremated remains, which is then taken out to sea and installed on the ocean’s floor. The memorial structure is then left to become part of the sea’s habit, becoming home to flora and fauna of the ocean.

Resurrecting an Ancient Ritual With Scavenging Vultures

The Parsi (Zoroastrian) leaders in Mumbai, India, are trying to resurrect an ancient sacred burial ritual that seeks to both protect the environmental elements—ether, air, fire, water and earth—from modern burial and cremation practices and revitalize two species of vultures that are on the brink of extinction. Aviaries for vultures are being built that will leave corpses in the Tower of Silence, a circular, raised structure built for excarnation (defleshing)—that is, for dead bodies to be fleshed to the bones by the scavenging vultures. The bones are then ground up and left to be consumed by the earth. The hope is to turn around the almost certain extinction of these exotic birds, create a thriving population of vultures, reduce the ecological impact of current burial practices, and transition our bodies from bone to the earth.

New ways of comprehending death are being inspired daily, and in so doing, enhance and broaden our understanding and appreciation of life. With the creation of a wide range of eco-friendly burial options, now death can serve not merely as an end, but also as a beginning.

Published on: April 13, 2017

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