In the midst of the climate crisis, humans have found many ways to lessen their impact on the environment by changing their lifestyles—but what about once you’re dead? Although it can be uncomfortable to talk about a topic as unpleasant as your own mortality, it can actually be a very worthwhile and even rewarding discussion. Pursuing options to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of your death can not only clear your environmental conscience, it can also help you feel more connected with your body and the role that it plays in the larger ecosystem.
Traditional burial and even cremation actually have pretty profound environmental consequences. According to a study published in the Berkeley Planning Journal, every year in the United States, 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid are put into the ground, which often seep into the surrounding soil, air, and groundwater.
Approximately 30 million square feet of hardwood boards, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete are used each year to build caskets. Not only do these materials leak into the soil in cemeteries, but the harvesting of these resources and the production of coffins also contribute to deforestation and use fossil fuels. Furthermore, a great deal of land is converted from wildlife habitats to cemeteries: according to Susan Dobscha, author of “Death and a Consumer Culture,” all the cemeteries in the U.S. combined take up one million acres of land.
Although cremation has the benefit of taking up less land and resources, it’s still not absolved from harmful environmental consequences. The process emits carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other heavy metals into the atmosphere, and accounts for 0.2 percent of global dioxin and emissions of furan, a highly volatile compound released from thermal processing.
This is not the final, lasting effect that I want to have on this planet. The familiar motions of burying loved ones and visiting tombstones can be an important part of grieving and respecting the deceased, but we can also find comfort in practices that give back to the earth. After all, we are all organisms in the greater biosphere, so maybe there can be closure in completing our biological cycle. This could be done by very literally giving our decomposed nutrients back to the soil and vegetation, or by donating our bodies to the scientific learning of the human system. Listed below are some options that offset the harmful environmental effects of traditional funeral practices, that could perhaps provide a different type of comfort in our own mortality by bringing new life to the thought of death.
If you want to stick to the tradition of being buried, there are ways to make that process greener. You can reduce harmful effects by not being embalmed, having the grave dug by hand, not having a cement plot, and using a biodegradable casket (cardboard, wicket, or simply an unbleached cloth shroud). These measures allow the body to decompose naturally and return sustenance to the earth. This could take place in a traditional cemetery if you wish to be near already-buried family members, or you could choose to be put in a green burial ground, many of which also serve as wildlife refuges. Just like in a normal cemetery, family members have access to and a say in the design of your plot. They can choose from a variety of wild grasses and flowers to plant on the grave, and they can visit whenever they would like. Similar to the ritual of cleaning and leaving flowers near a tombstone, the opportunity to nurture whatever plant life grows in your place could produce a sense of connection and honoring of your life.
Mushroom Burial Suit
If you want to take your decomposition to the next level, you can be digested by mushrooms! Jae Rhim Lee founded Coeico, a company that creates “infinity burial suits” that are made of mushrooms. Through a process called mycoremediation, mushrooms work to purify many of the toxins found in human bodies. The suit is lined with spores that gradually consume your tissues and transfer the sustenance to surrounding trees through an intricate network of fungi in the soil. With this option, not only can you reduce harm to the planet, but you can also provide important materials to trees. The nutrients that make up your body go back to the very ground from which they came, lending nitrogen and oxygen to the cycles that sustained you in your life.
Become a Coral Reef
It’s not only terrestrial ecosystems that can benefit from your death—you can also help the fish by becoming a coral reef! A company called Eternal Reefs mixes cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to make a basketball-sized ball, which is then attached to a beehive-shaped artificial reef and lowered to the seafloor to provide a habitat for marine life. Although it doesn’t have the same positive impact that live coral has, it does provide a shelter that is favored by octopuses, cuttlefish, and countless other fish. It is estimated that coral reefs support 25 percent of all marine life, so they are critical from a conservation perspective. With this option, you can also become a larger reef combined with your family and pets. Although this option still has the harmful effects of cremation, it eliminates coffin production and land use. It also provides a much-needed habitat for species that depend on coral reefs. Just in the last three years, half of the Great Barrier Reef has died, and in the last 30 years, over 50 percent of coral reefs in the world have died.
Also known as water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, this is when the body is placed in a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The strong basicity and high temperatures of the water cause the body to dissolve in about 20 hours. At the end of the process, all that is left are a few skeletal remains, which are ground up into a white powder and given back to loved ones. From there, loved ones can proceed how they would with cremated ashes, scattering the powder or keeping it in an urn. This option is very similar to cremation, but considerably more environmentally friendly.
Donate your Body to Science
This option does not take up any land, removes the harmful effects of embalming and casket production, and helps the scientific community. The process is a bit more involved than just agreeing to be a possible organ donor; it requires an application through either your state anatomical board or the state university system. In Colorado, it is through the Colorado State Anatomical Board. Almost all institutions nationally accept body donations free of charge, with the exception of the University of Alabama, which charges $750. Even here at Colorado College, we have a cadaver lab where students can study anatomy from people who donated their bodies to science. We also have plastinated human brains in the psychology lab where students can learn about brain anatomy. It may be weird to imagine your body in a lab being examined by students and scientists. However, to me, the hardest aspect of mortality to deal with is the idea that you won’t have a legacy or leave behind a positive effect on the world, and donating your body to science can help you achieve both.
Forensic anthropologists can learn a lot if you donate your body to a body farm. Body farms are facilities where bodies naturally decompose in varying conditions and scientists study the different stages of decomposition so that they can more accurately assess crime scenes and solve cases more effectively. There are currently seven of these facilities in the United States. This option contributes to scientific knowledge that helps bring criminals to justice—your body could help close a murder case. This gives death more purpose, allowing you to leave a legacy of lessened environmental impact, scientific knowledge, and potential justice.
Livestock composting has been around for decades, so why not compost humans too? Composting humans is currently illegal, but Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, is working to change the legislature in Washington. Spade’s goal is to have a facility where families can deposit the remains of their loved ones and, in 30 days, collect the soil in return that they can then use to plant a garden. This is another way to be gracefully reintroduced to a natural ecosystem and give back to the earth. If this process were to be embraced, it could become a new tradition for grieving a loved one. The garden that would grow could function like any other type of memorial structure (bench, tree, garden, etc.) by acting as a space dedicated to remembering and honoring their life.
All of these processes are much cheaper than the average cost of traditional burial practices. Factoring in all the parts of a traditional funeral (embalming, casket, burial plot, grave liner, funeral services and transportation, burial plot, headstone, etc.) a funeral can end up costing anywhere between $7,000-$10,000. Cremation, averaging around $6,000, is not much cheaper. With many of the options presented here, you don’t have to worry about a plot or headstone, and donating your body is usually free. Reducing the cost of funerals can relieve a lot of stress for loved ones who don’t want to worry about making expensive funeral arrangements while they are in mourning. At the same time, these options can provide meaningful ways for families to stay involved and have spaces to honor the lives of the deceased.
It may seem crazy to abandon traditional practices that have been in place for centuries, especially regarding such a sensitive time in people's lives, but considering alternatives opens the door to so many positive ways in which we can impact the environment, scientists, wildlife, and our loved ones. Even in death, we can still leave a meaningful legacy and a healthy earth for future generations.
Death can feel like an impending void that we want to push out of our minds, but considering the larger role that our deaths can play in various scientific communities and ecosystems can bring into focus its purpose and cyclical nature. Thinking of death in this way can not only help us confront mortality during life but can also help families process their grief after a loved one’s passing. In grappling with such a heavy loss, a great sense of comfort can be drawn from seeing the bigger, regenerative picture. Life after death could take a tangible form of helping and sustaining other plants, animals, and humans. Our understanding of death could become less about the end of the life of one organism and more about the life subsequently given to the surrounding ecosystems and scientific communities.
Lights Out Issue | May 2019