The secular American burial is in desperate need of diversification. It’s a little absurd that my only option after death seems to be sending my family shopping for a cushioned casket that properly “captures my essence,” only for it to be lowered into the ground to decompose and never be seen again by the living and entirely unbeknownst to my dead, impartial body. Frankly, this is far from how I would like to be laid to rest.
As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I was disappointed to find out that the traditional funeral process is not only expensive for grieving families but is also incredibly taxing on our environment. The embalming process, traditionally employed to prevent bodies from decaying before the “viewing” service in funerals, uses a toxic concoction of chemicals — including formaldehyde, menthol, phenol and glycerin — for preservation. An estimated 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are buried along with the bodies that harbor it, posing an acute health risk for anyone who is exposed to its carcinogenic fumes.
Even the wood used in the construction of caskets and coffins is equivalent to roughly 4 million acres of forest, a dire figure in the face of mass deforestation. Even worse, cemeteries across the United States take up approximately 140,000 acres of land that require mass amounts of water and fertilizer to maintain, which could be alternatively used for housing or other productive lands.
Suppose cremation is any better? Think again. According to National Geographic, just one cremation “produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide,” and a year’s worth of cremations releases an estimated 360,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is enough energy to power about 70,000 homes for a year. Cremation also releases a slew of carcinogenic chemicals into our air, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and sulfur dioxide, which are toxic to both humans and the environment.
This is not to say traditional or religious burials that employ these methods should be discredited or fundamentally changed. Rather, people should be presented with a variety of options of what to do with their bodies postmortem if traditional burial practices do not speak to their values or morals. After all, one size certainly does not fit all — why should death be any different?
If traditional secular funerals aren’t for you, or if you want to leave the most minimal environmental impact after you die, here are a few alternative, green burial methods.
One company, Coeio, has innovated what they coined as an “infinity burial suit,” which is woven with threads infused with infinity mushroom spores. These mushrooms were specifically bred to efficiently compost human flesh. The superpower of these mushrooms, mycoremediation, is a fungal process that absorbs and purifies toxins found in human bodies that would otherwise seep into and contaminate the environment. While the thought of being eaten by mushrooms may seem unsettling, I think that fungi repurposing my corpse into nutrients that will fertilize and cultivate the earth sounds like a whimsical, environmentally-conscious dream death.
Another practice, the sky burial, has been performed by Tibetan Buddhists for thousands of years. After death, a Burial Master cuts the deceased body into pieces and brings it to a selected site at a high elevation. Vultures, who congregate at these elevations, then eat the body, a tradition that Tibetan Buddhists believe allows for the soul to travel to the heavens and wait for the next reincarnation. While these sites have become more limited in recent years, sky burials are highly sustainable and nourish local carnivorous bird populations. With essentially no carbon footprint, this green burial is an example of how people have been using more sustainable burial practices for many years.
Have an affinity for marine life and the ocean? Look no further. The Reef Ball Foundation has innovated what they call Reef Balls, which are made of special marine-grade concrete with a “pearl” center composed of the cremated remains of loved ones. Though cremation isn’t great for the environment as previously mentioned, these Reef Balls can be adorned by the family with concrete imprints and marine and environmentally-friendly sea glass and shells before being placed on the ocean floor in “Eternal Reefs” – cemeteries made of Reef Balls. “Designed to replicate the natural substrata that Mother Nature uses for her reef development,” Reef Balls’ perfectly neutral concrete pH invites a variety of marine organisms, including fish, microorganisms, oysters and coral, to propagate and reside within. Essentially, your memorial after death can be an opportunity to facilitate the survival and balance of marine life.
A newer prototype, created by the company Capsula Mundi, is an egg-shaped, biodegradable pod that corpses would be placed in posthumously. Before death, the person selects a tree to be planted atop their pod after burial, allowing the body to nourish a piece of nature that will grow into a profound symbol of everlasting life. Instead of cemeteries filled with cement and faded gravestones, Capsula Mundi hopes to create flourishing sacred forests where families may visit and care for their loved ones who have been eternalized in nature. Not only is the ground burial a more environmental, historic practice, but the trees that grow will further replenish diminished forests while cleaning the air through photosynthesis. Spiritually and literally, this practice allows for the body to exist immortally as repurposed forms of nature.
What we decide to do with ourselves postmortem should not be a limited or generic choice, especially with the cultural, religious and spiritual significance of death. Instead, we should be encouraged to pursue our own unique paths of posthumous eternalization and provided with options to express our uniqueness and values after our lives have ended. For those of us who are secular or want to leave a minimal environmental impact, we should have the knowledge necessary to embrace the alternative options to traditional burials. As a contrast to the darkness and industrial nature of traditional burials, it is beautiful to visualize our bodies being reintroduced into the cycle of life in nature, which will carry us long after our passage.
Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.