The environmental costs of death are significant and constantly rising. With 8 billion people on the planet right now—all of whom have bodies that die and must be disposed of—we need to start seriously considering alternatives to traditional options for burial and cremation. Fortunately, more and more “green” options are being developed to reduce these costs, and this article looks at some of the latest innovations.
In most conventional burials, the body is pumped with toxic embalming fluid, placed in a steel casket, and buried within a cement-lined vault six-feet underground. According to the Green Burial Council, burials in the U.S. go through roughly 77,000 trees, 100,000 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid each year.
Although cremation is touted as more eco-friendly than burial, it still comes with serious environmental risks. In fact, cremating a single body uses about the same amount of gas as a 500-mile road trip, according to the Natural Death Center. Cremation also releases some 250 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, roughly the same amount an average American home produces in a week.
With the death rate expected to spike as Baby Boomers age, the funeral industry is poised to cause even more damage. While green funerals are a recent trend, natural burials were the norm until the Civil War, which coincided with the rise of the industrial age, embalming, and the modern funeral director business.
Today, natural burials are making a comeback. Green funerals are designed to not only be more environmentally friendly, but also less expensive overall than conventional burial or cremation. If you want to make your last act on this planet less harmful to the ecosystem, here are 6 green funeral options, along with the best way to include your final wishes in your estate plan.
Founded in 2005, the nonprofit Green Burial Council (GBC) establishes environmental standards for green cemeteries, funeral professionals, and funeral-product manufacturers. According to the GBC, a green burial must meet three general criteria:
In green cemeteries, graves are typically marked by GPS or with a simple stone or tree, instead of headstones, metal plaques, and other ornate markers. The grounds are often planted with native species, forgoing pesticides and mechanical landscaping. The graves are shallower than conventional plots, exposing the body to more natural organisms to speed decomposition.
Green caskets are constructed from biodegradable materials, such as untreated wood, bamboo, wicker, or cardboard. Burial shrouds should be non-bleached, undyed, and made of natural fabrics like cotton, linen, silk, wool, or hemp. To find funeral providers in your area that offer green burial, use the GBC's list of approved companies.
Without the need for embalming, caskets, or burial vaults, cremation is considered less harmful to the environment than burial. However, a new water-based method—aquamation—promises an even greener alternative. Also called “resomation” or “flameless cremation,” the method involves a chemical process in which lye, superheated water, and pressure dissolve the body, rather than burning fossil fuels. The ashes produced by aquamation can be scattered or placed in a biodegradable urn for burial.
One of the latest innovations in green funerals are special burial shrouds containing mushroom spores sewn into the fabric. The suit fits like long-john pajamas, and the mushrooms facilitate decomposition. In addition to absorbing and purifying toxins released by the body, the fungi delivers nutrients to the soil to encourage plant growth. When he died of a stroke at the age of 52, TV and film star Luke Perry was reportedly buried in a mushroom burial suit.
Eternal Reefs combine ashes from cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to create an artificial reef. Submerged on the ocean floor, these hollow “reef balls'' create new habitats for coral, fish, and other marine life. Marked by GPS, your loved ones are encouraged to visit these living memorials by boat, snorkeling, or scuba diving. The company currently has locations in the waters off the following states: Florida, New York, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey
If you aren’t near the water, but still want to leave a living memorial of yourself, a tree burial might be an attractive alternative. The startup Transcend plans to open forest-based cemeteries across the U.S., where rows of trees, rather than headstones, mark the graves. Here’s how it works: the body is wrapped in a biodegradable, linen shroud and placed in a shallow grave that’s lined with wood chips or hay. Then, a mixture of soil, wood chips, and fungi is used to fill the grave, and a young tree is planted on top. As the body decomposes, it provides nourishment to feed the tree.
Additionally, Transcend has partnered with the nonprofit One Tree Planted, which specializes in planting trees around the world. For every tree burial reserved, Transcend promises to plant an additional 1,000 trees right away. The company expects to launch their first tree burials in 2023. Visit their website to learn more, including how the company plans to ensure your tree will be well-maintained for years to come.
Another way your death can create new life is by having your remains composted. Known as “human composting” or “recomposting,” the process is similar to composting used to fertilize gardens and farms. The body is first placed in a steel cylinder filled with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa, along with bacteria designed to break down organic matter.
After roughly a month, your body is transformed into what basically amounts to soil. The end product can either be returned to your family or used to revitalize local conservation areas. Developed in 2020 by the Seattle-based company Recompose, human composting is currently legal in five states: California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont, with legislation pending in Hawaii and Delaware.
Regardless of the method you select, it’s critical to include your desires, plans, and the money to pay for disposal of your body in your estate plan. While green funerals are typically less expensive than traditional burial and cremation, they can still cost thousands of dollars. To avoid burdening your loved ones, at the very least, your plan should include enough money to pay for your funeral and legally name the person you want to carry out your desired wishes.
Moreover, it’s typically not a good idea to leave money for your funeral in your Will. Any money left in your Will won’t be accessible to your family until your estate goes through the court process of probate, which can last months or even years. Since many funeral providers require full payment upfront, if you leave funds in your Will, your loved ones will likely be stuck with the bill.
To avoid the necessity for probate, we often advise our clients to leave money and directions for their immediate post-death wishes in a Revocable Living Trust. A Living Trust doesn’t require probate, so the money for your funeral would be available to your loved ones right away. In the terms of your Living Trust, you can specify how you want your funeral carried out, and the person you designate as Trustee is legally bound to use the funds in the exact manner the terms stipulate. This can be especially important for green funerals, which might not be something your loved ones would choose if left to plan things on their own.
Finally, you can change the terms of your Living Trust at any point during your lifetime, and with new alternatives being developed all the time, this flexibility would allow you to use the very latest innovations in green funerals. If you’re interested in creating a Trust to cover your funeral expenses, meet with a Personal Family Lawyer® to discuss the options.
With proper planning, you can ensure that your death is not only significantly easier and less expensive for your family, but that it also has the most beneficial impact on the environment. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will work with you to prepare an estate plan that includes enough funding to have your funeral handled in the exact manner you desire—without forcing your family to pay for it. Contact us today to learn more.