Ruth Hayward “gave a lot of herself to a lot of things,” recalls her husband, Bob. The fiery U.N. worker championed the preservation of Tibetan culture and traveled everywhere from Mexico to Eritrea to fight against violence toward women and girls. She scuba dived, snorkeled and swam well into her sixties. And when she was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, she made a choice to continue giving herself to the world even after she was gone.
A nature lover drawn to Buddhist philosophy, Hayward had no interest in being embalmed with toxic chemicals, or encased in a fancy steel casket, sealed off from decomposing bacteria. So she asked Natural Grace Funerals in Los Angeles to help her plan a simple, environmentally sustainable burial.
They wrap the dead in simple shrouds instead of non-biodegradable metal caskets, or use non-toxic, formaldehyde-free embalming fluids.
After Hayward died last June at age 73, her husband laid her in a shallow grave in a cemetery overlooking the San Francisco Bay near where they both grew up, wrapped in the biodegradable hand-woven fabrics she collected during her travels. It was a simple ceremony with a few friends and family members. “There wasn’t a lot of weeping, just saying goodbye,” her husband said. “It felt like a natural continuation of Ruth’s life.”
So-called green burials like Hayward’s are becoming more widely available. Some funeral homes, like Natural Grace, wrap the dead in simple shrouds instead of non-biodegradable metal caskets, or use non-toxic, formaldehyde-free embalming fluids. The past few years have also seen the emergence of methods like promession, which involves freeze-drying bodily remains for use as compost.
Sustainable death advocates argue that conventional burial practices consume lots of resources. Each year, cemeteries across the U.S. bury about 90,272 tons of steel caskets, 1.64 million tons of reinforced concrete vaults and 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid.
Within a decade, green burials could appear as an option in most funeral homes, predicts Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that certifies cemeteries, funeral homes and burial products that meet its sustainability standards. But skeptics say it’s still unclear whether green burials offer any significant environmental benefit, or whether many people would embrace burial decisions like the Haywards’.
Until the mid-19th century, families didn’t embalm their dead, but simply bathed and laid them in handmade coffins. The conventional burial practices used today are a more recent development –– with potentially harmful environmental impacts. Steel coffins buried deep underground prevent decomposition so that gravesites can’t be reused, resulting in sprawling cemeteries that take up precious space. Chemicals used in embalming might leach into the soil. And cremation burns fossil fuels, releasing carbon monoxide and other noxious gases.
Carlisle Cemetery in England opened the first-ever green burial site in 1991, foregoing headstones for oak trees. Home to more than 300 green cemeteries, Europe continues to lead the way in the sustainable death movement, mostly due to its scarce space. But the movement has spread to the U.S. and Canada, which have 49 Green Burial Council-certified cemeteries, as well as Australia and China.
According to U.K.-based Resomation Ltd., which manufactures resomation equipment, substituting cremation with alkaline hydrolysis can reduce greenhouse gas output by 35 percent. And since the body is dissolved, it doesn’t take up precious burial space.
And there are more radical green burial options. Resomation is an alternative to cremation in which the body is submerged in a heated, pressurized vat of potassium hydroxide solution. After about three hours, it dissolves into a sterile molasses-colored liquid that can be safely poured down the drain, leaving only bones behind. These are then crushed into a white, ash-like powder, which is given to the family of the deceased. So far, resomation is available in seven states and Saskatchewan, Canada.
Soon, we may even have the option of turning our bodies into compost. In a technique called promession, a corpse is frozen and submerged in liquid nitrogen, causing it to become brittle. A pulse of intense vibrations breaks the body into tiny pieces, which are then placed in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice. The resulting powdered “promains” pass through a sieve and magnetic separator to remove fillings and other metal implants before being poured into a cornstarch enclosure and placed in a shallow grave, where they decompose within a year, nourishing organisms in the soil.
Soon, people may even have the option of turning into compost after death….
Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, former biologist and founder of the company Promessa, invented promession in late 1990s and will open the first-ever promession facility in Sweden in about a year. “[Promession] makes the body a gift to nature,” she said. “It’s a good-smelling and romantic process…. It creates something beautiful.”
But even without traditional embalming, our bodies’ tissues may leach accumulated toxic chemicals into the soil after we die – from the xylene in gasoline to the phthalates in nailpolish. Artist and MIT research fellow Jae Rhim Lee thinks mushrooms’ natural ability to absorb toxins like these is the answer. According to the now-defunct Good Magazine, she grew oyster and shiitake mushrooms on her hair clippings, and nail clippings and, uh, skin clippings, and picked and grew the best “feeders,” or Infinity Mushrooms. The mushrooms will recognize her dead tissues as food, decomposing them and absorbing the contaminants inside them. Lee is developing the Mushroom Death Suit, a cotton burial suit with spore-infused netting, where the Infinity Mushrooms can grow.*
But some question green burial advocates’ critiques of conventional burial practices. Although many scientists acknowledge that formaldehyde can be a health threat to embalmers, for example, there’s been little research about whether it can leach into soil. And Sehee admits that there are probably more effective land preservation strategies than ending cemetery sprawl.
Maybe we embalm the body because we don’t want to imagine it being different from what we saw in life.
Even if sustainable death practices do offer a significant environmental benefit, a Western cultural tendency to deny death might prevent them from gaining wider acceptance. The very thought of death — let alone resomation or promession — is enough to make most people squeamish.
“We don’t like the idea of things decaying,” said Robert Feagan, a professor of society, culture and environment at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Maybe we embalm the body because we don’t want to imagine it being different from what we saw in life. The funeral industry has perfected this and makes a lot of money from people dying.”
Still, advocates say green burials could at least lead us to question our attitudes toward death. By facilitating rather than preventing decomposition, these new burial practices make death a natural part of the life cycle — one that nourishes plants and other surrounding microorganisms — not a scary underworld separate from life.
“Green burial is … inviting people to befriend death a little earlier,” Sehee said.
Whether they become the new norm or not, sustainable death practices could spur a larger conversation about how to keep up the sustainability so many of us practice in day-to-day life — even after we’re gone.
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article inadequately credited a source, Good Magazine.
Why you should care
Because why stop at living sustainably when you can die sustainably, too?