Dying to Be Green: 5 Ecological Burial Alternatives

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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

There are just about as many ways to deal with  a dead body as there are ways to die.

The Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari people of Brazil, for example, had a very ecological burial alternative: they ate their dead. This practice, known as  “endocannibalism” was considered to be one way to  forge a permanent connection between the living and the recently deceased. It’s believed that this tradition continues with several groups of people living in remote forests and jungles.

On the other side of the world, in current Tibetian and Zoroastrian traditions, bodies are offered to birds of prey to eat in what is called a “sky burial.”It’s still common today, with  over 80% of Tibetan Buddhists choosing sky burials, a ritual that they believe is the ultimate act of kindness: giving a bit of life to one creature via your own death.

The ancient Egyptians, Inca and other cultures mummified bodies in various ways to ensure the dead would be in a good state for the afterlife. And internment — the ritual of burying the dead in the ground — has been happening ever since the time of the Neanderthals. They, as well as many indigenous people around the globe, simply threw bodies into mass burial pits far from dwelling sites.

Of course, when we in the West think about death today, the first thing that comes to mind is the typical funeral home, with the deceased lying in an elaborate coffin. Compared to the other abovementioned traditions, however, ours is the least eco-friendly, by far. We started the tradition of embalming corpses with  formaldehyde, methanol, glycerin and phenol in the 19th century – and few people know that these noxious chemicals spread through the soil and ground water, poisoning animals and as well as water supplies. And let’s not forget that corpses are buried in wood caskets, which contributes to deforestation – as does the cutting down of forests to make room for all these bodies. Each time a person dies and is buried in a coffin, a tree dies, too.

With overcrowing in all urban graveyeards in the 20th century, cremation was introduced. It may save on space, but this practice isn’t environmentally friendly either: more than two hundred chemicals including carbon dioxide, mercury, carbon monixide and others are released into the air by cremation, which, incidentally, requires an awful lot of energy to burn the body, too.

So, what are the options for someone who doesn’t want their last act on Earth to be an environmentally detrimental one? Luckly, today there are several ecological burial alternatives, so we can all “Die Green”.

1. Water Cremation

This is the new alternative to flame cremation, and is available worldwide. The body is placed in a coffin or shroud made from biodegradable materials and then carefully positioned in a water chamber. A water and alkali-based solution speeds up the natural processes the body goes through at the end of its life. The procedure usually takes 3 to 4 hours before pure bone ash remains. Resomation chose its name from the Greek and Latin origin “Resoma” meaning “rebirth of the human body.” This procedure truly allows the body to return to its basic organic components, after being placed in this “resomator.” The liquefied remains of your loved one, in most cases, will be eventually poured down the drain and returned to the water cycle.

2. Freeze Drying

Swedish Biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak, after specialising in Marine Biology, started teaching courses in ecological cultivation and composting. Her research made her aware that human death was not yet part of the ecological cycle of decomposition. With this in mind, she invented Promessa, a company that uses her biological knowledge to give us a dignified and ethical way of ending our days.

The deceased is cooled down to -18C °, then frozen to -196 ° using liquid nitrogen. The body becomes very brittle and undergoes a gentle vibration of a specific amplitude which lasts less than sixty seconds, reducing the body to powder in a matter of minutes, leaving behind only items such as fillings, heart stimulators, and artificial limbs. This allows the water, which makes up about 70% of the average sized human body, to separate from the remains and be vacuumed out and converted into a sterile steam. This process takes about two hours. The odourless and hygienic powder is then placed in a starch urn that goes into the ground and becomes fertile soil within six to twelve months.

3. Cannibal Mushrooms

It sounds bizarre, but in nature, there are plants that can be considered carnivores, such as a fungus called Ammonia that munches animal carcasses and dead organisms. With this in mind, artist Jae Rhim Lee created The Infinity Burial Project to convert corpses into clean compost. She developed a new strain of fungus, the Infinity Mushroom, that feeds on and remediates the industrial toxins we store in our bodies, and converts corpses  into nutrients. Jae has been wearing a “mushroom death suit” embedded with mushroom spores, and covered in a crocheted pattern which is meant to act as mycelium, or mushroom “roots”. She has been training these mushrooms to recognise her body, by allowing them to eat her dead skin cells, sweat, urine, faeces, and tears. The goal is that when one day she will die, these mushrooms will complete the job. Rhim Lee has even begun a Decompiculture Society, dedicated to encouraging others to accept their own impending demise and plan for it in a practical and nature-friendly manner.


4. Growing Ashes Into Trees

Leading soil scientists and arborists have developed a poetic and ecological way to enter the afterlife. The  Bios Incube  is the world’s  first  incubator  that grows  ashes into a tree. It’s  an ingenious, sustainable  urn  of  the future: you  plant a loved one’s cremated remains,  and watch an arbor grow with the help  of  an app-synced facilitator. This method does still use cremation, but rather than scattering toxic ashes all over the world, you can transform your loved one into a new form of life.

An app that comes with the Incube will help you care for the tree: it will water it, montor the soil and report back on the plant’s growth. You can keep the tree in your home, indoors, to have your loved on near, or set them free in their favorite space outside. With this method, you  can literally trace your family tree, and witness how the end of one existence can constitute the beginning of another.

5. Ecopod Coffins

Forget teak or mahogany – the Ecopod is a coffin made from biodegradable materials that return your loved one to the Earth, gently. Its design brings together artisan skills with style, elegance and a respect for the environment. Made by hand from recycled newspapers, it is hand finished with paper made from 100% mulberry pulp. You can buy one  in a  range of colours  with screen printed motifs, plain white, or gold.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

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