The subject of death is always a difficult one. It’s not something I like to think about often, especially the thought of someone that I love passing away. For most of us, it brings up feelings of dread, unease, sadness and grief. But, sometimes we have to look at the stuff that isn’t easy and as death is natural and is something that will happen to us all one day, it’s important that we address it, especially in the event that there is no advance warning. While looking at making plans for our own funeral sounds morbid, taking small steps now to even put something in writing will make it easier for the people we love when our time does come.
As this can be a sensitive subject, I would like to warn that this post will be discussing the different types of eco-friendly natural burials that are currently on offer, including the subject of human-composting which became legal in Washington State in May 2020. This post is simply to invite people to consider the eco-friendly options because our planet is suffering and we need to do what we can to help bring the earth back in to balance. I have no wish to negatively impact those in the conventional funeral business or cast judgement on anyone’s decision of how they have or will say goodbye to their loved ones. I myself am only learning and becoming more aware of how some of our actions have been creating unintended consequences and a negative impact on the environment. As the last 6 years have been the warmest on record with green-house gas emissions contributing to an increase on land and ocean temperatures, melting ice, glacier retreat, sea level rise and extreme weather events, now more than ever, it’s crucial that we look at what we can do to help prevent these temperatures from continuing to rise.
Researching different topics to do with climate change led me to the subject of traditional burials and Natural or Green burials, as they are called today. Never having thought properly about how a loved one’s death can affect the land and our world, I was shocked to discover that traditional funerals that involve being cremated or buried in a coffin, are also significantly contributing to damage on the environment due to the amount of greenhouse gas and harmful air pollutants they create. Few of us think of questioning the custom of burying a dead person’s body in a coffin, as it is so deeply ingrained in our religious and cultural history. But if people remain unaware of the damaging impacts these types of burials are having on the earth, the negative impacts on the environment from these funerals will continue. If we choose to hold off on looking at the subject of death and making plans for it while we are still alive, many people will be unable to choose from the eco-friendly options that are becoming available.
It’s easy to forget that natural or green burials, were the main tradition for funerals for thousands of years up until around 150 years ago. It was only in the 1860’s when embalming, a sanitation process used to delay the body’s rate of decay, started to take over. Embalming gained popularity during the American Civil War when army officers were killed in battle far from home. Families who wanted to see their loved ones, so that they could bury them in the family cemetery, meant the corpses needed to be preserved for the long journey home. The embalming helped the body to maintain a life like appearance and prevented it from smelling while also providing families with a chance to display the body and say their final goodbyes. It was around this time that coffins began to be widely used. Up until then, human bodies were buried in direct contact with the earth. In doing so, they were able to decompose and decay naturally and give back to the earth by supplying the soil with essential nutrients. What many people don’t realize is that burial in this way is completing the natural cycle of life. This cycle which exists in plants, humans and animals, starts at birth when new life is created. It then journeys through periods of growth until there is death and decay. During this event, microbes in the soil are able to complete the cycle, by breaking down the organic matter into the building blocks of life, so that they are available to allow for regrowth and rebirth. If our bodies are protected and buried in a coffin, it prevents this completion of nature’s natural loop.
Unknowingly for many years, the way we have been putting our loved ones to rest, by coffin burials and cremation, has been contributing to global warming and climate change. The embalming fluid that is still used worldwide, contains a toxic, cancer causing carcinogen, that over time is released from the body and seeps in to the soil. It not only exposes funeral workers to potential hazards when preparing the body but it can also bond with moisture in the atmosphere and find its way into rain and snow after the burial. Our bodies are designed to decompose eventually, even if we have been embalmed. While it’s understandable for many to want a loved one’s body to be preserved in this way and can give huge comfort to families, some people may not realize that it is not something that is mandatory for funerals. In circumstances like a wake, where a family brings a body home to allow people to pay their respects, if the body has not been embalmed, it can be arranged for the corpse to be preserved by keeping it cool and surrounding it with frozen gel packs. The funeral is then generally held within a few days.
Caitlyn Doughty, a funeral home owner, author and advocate for death acceptance and the reform of Western funeral industry practices says in her Ted Talk entitled "A Burial Practice That Nourishes The Planet":
“The funeral industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry and its’ economic model is based on the principle of protection, sanitation and beautification of the corpse… it forgets that there is beauty in decay and in natural return to the earth from whence we came…biologically speaking we are all animals, we are all meant to decay and die just like any other creature on earth.”
Sadly, the chemicals used to process and finish the wood for coffins in traditional burials are also detrimental to the environment, as well as other non-biodegradable materials, such as copper and steel that are used to make coffins. The process of creating headstones and burial vaults with reinforced concrete are also not necessarily eco-friendly. Traditional burials can also lead to soil degradation and groundwater pollution. Even cremation, which is usually considered the environmentally friendly option is extremely toxic to the earth and hazardous to the ozone layer. While they may be less harsh on the environment, the energy it takes to burn a body down and the amount of chemicals released into the atmosphere from it, is a significant cause for concern. Cremated ashes do not decompose, meaning that when they are scattered, they float through the air, land and oceans and pollute our food supply as well as that of the animals. With cemeteries reaching capacity and the National Funeral Directors Association in the US predicting that in 20 years, nearly 80% of people will opt to have their bodies turned in to ash, it’s crucial that there is more education on the negative impacts they create if we want to help keep the earth’s temperature stable.
Culturally, we have a fear of death. The concept of being buried in the ground can feel alien, especially for those that are disconnected from nature. It felt alien to me for a long time. But what if we can shift that fear and accept it as a part of our natural life cycle? If we can think about our relationship with nature while we are alive and spend more time connecting to it and taking care of it, the easier it will be to find comfort in it when we die. We are all a part of nature and connected to the Earth, our Mother Earth – the place we were born, have grown up, and where we return when we die. Every intake of air we take and mouthful of food we enjoy is thanks to her. By helping each other to understand and really believe and feel this connection, it will be a step towards us all having a better relationship with her. And when it eventually comes to our time to return to the Earth, it will feel so much more natural and meaningful.
This understanding of how intricately linked we are with nature brings you closer to it. I have found this to be the case since embarking on this journey and it has also helped with how I think about death. Because of this and the comfort I find in nature, I have found peace with my body being in direct contact with it when I die. While I completely respect and understand why people choose to be buried in a traditional coffin, I don’t feel the need to be protected by one or to be sanitized with an embalming fluid and dressed in an outfit with make-up on. Believe me, for someone who loves clothes and wearing make-up, this is really something and will probably surprise those close to me. But after having read articles and watched multiple Ted Talks on the benefits of Green burials and discovering the beauty in them, I recently decided to put my decision to have one of these burials down on paper. As myself and my husband had been planning to draw up a will, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to include this wish too.
In green burials, the body is either left in its natural state or it can be embalmed with non-toxic, formaldehyde-free fluids. The body is generally wrapped in a natural-fiber shroud or a biodegradable suit and buried in a biodegradable container made of pine, wicker, bamboo, or paper. It is lowered into a grave, that is shallow enough to allow for microbial activity, similar to that found in composting. There are no concrete vaults or polished headstones. Instead the burial site is marked by a flat stone marker or a tree that is planted on top. The benefits of having a tree are that it can contribute to the environment by carrying out its’ many functions such as producing oxygen, preserving the soil and supporting wildlife. It’s nice to know that your body can make a difference and give back to the earth, even after you’re gone. Families can fill in the graves themselves if they wish and drop flowers or petals in, before filling it up with layers of leaves and grass, followed by compost and soil. If the cemetery allows for it, songs of celebration can be sung with musical instruments, readings can be read aloud and there can be time to share memories and stories. Some cemeteries even allow families to plant a small garden on the plot. To think my final resting place could be surrounded by wildflowers and forests with woodland walks, as some of these cemeteries are, and that it could provide healing and connection for those that I love, fills me with great joy and comfort.
As Katrina Spade, a death care advocator, says in her Ted Talk entitled “When I Die, Recompose Me”:
“It’s like we’ve created, accepted and death-denied our way in to a status quo that puts as much distance between ourselves and nature as is humanly possible… Our modern funerary practices are designed to stave off the natural processes that happen during death…in other words to prevent us from decomposing.”
A few years ago, concerned about conventional burials and their contribution to climate change, Katrina set out on a mission to redesign death care that used nature as a guide and was gentle to the planet. Based on the principals of livestock mortality composting, she designed a system that would take human beings and transform them in to soil. Her wish to build the first full scale human composting facility in the city of Seattle came true in 2020, when Washington State legalized body composition, otherwise known as recomposition. Katrina’s company Recompose, gently transforms bodies of the deceased into soil in a process that takes around 4 to 6 weeks. Wrapped in a simple shroud and covered in woodchips, the body is laid in a core which contains a natural decomposition system. Over the next few weeks the body decomposes naturally and is broken down in to rich earthy soil which can then be used to create new life and honor the life that was. As mentioned on her website, this process requires 1/8 the energy of conventional burial or cremation. Families are also able to donate the soil to conservation land if they wish. This is land that has been set aside to be restored for nature's sake, to maximise opportunities for people to engage with nature and to act as a source of comfort for those who have experienced loss.
While the option of recomposition may not be suited to everyone, it’s wonderful that it is providing another eco-friendly option and an alternative for people that may be interested. It takes time to shift mindsets, but as we have seen with cremation rates currently being at an all-time high in the US, years ago cremations would have been viewed with absolute horror. This gives hope that human composting will eventually gain momentum and popularity and hopefully over time, it will become available in every state of the US and throughout the world.
It's important that we honor our loved ones and their wishes when we say goodbye to them and pay tribute to their lives in the most meaningful and respectful way. But what if those of us that are interested and have the opportunity to make the choice of a natural burial for ourselves now can set that intention, so that our bodies can give back to the earth, be at one with the bio network and complete the natural life cycle? It could be a huge contribution in helping to mitigate climate change. Or as Elizabeth Fournier, a funeral care owner who educates the public about going green puts it, “why not celebrate a life well lived by helping to heal the planet?” and make green burial, “our last heroic act of environmental volunteerism”. When you stop to think about it, there is so much beauty in everything that our naturally decomposed bodies can do to give back to the Earth, our Mother Earth who has supported us our whole lives. If we can create a shift in our culture to letting go of our need to be preserved, beautified and protected and view death instead through a spiritual lens so that we are able to appreciate the beauty in the natural decomposition of our bodies - together we could assist not only in helping to stabilize our planet’s rising temperatures but in helping to protect our children and future generations.