There’s a quiet revolution under way in the American death industry, moving towards a future in which natural composting, water cremation and even a so-called ‘mushroom death suit’ might be as socially acceptable as conventional coffins and cremation.
Current burial practices pose significant environmental risks. To counter their effects, a group of funeral professionals, artists and academics have started proposing eco-friendly alternatives. But the endeavor requires engaging a normally death-phobic public in a wider discussion about dying as a natural process — something rebel mortician Caitlin Doughty strives to do. Doughty, a Los Angeles undertaker with a self-confessed “proclivity toward the macabre,” is the founder of the aforementioned group, which she calls The Order of the Good Death.
It’s about trying to lift the “veil of secrecy and shame cloaking death,” she writes in her best-selling book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. “A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death,” she says.
For her next book, Doughty is exploring the idea of eco-friendly death practices because she believes current practices are unsustainable. “This is about the future of the dead body and its disposition,” she says.
For now, traditional burial and cremation still dominate the death industry, each with about half of the market, according to 2015 estimates by the National Funeral Directors Association. Both processes carry environmental risks. Traditional burials, where an embalmed body in a wooden coffin is sometimes placed in a concrete or metal vault, require more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid every year in the U.S., according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California. Cremation requires burning a body in temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit for three to four hours — a process that requires as much energy as a 500-mile car trip and releases harmful gases into the atmosphere, says Doughty.
Options for eco-friendlier death practices include natural or green burials, in which a body is lowered into the ground wrapped simply in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, allowing it to decompose naturally and quickly. The concept is a simple one and is actually what was widely practiced before the modern funeral industry as we know it took over.
“It’s a greener way of looking at death,” says Suzanne Kelly, who helped establish New York State’s second municipal natural burial ground at Rhinebeck Cemetery, in the Hudson Valley. She chairs the Cemetery Committee and has recently published a book called Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth.
Conventional death practices are not just polluting, Kelly says, but disaffecting because people feel separated from earth and nature. “Green burials are not just about the environment, but also about generating new meanings around death.”
Other experimental burial options gaining momentum include the Urban Death Project, which proposes leaving bodies in the open air to decompose naturally to soil, with the help of microbes and materials such as woodchips. The natural composting of dead bodies would take place in a custom-built, three-story facility that could hold up to 30 bodies at a time, says project founder and director Katrina Spade.
Spade said inspiration struck about five years ago when she was contemplating her own mortality. “The current options we have for our bodies after death are, at the very least, underwhelming and at the most toxic, polluting and not meaningful.”
Natural decomposition will allow people to “contemplate our place in the natural world” because many people feel there’s something important about being connected to nature both before and after we die, says Spade. She and her team are currently beta-testing the composting technology, and they hope to raise around $35,000 to build a prototype in Seattle this April.
Still another offbeat burial method is the Mushroom Death Suit, or Infinity Burial Suit. Created by Jae Rhim Lee, a visual artist and research fellow at Stanford University, the suit is embroidered with mushroom spores that help to decompose the body. The mushroom spores also remove toxins from the body, which normally releases more than 200 environmental toxins into the soil when buried, says Lee. After beta-testing is complete, the suit will go on sale in the middle of this year at a target retail price of $999.
Some alternative options are not so far off. Bio Cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or cremation by water, is now available in seven states, including Florida, Minnesota and Oregon. The process uses water and lye to break down the body into its chemical components, leaving a residue similar to traditional cremation. Bio Cremation, however, uses 90 percent less energy than traditional cremation and is considerably cheaper, says Doughty.
Psychologically, it’s an easier concept to accept as well, Doughty believes. “Many people prefer the idea of a watery grave to a fiery one,” she says.
Spade of the Urban Death Project echoes this view. “I like fire — but only when I’m sitting next to it with a beer,” she says.
While eco-friendly options for the afterlife are gaining traction, they still account for only about 3 percent of burials in the U.S. today, says Doughty. Institutional and legislative barriers are a big reason for their low numbers. Many funeral directors see the American funeral industry as a sacred institution to protect and are very interested in keeping the status quo, she says.
“A huge barrier to greening up our death practices is the stronghold of the trio of chemical embalming, the modern casket and the burial vault,” adds Kelly of the Rhinebeck Cemetery Committee. But she is positive that the green burial movement is gathering momentum. “It’s building steam riding a wave with other alternative death and end of life movements like home funerals, death cafes and hospices,” she says. Death cafes host events where people can meet up and discuss death over tea and cake — something that spread in popularity from Europe.
The American funeral industry isn’t the only one to blame, says Spade. “Ninety percent of what’s holding our society back in terms of having eco-friendly aligned funerals is a cultural denial of death.”
Spade says, “If we talked about death more comfortably, we’d be dying better and also be able think about what we want for our bodies after we die.”