Going green in life and death

A push towards alternative, eco-friendly death practices

February 20, 2016
Eco-friendly death practices, such as green or natural burials, could be the norm in the future. [Image credit: Sheraz Sadiq | CC BY-NC 2.0]

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.”

About the Author

Sandy Ong

Sandy hails from sunny Singapore where she earned a B.S. in life sciences. She then moved to London for a M.S. in forensic science before deciding testing crime scene samples wasn’t as cool as it sounded. After spending some years as a medical writer, she moved across the pond to further her love for science writing.



Hi, I was disappointed in the BLAH photo with the rock headstone. Come on, we must “give something back when we leave” So what’s wrong with turning a graveyard into a hiking forest with a tree planted IN each grave? I have checked out Green Burial near Gainseville, Florida and think it is a nice, living place to be laid to rest. If I win the Lotto before I die I will create a WORLD FAMOUS ARTISTS BURIAL GROUND. It will be a forest and butterfly garden hiking place with a state of the art cyber gallery. Benches and picnic tables so survivors can have tea with their artist grandmother..etc.. Such fun! Birds,bees, butterflies and families will love it!

In talking about alternative funeral practices, the National Home Funeral Alliance is leading the way in eco-friendly body care and funeral practices http://homefuneralalliance.org and the Green Burial Council has been certifying green burial cemeteries, funeral directors, and manufacturers for more than 10 years. http://greenburialcouncil.org.

While new initiatives are stirring the imaginations of the uninitiated, let’s not forget the folks who have been working successfully to bring affordable, environmentally responsible, and meaningful after death care and disposition practices into the national consciousness for some time.

First rule in being an informed funeral consumer? Figure out what you don’t need to consume and then be wise about the rest. Both of these organizations can help with that.

Don Byrne says:

Author Sandy Ong once uses the word “traditional” to describe the way we bury nowadays. I’d prefer a different term: “contemporary,” as in, “Contemporary burial practice includes the Earth-unfriendly triumvirate of chemical embalming, concrete vaults, and fancy caskets.” Other good descriptors include “modern” or “conventional.” I’d like to reserve “traditional” for the greener, pre-Civil War burial practices I and others are trying to nudge us back to. — Don at PiedmontPineCoffins.com

Great article but I take issue with the need for the mushroom suit. The 200 toxins they claim are being released into the soil are totally harmless and inert. While I believe their hearts are in the right place, they are using similar tactics of fear that the conventional burial industry uses to sell all their unnecessary accoutrements. Maybe put some straw down or sprinkle some mushroom spores if you want to promote decomposition. But another $1000? No way. Thanks.

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