Dying to be Green: The Deathcare Industry’s Sustainable Evolution
Death doesn't need to come with a massive carbon footprint. Instead, there are greener options on the rise—including aquamation, human composting, and organic burial pods—that give back to the earth instead of taking away from it.
Dying isn’t exactly planet-friendly. Each cremation requires 30 gallons of fuel—enough to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back—and emits over 530 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The embalming process uses four million gallons of embalming fluid annually, which leaches harmful chemicals into the soil. And each year, the production of coffins requires a staggering 20 million feet of wood, coming in part from rainforests.
But death doesn't need to come with a massive carbon footprint. Instead, there are greener options on the rise that give back to the earth instead of taking away from it. Aquamation, human composting, and organic burial pods are gaining more interest due to their potential as eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burials or cremation—they’re also becoming legal in more areas, making it an accessible option.
Photos: Capsula Mundi
Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a water-based method of final disposition that uses a combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity to expedite the breakdown of organic materials. The end result is ashes that families can decide what they would like to do with.
“It’s the same process that occurs in nature when a loved one's body is laid to rest in the ground, although at an accelerated rate,” says Mallory Greene, co-founder and CEO at Eirene, which offers aquamation services in Canada. Currently, aquamation is legal in 28 states, as well as other parts of the world. But Greene predicts it will be legalized all across North America within the next five years.
“The process has no direct emissions of greenhouse gases or mercury to the atmosphere, and it doesn't burn any fossil fuels,” Greene says. “It’s very energy-efficient, with over 90% energy savings compared to flame cremation, and it has just one-tenth of the carbon footprint. It also uses less water than a single household uses in one day.”
Human composting, also known as terramation, is only legal in the United States, and in only six states at the moment: Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, California, and New York have all passed legislation authorizing the process. But that list is growing. Brie Smith, chief operating officer at Return Home, which provides terramation services in Seattle, Washington, already sees other states making progress.
“We know for a fact that more states are considering legislation, and those include Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana... the list goes on,” she says. “We believe that the rise in terramation will move even more quickly than cremation did during the ‘60s until now.”
Terramation uses four phases to turn human remains into nutrient-rich soil. First, the body is laid in a vessel with organic materials. Next, oxygen flows through the vessel, stimulating microbes that quickly transform the body into soil in 30 days. That soil is then screened for inorganics then placed into a cube to rest and cool for 30 additional days before being returned to the family. Families can use the soil to plant a memorial garden or tree, or scatter it in a natural environment—all ways to positively impact the planet after death.
“The soil health of the planet has decreased by around 50% over the course of history. This is extremely troubling and our hope is that people understand that it's not about being used as a resource or a product, but rather giving the planet nourishment and doing what would happen if nothing was involved but nature,” Smith says. “In our case, terramation gives us the ability to remove heavy metals from the body and guarantee it is safe from pathogens.”
Photo: Return Home
Tree pod burials are still a work in progress, but the Italian designers behind Capsula Mundi have devised a concept that involves burying a body or ashes in an egg-shaped, biodegradable casket that provides nutrients to a sapling planted above it as it breaks down. The end result would be an environment-benefiting cemetery filled with trees versus tombstones. There's also the Bios Urn, a biodegradable urn that turns bodies into trees. While burial pods are legal, the legislation and requirements vary from state to state.
While death isn't a subject many like to discuss, Greene says this shift toward eco-friendly burials is desperately needed. And let’s be real, what sounds better—being put in a casket and buried six-feet deep, or being turned into a beautiful tree that brings life to the planet for years to come?
“Years ago, it was hard for industry people to believe that cremation would outpace burial, but times change. With limited cemetery space, the difficulty of receiving approval to open crematoriums, the environmental impact of burial and cremation, and generational changes, there will be a shift toward more sustainable options,” Greene says. “I’m not sure we have a choice, but that means the future is bright for sustainable deathcare.”
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