We’re all destined to take a so-called “dirt nap” one day, but more people are planning a green death with burials that will actually return their bodies to the dirt — or turn them into fertilizer — after they die.
Washington state just legalized a process that turns bodies into human compost in a move that could inspire lawmakers elsewhere to do the same. Some cemeteries are also starting to partition land for green burials, where unpreserved bodies can be interred to naturally decompose. These techniques are often cheaper and more eco-friendly than a traditional coffin burial, and potentially more nourishing for plants than cremated ashes.
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Advocates say green burial options are going to be sorely needed in the years ahead as the baby boomer generation dies out and cemetery space shrinks due to climate change.
“As a society, we’re going to have to become much more death literate in the next five to 10 years,” said Erik Lees, former president of the Green Burial Society of Canada.
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North Americans have already started moving away from the traditional practice of the coffin burial, which prolongs the decaying process and takes up a lot of real estate. Cremation rates have been growing rapidly in the United States in recent years, and there were more cremations than coffin burials in 2015, according to data from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). The group predicts this trend will only accelerate in the future as expensive cemetery space disappears and people seek more environmentally conscious alternatives for their mortal remains.
That’s why groups like the Green Burial Society want people to make peace with a simple fact: you won’t live forever so you might as well return to the earth without doing damage to it.
Here’s what you need to know if you’d rather fertilize a tree than lay in a box after you die.
Human composting turns you into mulch
Washington state’s new law will allow licensed facilities to offer “natural organic reduction” for human bodies, with the goal of turning them into fertilizer. The bill was inspired by Recompose, a Seattle-based company that devised a human composting method in 2017.
The process involves sealing a body inside a canister with some wood chips, alfalfa and straw, then waiting 30 days until the contents have decomposed into two wheelbarrows’ worth of viable fertilizer. Family members can take that fertilizer and use it in a private garden if they wish.
Washington state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who sponsored the bill, says human composting will help cut down on the number of embalmed bodies and indestructible coffins going into the ground in the years ahead.
“That’s a serious weight on the earth and the environment as your final farewell,” Pedersen told the Associated Press.
Recompose founder Katrina Spade, who invented the process, says she’s received plenty of interest from people in Washington and around the world.
“Our goal is to create a model that can be easily replicated in the future so that Recompose can be available wherever there is interest,” she told Global News in a statement.
However, the new law has also sparked some backlash. Pedersen says he’s been blasted with a deluge of angry emails from people who say the new technique is undignified and disgusting.
“The image they have is that you’re going to toss Uncle Henry out in the backyard and cover him with food scraps,” Pedersen told AP.
Recompose plans to house the decomposing bodies in a honeycomb-like series of sealed canisters, according to concept art provided by Spade. The process uses one-eighth of the energy necessary for cremation and saves over a metric ton of carbon emissions per person, according to Recompose.
Researchers successfully tested the technique with six donors at Washington State University in 2017.
Human composting is not legal in Canada, but Waterloo, Ont., resident Susan Koswan hopes to change that. She runs the Good Green Death Project and she’s been collaborating with Spade on plans to bring Recompose to Ontario.
“I decided I don’t want to be cremated and I don’t want to be buried,” Koswan told Global News. “But I would do no harm being composted and planted with a tree.”
She argues that the human body can give more back to the soil as mulch than ash.
Lees of the Green Burial Society says human composting sounds like a great green initiative, but he still questions whether the process will be as effective as it claims.
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Lees points out that it takes at least 20 years for most bones to decompose in a natural burial, and even then, the skull and hip bones take longer.
“Bone does not break down that easily, and so I just don’t see how that technology is going to work,” he said.
Koswan insists the technology is sound and points out that farmers have been using similar techniques to turn pigs, sheep and cattle into fertilizer for years.
“Everything goes in there, and it just all breaks down into nice, healthy, nutrient-rich soil,” Koswan said.
Bones and flesh are broken down “because our system creates the perfect environment for … heat-loving microbes and beneficial bacteria to break everything down quite quickly,” according to the Recompose website.
Koswan expects the process to cost approximately US$5,500 when it’s introduced in the next few years — and she hopes Ontario will be ready to get on board with it by then. Lawmakers would have to authorize the process for breaking down the body and come up with guidelines for where the human compost can be used.
Koswan hopes that will happen by the time Recompose is ready to launch in 2021 — or at least by the time she passes away.
“Everyone wants to be a tree when they die,” she said. “This is personal.”
Green burial doesn’t fight decay
The traditional burial process is aimed at preserving the body as long as possible by embalming it with formaldehyde, then sealing it inside a concrete-lined oak casket buried six feet underground, where air and bacteria can’t reach it.
A green burial is the opposite in that it allows the body to decay naturally. The body is usually placed in a simple pine coffin or wrapped in a biodegradable shroud before it’s buried two to five feet underground, where nature can start breaking it down immediately. The body is often buried in a natural setting such as a meadow, and the spot is marked with an uncarved stone or planted tree.
“It’s so when people are resting, they really have a sense that they’re resting in nature,” said Susan Greer, executive director of the Natural Burial Association in Ontario.
Green burials have been steadily growing in popularity since the 1990s, when they first started catching on in the United Kingdom, according to Greer. Now there are dozens of dedicated sites in the U.S. as well as a few in Canada. However, most green burial sites are still owned and operated by traditional cemeteries, she says.
“It’s so highly legislated, and this industry moves really slowly,” she said. “We need more people in the industry who really want to embrace it.”
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A recent survey by the NFDA found that nearly half of all respondents would be interested in exploring green memorial options, whether it’s an eco-friendly funeral, a sustainably sourced headstone or a biodegradable casket.
Many funeral homes have started offering these green options a la carte, according to NFDA spokesperson Jim Olson.
“We’re having a lot of traditional families that are incorporating green aspects into their funeral services,” said Olson, who also runs a funeral home in Sheboygan, Wis. He says it can be a challenge to find green burial sites in some areas, including his own. However, he still recommends talking to a funeral director if you’re interested in a green funeral so they can lay out all of the options available to you.
“Ask your local funeral director because they’re probably going to know the answer and they’re probably going to provide that service for you anyway.”
Koswan says it’s important to discuss your burial plans with your loved ones as soon as possible so you’re not funnelled into cremation or a traditional burial when you die.
“We have a death-phobic culture and we need to address that,” she said. She points out that we can make small, eco-friendly choices every day, but death is really our last chance to make one final eco-friendly decision.
“We don’t like to think about it and we don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “But people really need to think long and hard about the impact they’re going to have at the end of their lives.”
—With files from the Associated Press