Comparing green funeral options, from composting to natural burial to water cremation

Source: The Washington Post
By: Michael J. Coren
January 31, 2023

I’m standing at the summit of Fernwood Cemetery just outside San Francisco. Live oaks sprout from the hills like leafy castles. A red-tailed hawk turns circles in the sky above me. And below me, hundreds of bodies are slowly returning to the earth. This vista takes in one of the largest natural burial sites in California. Every person here (or their loved ones) decided that their last act should be as green as possible.

But was it?

My own mother died in July with no instructions on how she wanted to be laid to rest. My sister and I faced wrenching weeks planning her funeral. We had to navigate a disorienting “death care” marketplace, as the industry is called. I faced the unenviable task of sorting through options such as Titan Series Steel Casket, Bahama Blue Granite Cross Grave Markers and something called the Athena Urn Vault. These were only the accessories. Securing a burial plot in my area — even with just a shroud and no headstone — could cost $15,000.

Overwhelmed, my family finally chose a simple cremation, scattering my mother’s ashes in a small park under a Monterey pine. Cremation was not the most climate-friendly choice, but it felt like the best we could do in the crush of the moment.

Dying in modern America has never presented so many difficult (or expensive) choices. Tradition once circumscribed us. In the 20th century, 95 percent of Americans had one kind of death ritual: embalming and then viewing the body in a funeral setting, says Shannon Dawdy, a University of Chicago anthropologist.

But a distinct shift is underway in how we approach death. More than half of Americans are seeking greener funerals, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and the percentage is rising. The funeral industry is responding: You can now be entombed in a coral reef. Donated to science. Freeze-dried and shattered into thousands of pieces. Set adrift in an ice urn. “Purified” by mushroom suits. Or, in a return to the past, simply buried in your backyard.

What makes a funeral green? I found lots of claims — and a few studies — about the things that make a meaningful difference for the environment. The search also raised some discomforting questions: Just how open was I, for example, to dissolving my body in a vat of lye? (I’m in. I think.)

So I’ve marshaled the best available evidence to help you make a more informed decision for yourself, or someone else. The most important step, no matter what you choose, is just to start. In the United States, only 24 percent of Americans plan their own funeral. That leaves it up to your loved ones during one of the most difficult times in their lives.

Here’s your chance to decide.

Casket burial vs. cremation

For Jacquelyn Day Hovakimian, 35, a librarian in Lakewood, Calif., her funeral was too much to face. She wanted her death to leave the world a bit better, “but every time I initially tried to look into it, I got too emotional,” she said. “Oh God, death. But the more I faced it, it took away the taboo and emotions, and I could make a logical and unbiased decision for myself.”

She eliminated the idea of cremation or an elaborate coffin burial. While these account for 94 percent of all funerals in the United States, they are also the worst for the environment. Each year, cemeteries in the United States use 64,000 tons of steel and 1.6 million tons of concrete — enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge — in addition to more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, according to the nonprofit Green Burial Council.

Each cremation, which incinerates bodies with propane torches, emits greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving 500 miles in a car. Both methods are relatively new, having displaced millennia-old traditions of simple shrouds or pine coffins in just the past century or so.

“The modern American way of death is really a post-Civil War phenomenon,” says David Sloane, an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book Is the Cemetery Dead? “And it’s clear modern funerals are the worst environmental polluter by far.”

Human composting

Next, Hovakimian looked into human composting. This method places human remains into a steel vessel with nothing more than water, heat, mulch and preexisting microbes, accelerating natural decomposition. After about 45 days (and some turning of the vessel), the body becomes a cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil and bones.

Tom Harries, the founder of Earth Funeral, an Auburn, Wash.-based firm offering the service, says “soil transformation” has been done for all ages, from fetuses to centenarians. The soil is returned to loved ones or spread across reforested land on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where soil and trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

The environmental impact is negligible, consuming about 40 gallons of water and a modest amount of electricity. Human composting is already legal in California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Colorado, as well as for anyone willing to ship a body to those states.

Natural burial

Natural or green burials account for a tiny but growing share of all funerals in the United States. Bodies are buried in a shroud or biodegradable caskets made of wood, bamboo or cardboard. No embalming, grave liners or conspicuous headstones are allowed.

Some cemeteries offering green burials may protect and restore wildlife habitat, while others, such as Life After Life in Brooklyn, plan to turn industrial brownfields and urban sites into cemeteries serving local communities with new parks. Natural burials, like human composting, have minimal environmental impact — perhaps even positive. The Green Burial Council estimates the process sequesters 25 pounds of carbon dioxide while avoiding energy-intensive mowing, fertilizing and watering.

There’s no single standard for natural burials, but at least 368 cemeteries offer them in the United States, while some state organizations will help you plan a burial on your property. You can also hire someone like Elizabeth Fournier, known as the “Green Reaper,” an independent undertaker in Oregon and author of the Green Burial Guidebook.
Water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis)

None of these options worked for Hovakimian. Human composting wasn’t available in her state at the time, and she felt a burial plot, however green, would make it hard for her family to “let go.”

Instead, she picked a process called alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, through the California-based company Pisces. The technique, first used by funeral homes around 2011 and legal in about 28 states, immerses bodies in a vat of hot, highly alkaline water (95 percent water, 5 percent potassium hydroxide). The soft tissues dissolve within a few hours. The resulting tea-colored liquid — a sterile mix of salts, sugars and amino acids unwound from DNA — is safe to pour onto the ground as fertilizer, or down the drain. As in conventional cremations, the bones are ground up into a fine powder.

The roughly four-hour process uses a modest amount of electricity and water (about 400 gallons). While a bit more expensive than conventional cremations, greenhouse gas emissions from the process are negligible.

For Hovakimian, choosing water cremation “was incredibly easy.”

“I’d rather put less crap in the air, and maybe leave the place a little better for the future,” says the librarian, whose family came around to the idea after initial resistance. “It also just seems a little nicer than being set on fire.”

Measuring the impact of a green funeral

How can you pick what’s right for you? Consider your culture and whether you want something traditional — knowing today’s “traditional” funerals date back, at most, to just after the Civil War, says Sloane.

For perspective, consider the work of Dutch sustainability researcher Elisabeth Keijzer. She has tabulated the environmental impact of everything from the cotton lining in coffins to the emissions from driving a hearse. Not all emissions, or effects, are direct. Composting and alkaline hydrolysis do not directly emit much greenhouse gas, but building the facilities where they take place consumes significant energy.

Given these differences between funerals (and countries), it was hard to pin down exact numbers for each process. But in a 2017 study, Keijzer found a clear pattern: Burials and cremations had the largest impact, particularly on the climate, while options such as human composting or green burials were much lower, if not dramatically different from one another.

Ultimately, she questioned the focus on funerals entirely. Compared to other activities during a person’s lifetime, the climate change impact of a funeral is “very small,” she wrote. The most carbon-intensive conventional burial represents just over 0.03 percent of the average Dutch citizen’s lifetime emissions. In the United States, where per capita emissions are about twice as high, this share would probably be even lower.

Ultimately, one eco-friendly burial will not outweigh a lifetime of emissions. So choose a green funeral, if you wish. But from a climate perspective, the way you live will always eclipse what happens after you die.