The concept of green burials is not a new one — in fact, it once was the norm, with burials using wooden boxes occurring at home, or on family-owned property. At the turn of the 19th century, when deaths moved from homes to hospitals and funeral parlors, the post-death rituals we practice today became widely adopted.
But, as Novel Property Venture’s co-founder Bennat Berger discussed previously, Americans are expressing a growing interest in dying sustainably. Digging up reliable data in this realm can be challenging, as reliable figures on green funeral and burial practices are rarely kept and hard to come by. Still, even if not directly quantifiable, our cultural attitudes toward death seem to be changing. As the subject of death becomes less taboo and public interest in the environment continues to grow, greener burials may represent the final frontier of environmental sustainability.
More than a niche issue, the fate we choose for our bodies after life and the environmental impact of those choices is generating an increasing amount of public interest. Within limited urban real estate, cemeteries frequently lie in well-trafficked neighborhoods; their management — or the lack thereof — is highly visible.
As plots continue fill up with cemetery space at a premium, cities confront questions surrounding public health, religion, and community relations. When it comes to dying, no hot topic is left untouched, from safety to sustainability, issues of green space and inclusion to public policy, urban planning and economics.
Some experts have expressed the view that those who understand the earth’s ecosystem and human beings’ place within it will choose to die sustainably. Like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who wants his body to be “buried not cremated, so that the energy contained gets returned to the earth, so the flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined,” more people are engineering innovative solutions to merge sustainability and death.
Selected sustainable death ideas which have attracted attention of late:
- Designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel propose the concept of being buried in biodegradable pods, which become fertilizer for trees planted on top. The egg-shaped pod they created, Capsula Mundi, is designed to decompose underground.
- Natural Causes is an Infinity Burial Suit exhibition co-curated by Coeio, a “green burial” company that created their suit as an alternative to traditional funerary practices. The burial suit spawned from an unlikely inspiration: mushrooms. The fungi are envisioned as a way to naturally decompose dead bodies.
- Some people are opting for “green cremation,” which is executed by way of alkaline hydrolysis. The process dissolves the body into a liquid, but in the end the body can still be returned as ashes. Alkaline hydrolysis uses less energy than traditional cremation, which also pollutes the atmosphere by releasing harmful gases.
- For her master’s thesis at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Katrina Spade founded the Urban Death Project, an ambitious plan to build a system for composting human bodies after death and turning them back into soil. Her proposal includes building Urban Death centers, three-story structures that contain a “core,” where bodies decompose inside.