Death - Funerals

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

from The Washington Post,
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? Here’s your chance to decide. Casket burial vs. cremation. Cremation or an elaborate coffin burial...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. 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. 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. Water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis). 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. 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. More From The Washington Post (subscription required):

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