Natural Funeral Practices

There are many options for end-of-life practices with low environmental impact.


If you search online for “green death,” the first results might include a “Doctor Who” television episode; a “How to Train your Dragon” wiki fandom for the franchise; a heavy metal band; articles on the perils of 19th-century arsenic-based dyes; and a vodka-based cocktail. From these results, you might conclude that “green death” as a concept hasn’t entered common parlance enough to trump these other cultural touchstones. But thankfully, searching for “green funerals” or “green burials” instead reveals the opposite: there are many alternatives to traditional burial or cremation that are increasingly available. All these death-care practices share a focus on environmentally safe, humane, and loving ways to care for human and animal bodies, so you can choose the one that fits your last wishes.

tree-in-forest
The natural burial industry is expanding across the United States. Photo by Adobestock/2207918

Composting Funerals

Katrina Spade is the founder and CEO of Recompose, the first full-service human-composting funeral home, which began after almost a decade of planning, researching, fundraising, and working to change Washington state law on human composting.

White, honeycomb-like, hexagonal steel cylinders full of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw await human remains, all of which then undergo decomposition, or “natural organic reduction” (NOR). The first bodies were put into their cylinders on Dec. 20, 2020. Each body lays in its vessel for 30 days, with controlled levels of moisture and gases. Microbes and bacteria go to work decomposing all the organic materials. After 30 days, the decomposed material — now turned into soil — is placed in a curing bin to aerate, and is then screened to remove inorganics, such as fillings, pacemakers, and prosthetics. State regulations require the vessel and soil temperature to remain at 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours to kill any pathogens. Recompose and a third party each test the soil for residual arsenic, lead, and mercury. The client can choose people to keep the soil, as some do with cremated remains, or let their soil be donated to the Bells Mountain conservation forest in Washington.



Spade founded Recompose to offer a feasible, low-impact alternative to other forms of dealing with human remains. Traditional burials use too many toxic chemicals and can be expensive; cremations can produce too much carbon; and green burials are rarely available, especially to urban populations. (See “Death-Care Categories and Comparisons,” below.) Spade partnered with different groups to conduct feasibility studies, worked with a soil scientist, and addressed the legal obstacles for disposing of human remains, as well as fundraised the capital needed to get Recompose going.

Recompose charges $5,500, which covers everything from body pickup to paperwork and the NOR process. Cremation costs ($525 to $4,165) and traditional burial costs ($1,390 to $11,000) vary widely and aren’t always transparent. Recompose isn’t inexpensive, but the costs are fixed. Since opening Recompose, Spade has seen two other NOR competitors plan to open businesses in Washington.

CoolHandJack
11/30/2021 6:07:03 AM

There's a European company called Loop that are making coffins made of mycelium that grow into mushrooms.


Jill
11/23/2021 8:39:06 PM

As a feltmaker, I am interested in the concept of a felted, woolen shroud as a decomposable option for natural funerals. I am making my own shroud (for when the time comes), and would like to explore the interest in such shrouds as a small business option. Reach me at 512-222-9665. Jill




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