The Green Burial Guidebook: Cremation

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Photo from Adobe Stock/Lukas H

Traditional cremation is certainly on the rise in all areas of the United States and Canada, yet it is not an environmentally friendly process, and it’s not considered a form of green burial. Traditional cremation creates fossil-fuel emissions, and the ashes themselves can contain toxins. However, a new green method of cremation is rising in popularity, and there are certainly a number of creative and eco-friendly ways to preserve one’s “cremains,” as they are called.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

The process called alkaline hydrolysis — also known as water resomation, bio-cremation, and flameless cremation — uses heat, lye, and water to dissolve or break down a human body into liquid and some remaining bone.

Dean Fisher, who heads UCLA’s Body Donation Program, says this process works with a light carbon footprint “because it catalyzes the hydrogen in water to more rapidly attack the chemical bonds between molecules in the body.”

Alkaline hydrolysis is generally done in a large stainless-steel cylinder, with a person’s former life vehicle amounting to a coffee-colored liquid that can be safely disposed of down a drain. The remaining bone fragments are ground into a powder and given to the family, much like a traditional cremation.

While costs vary, alkaline hydrolysis typically costs $150 to $500 more than traditional cremation. Otherwise, this is the clear green choice. For instance, the Sierra Club writes, “Lower temperatures help reduce carbon emissions; alkaline hydrolysis’s emissions are just 10 to 15 percent of cremation’s.” The table below compares the carbon emissions of traditional cremation to those of alkaline hydrolysis.

Dr. Billy Campbell, steward of Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first noted US green burial ground, has researched the process of resomation and found that it occurs naturally when a body is buried in neutral or slightly alkaline soil. He writes, “To a great extent the bodies are decomposed by alkaline hydrolysis, expedited by soil bacteria and it is a very slow process.”

As of early 2018, twelve US states consider alkaline hydrolysis a legal form of body disposition: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Two Canadian provinces are also on board. If you prefer cremation to burial, consider choosing this more gentle and green process instead.

Graphic from The Green Burial Guidebook

Creative Cremains

Like cremation, alkaline hydrolysis results in ashes that families must either dispose of or keep. As I mention earlier, if you want to spread a loved one’s ashes, always check the laws of the state where you want to spread the ashes. Laws vary, and it will help your closure to know you aren’t breaking any rules.

Cremains can be buried in a backyard, in a traditional cemetery plot, or in special burial areas called EcoEternity Forests. These are burial grounds located in several states that have small placements for biodegradable urns. A family can lease a tree for their loved one and have a small plaque attached to it with an inscription for the buried remains.

If you will be keeping the ashes, here are some creative options to consider besides the traditional ceramic or metal urn.

Dryer Lint Urns

When my daughter was quite small, I noticed that all our dryer lint became bright and colorful. Her girly clothing left behind something magical, and I knew I should lay it out for birds to make nests or store it away as a fire starter on camping trips. Or maybe I could give it to my funeral families to organically wrap portions of their loved one’s cremains.

In 2010, as the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day was approaching, I decided to see if I could fabricate cremation urns out of all the lint I had set aside. I soon realized I could scoop out the clingy bits of fiber and fluff and create sustainable art.

A local artist friend, Marliese Franklin, and I sautéed the lint in water in a large saucepan, stirring well. Slowly adding flour, we cooked my dryer dust dregs over medium heat, rousing constantly until the mixture held together, forming peaks. We then poured it out onto several layers of newspaper to cool.

Dryer lint urns have two obvious advantages: They are environmentally friendly, as one would expect a biodegradable urn to be, and you can make them essentially for free. They are a natural demonstration of the cycle of life — we are born, we die, we replenish the Earth, and the cycle begins again — as well as a great option for anyone on a budget.

I gave away the urns I made for free to anyone in need who wanted one, and I encourage you to try making your own, using my simple recipe:

  • 3 cups dryer lint
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 cup flour

When I ran out of my own lint, I called a local laundromat, which happily donated twenty pounds for a good cause. For families stressed by personal loss and the high costs of an average funeral, every little bit of savings can help.

Eternal Reefs

How about spending eternity at the bottom of the ocean? In a way, this is like burial at sea, only with cremation ashes. The Georgia-based company Eternal Reefs takes human ashes and mixes them with cement to create “reef balls.” Looking like large Whiffle balls, these cast structures are sunk offshore and become artificial reefs for fish and other marine life. Though the reef balls don’t decay, they still support a sustainable ocean, and the location of each specific reef ball in the ocean can be located using GPS.

Bio Urns

Several companies now offer something called a bio urn, which is a biodegradable urn that contains the seed or sapling of a tree. Customers can typically choose the tree of their choice (ideally one that will thrive in their particular location), and once planted, your or a loved one’s ashes will always be marked, not by a headstone, but by a tree.

Note that in these products, the tree roots don’t grow directly in the dense cremains, which are usually lower in the basket.

Let Your Love Grow

As I mentioned, undiluted cremains are not healthy for plants, so the company Let Your Love Grow has solved this problem by mixing human cremation ash with a specially formulated organic mixture so that cremains can be used as planting soil. This mixture contains a very low sodium and pH content, which allows the ashes to release only nutrients that will fertilize plants.

Sustainable Art: Rest in Pieces

Artist Nadine Jarvis’s designs have turned cremation ashes into bird feeders, pencil boxes, and other concepts of rebirth. For one piece, Jarvis created a set of 240 pencils from human ash, cleverly called the Carbon Copies, each embossed with the name and dates of the person. A special pencil box allows only one pencil to be removed from the box at a time, and a built-in sharpener collects the pencil shavings, which really are carbon remnants of human remains. As the pencils are used, the box becomes an urn, holding the person’s remains. Of course, this isn’t an actual product you can buy, but it shows how a little creativity can lead to unique, “sustainable” remembrances of those you love.

For instance, I know a woman who, after her fiftieth birthday, had a midlife mortality crisis. Instead of trembling and moaning, she decided to make art. She sent out word to all her family and friends: Anyone who had metal orthopedic parts, and who desired cremation, should leave those parts to her. This became her way of celebrating both their lives and life itself. Turns out, her cousin had once swallowed some tiny screws back in high school as a dare. They remained in his body at death, and yep, she now has them framed. What a wonderful way to remember him! The woman has also made wind chimes out of titanium hip replacement pieces, and she now keeps the memory of those friends alive through the songs of their “bones.”

I also once read of a grandson who collected the metallic pieces from his grandfather’s cremated remains, polished them up, put them on a plaque, and labeled it: Grandpa. What a great conversation piece!

Also from The Green Burial Guidebook:

Funeral expenses in the United States average more than $10,000. And every year conventional funerals bury millions of tons of wood, concrete, and metals, as well as millions of gallons of carcinogenic embalming fluid. There is a better way, and Elizabeth Fournier, affectionately dubbed the “Green Reaper,” walks you through it, step-by-step in her book, The Green Burial Guidebook. She provides comprehensive and compassionate guidance, covering everything from green burial planning and home funeral basics to legal guidelines and outside-the-box options, such as burials in your own backyard. Fournier points the way to green burial practices that consider both the environmental well-being of the planet and the economic well-being of loved ones. In the above excerpt from the book, Elizabeth shares some of the many green options we have for shrouding a loved one’s body, before burial.

Excerpted from the book The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial. Copyright ©2018 by Elizabeth Fournier. Printed with permission from New World Library.