Have you decided what you want to happen to your body once you die? It's a pretty heft decision, so it's fine if you haven't. Actually, that may be a good thing, as there are a growing number of options outside the conventional norms for what can be done to dispose of your physical self.
Largely labeled 'alternative funerals,' these options provide something unique that are often cheaper and even better for the environment than our typical options. Maybe one here will resonate with you in a way simple burial or cremation never has.
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After They're Gone
When a loved one dies, we're usually presented with three options for what to do with their body.
The most traditional (and also most expensive) method is by burial. The person's body is treated, put into a casket, then lowered into the ground at the base of a headstone marking their name and how long they lived, providing a physical place their friends and family can come visit them.
The second is cremation, the most popular method. With cremation, the body is turned into ash, and those ashes can either be scattered, distributed, kept at home in an urn, or placed in a brick, statue, or otherwise at a cemetery.
Think Outside The Box
Lastly is body donation to science, in which the person can help further research by forgoing a physical marker, leaving people with cherished memories instead.
What if there was more, though? Surely a lot could be done with someone's body to dispose of it in a way that isn't as detrimental to the environment as burning fossil fuels to cremate bodies or as expensive as a cemetery plot and burial.
The good news is that there are plenty of lesser-known, extremely innovative alternatives to the traditional funeral—ones that are changing the way we look at death.
It's not just cremation that has a negative cost on the environment, burials do too. Either the ground becomes teemed with dangerous chemicals or the air becomes polluted by greenhouse gasses, but thankfully some of these alternative funeral methods are hoping for a greener future in the death industry.
Perhaps the most popular is human composting, or 'terramation.'
Terramation involves the body being placed in a sealed contained alongside materials like straw and woodchips. In a month or two, that body becomes a cubic yard nutrient rich soil that the family can choose to take home or donate to conservation land.
Savings In The Thousands
Human composting is becoming increasingly popular across the United States since Washington became the first state to legalize the practice in 2019. It's now legal in six states, but terramation companies are hoping that number will continue to grow so anyone who wants to have their body composted can have the opportunity to.
The charge for this service is usually between $5000 and $7000, compared to the standard cost of a traditional funeral and burial which usually costs between $8000 and $10,000.
Water cremation, or 'alkaline hydrolysis', has a specific focus in environmental sustainability.
The person's body is placed in a cylindrical container that's then pumped full of a water and alkaline chemical mix, usually including potassium hydroxide, that's then heated up. This combination breaks the body down in the span of three to 16 hours.
Once the process is finished, all that's left are bones and a sterile liquid that contains amino acids, sugars, and soap.
For A Greener Future
The liquid is disposed of, drained out of the container, then the bones are dried, ground into a powder, and returned to the family in place of ashes.
Water cremation is legal in 28 states, surpassing human composting by a large margin, but costs roughly the same as a traditional cremation, usually between $2000 and $3000.
However, water cremation uses only 10% as much energy as standard cremation, which emits as much CO2 into the air as a 500-mile car ride. They're hoping people will start choosing water cremations over fire cremations for the cleaner environmental footprint alone.
Green burials are for those who still want to bury their loved ones, but want to do so without a variety of dangerous chemicals being dumped into the ground by doing so.
To make a body presentable during a funeral, they're treated with embalming fluid (among other techniques) that slow the decomposition process so a viewing may be had. In the U.S. alone, over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid seep into the earth every single year thanks to all the bodies being buried, saturating cemetery grounds with chemicals.
One of those chemicals present in embalming fluid, formaldehyde, can even cause cancer.
With Or Without
Green burials come in many different varieties, but the important through-line is that the body is never treated with any sort of chemical prior to being placed in the earth. Yes, this eliminates the chance for a viewing, but some families are fine with that.
Sometimes bodies are wrapped in a biodegradable fabric and put in a shallower grave, but there are some companies that provide eco-friendly caskets made out of wicker, bamboo, and mushroom fibers.
You'll need to find a green cemetery where the body can actually be buried. Thankfully, those are becoming more common, with the number of green cemetery plots growing by the hundreds in the past few years.
Finally, there are those who take cremated ashes and turn them into something new. These aren't so much about lessening the environmental impact of the practice and more about memorializing the person in a unique way that aligns with their living passions.
For example, Eternal Reefs is a charity that will mix a person's ashes with cement to create a 'reef ball'. The reef ball is then lowered onto the ocean floor, where coral can grow on its surface and fish (or other marine creatures) can make their home within it.
Take Your Pick
Other potential ash creations include placing them inside fireworks, putting them in jewelry, incorporating them into pottery, pressing them into a vinyl record that contains the audio of your choosing, or even incorporating them into ink that you can then get a tattoo with.
There's even a company that will fly peoples' ashes to space! This option has made headlines before, as it both Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry and NASA scientist Eugene Shoemaker had their ashes launched beyond the stratosphere.
What Becomes Of Us
Every year, people gain a little more agency over what their physical body can become once they pass. Regulations are being changed, companies are expanding, and people are learning that there's more to life after death than an expensive casket or an urn full of ashes.
Our bodies deserve respect even after we're gone, we deserve to be disposed of on our terms, not on the terms of whatever method is thriving economically.
With any luck, these alternative funeral options will continue to grow, until every person an be disposed of however they choose.
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