Plan a Green Funeral (So Your Grandkids Don’t Have to Drink Your Embalming Fluid)

Five ways to help the planet after you die.

On Monday, millions of people marked the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day. But while we’ve become more attentive to our impact on the planet while we are alive, most of us assume that our carbon footprint will die when we do. On the contrary, in light of the two dominant means of body disposal in the U.S.—burial and cremation—most of us will continue to be a burden on the planet even after we’ve stopped living on it.

In a typical burial, there’s a lot more going into the ground that just Grandpa. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, each year U.S. cemeteries bury over 30 million feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in caskets, as well as 17,000 tons of metal and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults. More than 90 percent of bodies are also embalmed, which involves about 3.5 gallons of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals including formaldehyde, ethanol and methanol. Where do all those chemicals wind up? You don’t want to know, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In a paper titled “Drinking Grandma: The Problem of Embalming,” researchers Jeremiah and Ted Chiappelli estimate that embalming releases seven million gallons of formaldehyde in the soil each year, some of which makes it into our drinking water.

Cremation has long been considered the more eco-friendly choice. But given what we now know about carbon dioxide’s impact on the atmosphere, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that’s a myth. A single cremation releases about 110 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (the equivalent of burning 27 pounds of coal); and that doesn’t include the cost of running the furnace. Crematoria are also a significant source of mercury in the atmosphere (from dental fillings). Prior to the implementation of stricter regulations last year, cremations reportedly accounted for as much as a fifth of mercury emissions in the United Kingdom.

Between 2024 and 2042, approximately 76 million baby boomers will reach the average age of life expectancy, meaning the U.S. can expect to experience a nearly two-decade “death boom.”  To ease the environmental burden, here’s a sampling of new (and some not so new) Earth-friendly options for the newly deceased.

Eco-friendly Burials
A number of funeral homes are now offering so-called “green burials” in which the deceased is simply placed in a biodegradable box (made of materials like wicker, bamboo and sometimes wool) or wrapped in a shroud and buried, unembalmed, in the ground. Britain, which is ahead of the U.S. in natural funerals, hosts more than 260 eco-friendly burial sites. The Green Burial Council lists 16 providers in Pennsylvania that handle green burials, but only two cemeteries in the Keystone State are authorized for eco-friendly internment. (West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd is one of them.)

Marketed as a carbon-neutral burial technology, Resomation employs a process called alkaline hydrolysis, in which the body is placed in a stainless-steel vat containing a 200°F potassium-hydroxide-and-water solution for four hours until all that remains is the skeleton and some greenish-brown fluid. The residue is sterile and can be disposed of down the drain. The bones, which are soft at that point, are then crushed and presented to the deceased’s family.

Promession (Cryomation)
In the process of Promession, the body and casket are immersed in a bath of liquid nitrogen, and then placed on a vibrating table and reduced to small particles. A magnet is used to remove any residual metal, and what’s left it placed in a biodegradable box and buried a couple feet under ground. Within six months to a year the whole thing has turned into compost.

If you’ve ever been to a Body Worlds exhibit you’ve seen plastination up close. The body is embalmed, and fat and water are removed using a solvent bath. The process, which can take a year to finish, is completed by immersing the body in a polymer solution, placing it in vacuum chamber and using heat or light to harden it. According to the German Institute for Plastination, there are now more than 400 plastination laboratories in 40 countries around the world.

Sky Burial
Traditionally practiced by Buddhists in Tibet and part of Nepal, a sky burial is perhaps the only truly green method of disposing of a body. It’s also the one you’re least likely to ever see in the U.S. In a sky burial, a body is brought to a mountain clearing, and a group of monks remove the limbs, organs and pieces of flesh. The job is finished by flocks of vultures, which feast on the body until all that’s left is a skeleton. The bones are then crushes and mixed with roasted barley flour and butter tea (known as tsampa) and fed to other predatory birds that missed out on the first course.