Recycle Your Loved Ones With Eco-Friendly Funerals
Recently you may have heard about two units available in Manhattan for about $17,500 a square foot—a record-breaking price for real estate in the borough.
You know the ones: The residency rules are so tight, you have to be dead to get in? The lots are in the New York Marble Cemetery in the East Village, which is selling the last two in-ground burial plots available on the open market anywhere in Manhattan; the cost is $350,000 each. It might seem staggering, but that price tag reflects market forces. New York’s cemeteries have all but run out of room.
Such afterlife overcrowding has similarly driven an ambitious West Coast startup: the Urban Death Project in Seattle, which aims to minimize the amount of land deeded over to the dead. In short, it aims to turn man into mulch. Picture a three-story-high human recycling center, to which families could bring the corpses of loved ones for a ceremonial laying-in, after which the body would be left to compost in a mix of wood chips and straw. After weeks, more likely months, the remains would go to the bereaved for use on garden or land. The deceased could fertilize ground, rather than fill it up.
That old-fashioned family plot, or vault, is falling out of favor as we run out of space. Rising costs and changing mores have helped cremation gain traction in recent years. While the National Funeral Directors Association projects that cremation will account for 71 percent of all interments by 2030, up from just 3.5 percent in 1960, a slew of companies is offering alternatives to conventional committal that minimize our impact on both real estate and the environment.
Humans Could Biodegrade Faster
Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak lives in Sweden, where cremations outpace burials, but she has long been determined to devise a better final exit. A onetime marine biologist, Wiigh-Mäsak patented her Promessa system of speeding up biodegradation in 1998. She spent the next 17 years struggling with regulatory hurdles in her home country, but she will begin building the first facility for Promessa (dubbed a Promatorium) elsewhere in northern Europe within the next month.
“The original burial method on this planet was when we fell down in the forest. Carnivores smelled something, and they were the teeth. They separated a body into small pieces, and eventually it became soil,” she said via phone from the small island of Lyr, just outside Gothenburg. “So how do you turn a body into small pieces like that without feeling offended?”
Her automated Promessa system involves flash-freezing a body with liquid nitrogen (Wiigh-Mäsak remains resource-neutral by using gas produced as a byproduct of the oxygen tank industry) and then vibrating it gently. “This makes the body spontaneously fall into pieces," she said. "The beauty of it, you can stand and watch it happen without getting scared. It creates a while cloud around it of small frozen pieces.”
The resulting shards are dried and then buried with wood chips in a coffin; under normal humidity conditions, the remains will become soil within a year. The burial plot can be safely recycled after a respectful fallow period.
A second resource-friendly alternative already on offer in several U.S. states is Resomation. Invented by Scottish biochemist Sandy Sullivan and nicknamed "green cremation," this process submerges the body in a mixture of potassium hydroxide and hot water to accelerate natural decomposition. Within a few hours, the soft tissue has become a non-toxic liquid resembling bitter ale or black tea; once alkalinity is reduced, it can be disposed of in the general waste-water system. Whatever skeletal remains linger will be pulverized, much as happens at the end of cremation by flame, and returned to the family as conventional “ashes.”
“Actually, you get about 25 percent more [ashes], since it’s a bit more of a gentle process,” said funeral director and Resomation expert Jason Bradshaw by telephone from Stillwater, Minn., one of six locations for his company, Bradshaw Funeral & Cremation Services. “ Although the company offers both conventional and water cremation (each at $2,395) he has seen a surge in the latter: Of customers offered a choice, 75 percent have opted for resomation—around 800 families so far.
It’s notable that most alternatives for end-of-life have originated in Europe. The American death-care industry, worth around $18 billion annually, by some estimates, has been less than receptive to options beyond cremation. There’s a reason for that, according to Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council. “Innovation has been killed off at every turn because it’s such an entrenched, threatened industry,” he said from Melbourne.
Our current system dates to the post-Civil War boom in disinterring the bodies of Union Army officers, Sehee explained. The embalming that was required to make their bodies presentable became the foundation of America’s death-care industry. The makers of formaldehyde teamed up with casket makers to form funeral companies in a network that still derives profit from open-casket, old-fashioned burials. It’s notable that the role of mortician—essentially a death beautician—is rare in other developed nations.
Coral Reefs, Sex Toys
With the market now primed for disruption, some companies have begun offering rather outré entries in the category of human up-cycling. Take Bios Urn ($145), a Spanish startup that fills a jar made from coconut shell, peat, and cellulose with a loved one’s ashes, then tops them separately with a tree seed such as oak, pine, or gingko. (“It’s a nice metaphor, but cremated remains are inorganic bone fragments. You’re lucky if mom’s ashes don’t kill the tree. Mom is not 'becoming' a tree,” said mortician Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.) LifeGem can turn ashes into memorial diamonds, using a process similar to that employed to produce cubic zirconia.
Dutch designer Mark Sturkenboom’s 21 Grams project is rather more risqué: Named after the supposed weight of a human soul, it’s a personal memento for a widow that uses 21 grams of a deceased husband’s ashes as the filling for a blown-glass sex toy.
Funeral company Eternal Reefs teamed with the Reef Ball Foundation, a nonprofit that has worked since 1992 on marine conservation, on something both intimate and eco-friendly. The foundation developed a patented mold made from eco-friendly concrete that resembles a soggy wiffle ball; it helps reclaim lost reefs, once it’s installed on the ocean floor.
Enter the Grief Ball, from Eternal Reefs. (Prices start at $2,495.) Loved ones’ ashes can be incorporated into a custom mold, which can be decorated with keepsake and plaques. The molds are then installed at one of 20 locations off the coasts of such states as Florida, South Carolina, and Texas. Since it was founded 17 years ago, Eternal Reefs says it has placed more than 1,500 such memorials.
Phyllis Flowers opted for this marine interment on behalf of John Jefferson, her 20-year old son; the college student died from a rare, aggressive brain tumor earlier this year. “John spent his summer when he was young working at the local dive shop, teaching little children how to swim, and he dove as much as he could over the years, considering school,” she said from Sarasota, Fla. A hospice worker first raised the option after hearing John talk of his devotion to diving. “He said he would be so happy to go swimming with the fishes again,” Flowers recalled. “It’s a brilliant way to give back. These reefs are built so efficiently for rebuilding the coral habitat.”
Flowers divided her son's ashes among three sites with sentimental appeal, including the location of his first-ever dive, and she said the company says she can sail out on one of its working vessels whenever she wishes to visit. All this has changed the 65-year old’s vision for her own funeral. “My parents are buried in Illinois in the middle of a cornfield, but this has to be the way of the future,” she said, quietly. “I want to be there.”