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Graves That Save

The rise of the sustainable death movement. by Alli Magidsohn
December 21, 2013

Natural Burial: The effort to make human death itself more sustainable.

Just past the perimeter of Joshua Tree Memorial Park’s manicured green lawns sit acres and acres of undeveloped desert. Joshua trees, so named by Mormon settlers for their purported resemblance to the biblical Joshua—his hands reaching toward the heavens in prayer—dot the rugged landscape, but a few hundred feet to the east stands a simple rectangular fence, marking off what, from a distance, looks like nothing at all. 

Even upon closer inspection, the fence’s precise function is unclear. It corrals the same rocks and ground that extend for miles in every direction. And then I notice small, stainless steel pins in the ground, marking out 66 plots in what I soon will learn is the Joshua Tree Memorial Park’s natural burial section. 

“The county requires that we put them in,” says Keith Yoder, the park’s superintendent, of the shiny, nonbiodegradable interlopers.

Unlike traditional burial, natural burial (also referred to as green burial) doesn’t seek to fight the effects of decomposition, but to harmonize with them by burying the body in a way that quickly recycles it into the ecosystem. Grave openings are prepared without the concrete vaults required for reinforcing standard graves, so the only thing in between the unpreserved body and soil is an organic fabric burial shroud or casket made from Earth-friendly material like wicker, cardboard, or bamboo. The graves themselves are dug by hand, and it can take a team of workers two to three days to do so—as opposed to the two to three hours it takes to dig a grave with heavy machinery. 

“It gets very hot, and it’s hard work, but it’s more rewarding,” says Yoder. 

Born from a conversation within the environmental movement of the mid-1990s, natural burial has been gaining popularity ever since, particularly in the last few years, and is part of a larger trend, paradoxical to some: the effort to make human death itself more sustainable. It is being engineered by social innovators all over the world who believe end-of-life decisions that take into account the future well-being of the planet are part of this generation’s legacy of environmental stewardship.

Alkaline Hydrolysis: Water-based chemical resolving process that uses an alkaline solution to dissolve bodies.

Maggie Matthews, funeral director and general manager at the Joshua Tree Memorial Park, thinks it’s about time that the larger cultural conversation about personal impact has crept into her professional domain. “We know that the choices we make have consequences,” she says. “As the world trends toward people asking themselves, ‘How can I be more environmentally conscious in my life?’ and as they get older, ‘How can I be more environmentally conscious in my death?’ it makes sense that natural burial would be a solution for some.”

Rituals surrounding death, of course, aren’t just there to comfort the dying; they’re also there for the living, offering them a sense of order amid chaos. According to Matthews, a burial that considers the planet doesn’t reduce burial to a mere utilitarian act, devoid of meaning. “You don’t have to have a casket out there,” she tells me from her eclectic showroom, sprinkled with brochures about making glass sculptures out of cremated human remains and jewelry from thumbprints of the deceased. “We’ve had burials where the families are actually lowering a shrouded body into the grave, holding the strap, right there with us, and there’s just something totally different about that experience.”

In a world in which we’re increasingly conscientious about the most fleeting of day-to-day lifestyle choices—from the provenance of our slip-on shoes to the fair-trade nature of our caffeine habits—it’s peculiar that so little conversation up to this point has occurred around perhaps the least fleeting of occasions: our eventual demise.  As a licensed mortician, natural burial advocate, and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a collective dedicated to staring down the death anxiety of modern culture, Caitlin Doughty concurs. She sees natural burial as part of a much larger trend and perhaps the beginning of a movement.

“There’s already a cultural shift. In the past few years there has been a radical uptick in the number of people wanting to be involved in changing the conversation about death,” she says.  

In October, Doughty was one of the organizers behind Death Salon, a three-day event in Los Angeles (with one scheduled to take place in the United Kingdom in 2014 and one in Ohio in 2015) where academics, “death care” professionals, historians, and artists gathered to rethink our relationship with human expiration. Topics at the salon included bejeweled 16th-century skeletal art, the relationship between death and feminism, and the controversial Body Worlds displays of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens—as well as modern advocacy of natural burial practices. Strange as some of them may sound, Doughty doesn’t believe that these conversations do not belong merely to an eccentric fringe. 

“The type of person who believes climate change is a serious threat to the environment is the type of person who is not going to want the dead body of a loved one to go into the ground pumped full of cancer-causing chemicals and locked in a metal casket in a big concrete vault,” she says. “It’s that kind of extreme consumption that got us into the trouble we are in environmentally.”

The trouble that Doughty is alluding to has relatively recent origins. While the roots of human burial date back to the Middle Paleolithic period approximately 200,000 years ago, the traditional lawn cemetery, with its flattened grass, concrete vaults, and metal plaques, originated late in the 19th century and has been a prominent human burial practice ever since. 

Promession: Doused in a bath of liquid nitrogen, a corpse is frozen, and, once brittle enough, is shattered via short mechanical vibrations.

In the 1960s, many championed cremation as a more ecologically responsible, trendy alternative to burial. This was partially due to the actions of the Catholic Church, which lifted a centuries-long ban on the practice in 1963. Cremation numbers in the Western world rose sharply; from around 4 percent in 1965, according to the Cremation Association of North American, to more than 40 percent at present, with projections toward 50 percent by 2018. Yet, despite its popularity, according to the Green Burial Council, an organization founded in Joshua Tree that calls for certifiable standards for sustainable burial, cremation only adds to a person’s final carbon footprint. It takes nearly 23 liters of fuel and up to four hours for a body to be fully incinerated, a process that emits noxious gases including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide, as well as mercury and other toxic metals into the atmosphere. 

Enter alkaline hydrolysis (also known as resomation, aquamation, or biocremation), a water-based chemical resolving process that uses an alkaline solution of potassium hydroxide combined with 300-degree Fahrenheit heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to dissolve bodies in large stainless steel cylinders.         After two to three hours, the body is transformed into a sterile coffee-colored liquid the consistency of motor oil that can be safely poured down the drain, alongside a dry bone residue similar in appearance to cremated remains. According to Resomation Ltd., the UK-based manufacturer of biocremation equipment, substituting ordinary cremation with alkaline hydrolysis can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 35 percent. It also removes the need for burial space, an important benefit, given the world’s rapidly increasing population and growing urbanization. To date, however, alkaline hydrolysis is only available in Australia and in the U.S. 

If it’s hard to wrap your head around how a chemical lab right out of Breaking Bad could possibly make death more sustainable, a decomposition process called promession might seem less foreboding. Developed by Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, a Swedish biologist and entrepreneur, this method utilizes freeze-drying to dispose of dead bodies. Doused in a bath of liquid nitrogen, a corpse is frozen to -148 degrees Fahrenheit, and, once brittle enough, is shattered via short, mechanical vibrations. The resulting compound is then placed in a vacuum chamber to remove all ice, leaving 55-66 pounds of powdered human “promains.” Mercury tooth fillings and any other metal implants are sieved out with an induced magnetic field, and the dry powder is placed into a cornstarch enclosure and interred into top layers of soil where microorganisms can fully incorporate it within a matter of months.

Wiigh-Mäsak spent more than 20 years developing promession as she built an organic produce business, only presenting her ideas to the public in 2001.“My passion for gardening and composting led me to wonder how we can take such good care of an organic garden, so that it produces mulch within weeks, and yet when it comes to dead human bodies, we treat them as if they were a waste problem,” Wiigh-Mäsak explains. “Promession basically looks upon the corpse as something that can contribute to new life. The body can be a ‘thank you’ to the environment for the life that we’ve lived, instead of being a burden on the planet. I think people love that vision of being a contribution to nature, even after they’re gone.”

Infinity Burial Project: After death, mushrooms recognize decaying tissue as a food source and begin turning the body into mulch.

Promession was legalized in the Channel Islands in 2013, and South Africa and Germany adopted legislation allowing the process to be offered commercially in 2005, but it has yet to come to market. Sweden, South Korea, and a handful of other countries are currently reviewing their laws to see how promession might be included, but Wiigh-Mäsak plays down these regulatory holdups, saying that “even armies cannot stop an idea [when its] time has come.”

But what if instead of trying to preserve nature we turned to it for help with our burial rituals? Artist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology research fellow, Jae Rhim Lee does just that with the Infinity Burial Project by imagining a very unique fate for the postmortem body: decomposition via mushroom.

Inspired by the mushroom’s natural ability to remediate toxins in its environment, Lee trained fungi to feed off of her own body so that when she dies, these same mushrooms will devour her completely. Cultivating oyster and shiitake mushrooms on clippings of her hair, nails, and skin, she picks the best feeders in what becomes a selective breeding process. The idea is that after her death, these mushrooms will recognize her decaying tissue as a food source and take on the job of turning her into mulch and establishing a biological infinity.

To these ends, Lee has developed a fitted organic cotton burial suit with crocheted netting and spore-infused threads, where her flesh-eating Infinity Mushrooms can grow. She’s also working on developing an Infinity Burial kit, complete with burial suit, a cocktail of minerals and spores that will activate decomposition from the inside, an open source burial container, and membership in a society dedicated to the promotion of death acceptance, as well as the practice of decompiculture (cultivation of decomposing organisms). If all of this sounds spectacular and provocative, that’s part of the intention. Lee is trying to start a conversation she feels is desperately needed.

“I think there is a bigger message here than merely that funerals have a negative environmental impact,” she tells me. “Denial of death is deeply ingrained in our culture, but I think that environmental stewardship begins with accepting that we are mortal, that we are physical beings who eat, breathe, shit, die, and decay, and are therefore intimately connected to the larger ecosystem. We care for the environment because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.”

Emergence: An eco-casket made from biodegradable plastics embedded with tree seedlings that will take root as the casket decomposes.

Imaginative, sustainable ways to deal with burial continue to pop up all over the place these days. French designers Enzo Pascual and Pierre Rivière have developed Emergence, an eco-casket made from biodegradable plastics embedded with tree seedlings that will take root as the casket decomposes; Hungarian designer Ágnes Hegedüs created an inexpensive floating urn housing a clay pot that’s designed to slowly sink to the ocean floor; and a South African designer, Ancunel Steyn, has proposed Design for Death Living, an urban plan that seeks to combine memorial walls housing cremated human remains with mixed-use public space. This past April, Designboom, an online magazine dedicated to art, design and architecture, launched an entire competition called Design for Death—of which these three projects are part—that received more than 2,000 submissions from around the world. 

“Part of what’s fueling this trend toward more ecologically-minded burial is simply that people are becoming aware that they have an alternative to a conventional burial or cremation,” says Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, which was founded in 2005 and currently includes more than 300 certified vendors that do commerce in the sustainable death space. “I think what most people like about the concept is that it allows for death to connect with life; something that the funeral industry has greatly impeded over the past century,” he says. “None of us really wants to think about dying, but green burial provides a way for us to find solace and sometimes even befriend death a bit.”

Whether or not natural burial continues to take hold as a cultural phenomenon, or promession and alkaline hydrolosis one day find broader audiences, alternatives to traditional burial are just beginning to take root in larger conversations about sustainability that have permeated nearly every part of contemporary culture.

Illustrations by Monica Ramos