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Eco-friendly post-death options

When I taught Grade 5 Science in Ontario, one of the units focused on the 3 R’s and the impact of waste items on the environment. The students learned, for example, that it takes approximately 500-1000 years for a plastic waste bag to decompose in a landfill, where as an aluminum can takes approximately 200 years, glass takes 1,000,000 years and cotton items take 1-5 months.

As a death doula, I also recognize that our bodies have a significant impact on the environment long after we die. Traditionally, people have chosen in-ground burials in coffins or caskets, or above ground in mausoleums. Other choices are cremation, with ashes placed in urns similarly above or below ground.

Author and mortician Caitlin Doughty had embarked on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead in her book “From Here to Eternity”, which was published in 2018. I was particularly interested in her one chapter, “California: Joshua Tree”, having day-visited that area with my 21-year-old daughter during a mother-daughter birthday trip. The Joshua Tree Memorial Park has dedicated a section of their land to offer 60 natural burials since 2010. As the author states, “The world used to be our burial ground. We buried bodies on farms, ranches and in local churchyards- anywhere we wanted really. Some states still allow for burial on private property.” (Page 216). I shall feature this book’s global burial practices in more detail in another blog. Any of her books are fascinating to read as well as to listen to her podcasts.

Along the same idea as the Joshua Tree Memorial Park are organic burial pods where you can be buried whole, naked in an organic biodegradable pod that allows the organic matter to transform into minerals which provide nutrients that help a tree to grow above you. The technique reportedly started in Italy and is referred to as the Capsula Mundi Project.

New “greener” techniques are becoming more and more available, but not everyone is aware of the options. I came across an interesting article (see source) that outlines a few that I had heard about as a death doula, and a few that I hadn’t.

Biodegradable urns are one option. Bios Urn uses 100% materials such as coconut shells, compacted peat, and cellulose, with the idea that allows you to become a maple/pine/gingko/beech tree after death. First you would be cremated and then the seed in the urn develops first until it is strong enough to grow through the ashes.

Similarly, is the Mushroom Suit Burial which was developed by Jae Rhim Lee. This eco-friendly process involves dressing the cadaver in a bodysuit that has mushroom spores woven into it. The mushrooms consume the remains as they grow. A budget-friendly price of about $1,000 US.

Alkaline Hydrolysis is more commonly known as Water Cremation. It is a process that takes a about 3 hours to complete. The deceased body is placed in a hot lye-water mixture and is touted as a more environmentally friendly process than cremation.

Perhaps you fancy a burial at sea but are not naval. “Eternal Reefs” take the cremated remains of the deceased and mix them with an environmentally safe cement mixture. This creates new marine habitats for fish and other forms of sea life in permitted locations. As a scuba diver, this environmental-legacy option would appeal to me.

If the sea is not your thing but space is, then perhaps “Space Burial” is an option. Your cremated remains are launched into space. According to the article, the ashes remain in the spacecraft until it reaches the moon or deep space or re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. This option has already been tested out with animal and human remains and costs $2,500 US.

Donating your body to science after your death has always been an option. I know of one individual who recently did this to further research for her specific cause of death. Many people who chose a medical or health-related career choose this option to as a way of giving back to their professions.

Two specific green options are Cryogenic Freezing and Plastination. Cryogenic freezing is mostly reserved for those who are brain dead and allows for research. Many science-fiction movies and television show episodes set into the future have delved into this topic. Those seeking this process hope to wake up with their tissues unchanged and taking advantage of advances in technology to cure them of the disease that killed them initially.

Plastination also offers a chance to further science. In this process, all liquids are removed from the body. Water and fat are replaced with certain plastics and only tissue mass remains. It makes me think of The AstraZeneca Human Edge, a human body-based exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre that I used to visit with my family as well as the school children I used to teach.

In conclusion, death doulas, although we have a non-funeral scope of practice, are a great resource for information related to death and burial options. Perhaps one of these options intrigued you to do some further research or to have conversations with your family about your wishes.

Source: The craziest alternative burial methods, 06/01/19

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