How to Plan a Sustainable Funeral

A green funeral seeks to minimize the negative impacts that your body may have on the planet after your death – and it’s important to learn about your options if you care about the planet! Your faith determines what happens to your spirit, but your decisions determine what happens to your body. Everyone will die at some point, but not everyone’s death will have the same environmental impact.

From green burials to green cremation, there are alternatives to traditional burial and cremation and now is as great a time as any to start planning your own funeral. If you care about the environment, please take some time to understand your green burial options.

When tragedy hits, I often see families taking on debt or requesting crowd-funding to help pay $10,000 funeral costs. I want to tell them to consider alternatives, but I know that in their understandably grief-stricken state, it is neither the time nor my place to do so. Loved ones tend to do things “the proper way” to align with society’s norm. Everyone wants to “pay respect” to those who have passed away, so they generally spare little expense. Funeral homes seem to understand this – charging exorbitant prices all “in honor of” the deceased.

The “Traditional” Funeral in the U.S.

In a traditional burial, the body is embalmed with a formaldehyde solution to postpone the natural decomposition of the body and present it at the funeral viewing. Embalmers will manipulate the face to get it to look “natural.” This includes using an eye-cap to set the eyelids and keep them shut, wiring the jaw shut and suturing the lips/gums to make the face look “relaxed,” and stuffing the nose, throat, and groin with cotton wool to stop fluids from leaking.

Once the face is manipulated to look “normal,” the body is then injected with a formaldehyde solution to cycle out the blood. The blood is then drained directly into the drain. All this cosmetic work is done all just for show; so a life-like appearance can be maintained in a lifeless body.

That’s why if having the “traditional” Western funeral (i.e., embalmed for viewing with a toxic solution, placed in a fancy casket, and lowed in a permanent concrete burial plot) is not important to you, please have an open conversation with your loved ones about what you prefer instead.

Learn about the burial and cremation laws in your state. And communicate any green funeral plan preferences early and often so when tragedy strikes, your loved ones need to make one less decision, and you can truly rest in peace knowing that you’re doing good for the planet!

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More About Embalming Fluids

Embalming fluid has a formaldehyde-base. Federal agencies classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Embalmers who have to work with this toxin are at greater risk of leukemia and brain cancer.

Even though federal standards have been established to limit a worker’s workday and exposure, it’s a pity that people will still seek formaldehyde-embalming services, putting these workers at risk particularly for myeloid leukemia, when there are safer, natural alternatives available to preserve the body or avoid embalming altogether.

Alternative Ideas for Your Body

Option 1: A traditional casket made of unsustainable wood & paint + non-biodegradable metal hinges + embalming with a formaldehyde-based solution + being placed in a concrete vault in the ground

Person holding a bouquet of flowers with text overlay: plan ahead - how to plan for your eco-friendly funeral

This is still the “norm” in Western society. Not only is it generally the most expensive option, but it also utilizes (and buries) many resources (wood, metal, toxins, concrete) and takes up land from future generations – forever!

Option 2: Green Burial via a biodegradable casket + green embalming

If you are intent on being buried whole, and would still like a “traditional” funeral ceremony, you can consider more eco-friendly swaps to key components of the process. A green casket is similar to a traditional casket in that it transports the body to for burial.

The difference is that a green casket is made of more eco-friendly materials. These materials should naturally biodegrade and ultimately leave minimal impacts on the land. A green casket will forgo metal components, paint, chemical treatments (both in the casket and in the body), and any other synthetic, non-biodegradable materials.

Popular constructions include bamboo, willow, seagrass, cork, banana leaf, rattan, pine, and cardboard.

There are three types of green burial grounds to look for when using a green casket:

  • Hybrid burial ground: a traditional cemetery that has a specific section for green burials
  • Woodland burial ground: a burial ground that specifically prohibits burial vaults / grave liners, requires biodegradable caskets/shrouds, and prohibits chemical embalming
  • Conservation burial ground: a woodland burial ground that has a plan in place for long-term stewardship of the grounds

As you will note, to be eligible for the more natural burial grounds, you need to avoid toxic embalming fluids. If you want a funeral viewing, but you want to avoid the use of formaldehyde-based embalming fluids, you can seek out natural, essential oil-based eco-friendly embalming fluids. Alternatively, you can preserve the body with dry ice.

Option 3: Mushroom suit

Traditionally, people use embalming fluids to preserve the body for as long as possible, even after the burial. Eco-friendly individuals may choose the complete opposite – to speed up decomposition and return the body to the ground as quickly as possible. Those interested in this may be interested in a mushroom suit. Designed and developed by a company called Coeio, the organic cotton suit is embedded with mushroom and other microorganisms to aid in the body’s natural decomposition, neutralize toxins in the body, and enrich the soil around the body. Options offered include a bodysuit or a simple shroud (for those who also want a funeral viewing). This is a creative solution for a green burial.

Option 4: Body Donation

If you’re interested in changing a person’s life or giving to future generations, this might be an option for you. Through various government, schools, and non-profit organizations, there are some ways your body might benefit the lives of others after your own.

Your body could potentially be used for a variety of interest projects, of your choice, such as:

Think about what you’d like your body to assist with after you’re gone and perform a quick search online about options in your area. There are schools and tissue banks all around the country that would greatly appreciate your donation. However, a body donation requires some pre-planning because you generally need to provide your consent before body donation is allowed, so don’t wait too long.

Option 5: Resomation

Alkaline hydrolysis also referred to as resomation, bio-cremation or water cremation, is a form of green cremation that is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional (combustion) cremation. In a water cremation, the body goes into a pressure chamber where to immerse in a potato lye-based solution that causes the body to separate into the ashes and a bio-fluid. The bio-fluid is drained away leaving the ashes, similar to what you would have in a traditional cremation.

However, resomation is more eco-friendly than traditional flame cremation because of energy usage and emissions. Resomation is estimated to use between 20% – 40% of the energy needed for flame cremation because of the lower temperature requirements for the task [footnote]The optimal temperature for flame cremation is around 1,500° F[/footnote]. Lower energy usage results in lower carbon emissions. Additionally, flame cremation may release organic pollutants and heavy metals into the atmosphere, with a particular focus on mercury emissions due to dental fillings. Water cremations do not emit these emissions.

Option 6: Promession

Another form of green cremation is promession, which is a process that freeze-dries the body to reduce its mass, for the eventual burial of the “remains”. During this process, the body is crystallized with liquid nitrogen and vibrated to disintegrate. The particles will then be freeze-dried and separated from the metals / other foreign substances and placed into a plant-based container for burial. The burial container and remains will turn into soil within 6-18 months.

While currently not available in the U.S., you can express interest here to expedite the eventual acceptance of this form of green cremation.

Option 7: Recomposition

Another developing idea is known as recomposition, or the act of converting your body directly to nourish the soil. Modern green burials right now still depend on available land space for burial and eventual decomposition of your body. However, recomposition seeks to provide a solution for the urban areas, as the recomposition process (from the body to soil) is estimated to take 30 days.

While currently not available in the U.S., you can sign up for updates and learn more here.

Creative Ideas For Your Remains

Beyond burying of the ashes directly, or keeping them with you in a decorative urn for your house, if you decide on cremation/resomation / promession, you also have some creative options about what to do with your ashes. Here are some of my favorite ideas:

Eternal Reef

An Eternal Reef holds your ashes inside a concrete structure. This structure is meant to drop into the ocean to become a new marine habitat for ocean life.

Bio Urn

With the Bio Urn, ashes are placed inside a biodegradable urn with a built-in structure for seed and soil that allows the integration of the ashes with the development of the plant. This biodegradable urn can be planted outdoors, but the company also offers the option for an in-home smart planter as well.

Interested in a Green Funeral? Take Action Now!

If any of these alternatives to burial and cremation appeal to you, ensure you start a conversation with your loved ones about your wishes post-death. Not sure how to bring up the topic? The Conversation Project has prepared a conversation starter kit in 11 different languages to help with this. Without a personal request for preference, most loved ones will default to a traditional casket & burial believing that any alternative would not be paying proper respect to you.

“A person should be buried only half a meter, or two feet, below the surface. Then a tree should be planted there. He should be buried in a coffin that decays so that when you plant a tree on top the tree will take something out of his substance and change it into tree-substance. When you visit the grave you don’t visit a dead man, you visit a living being who was just transformed into a tree. You say, “This is my grandfather, the tree is growing well, fantastic.” You can develop a beautiful forest that will be more beautiful than a normal forest because the trees will have their roots in graves. It will be a park, a place for pleasure, a place to live, even a place to hunt.”
― Friedensreich Hundertwasser

To our loved ones who may not understand our intentions of living an eco-friendly life, we need to get them to understand that respecting our wishes to minimize our negative impact on the planet at death shows an immense amount of love and is the greatest respect they can provide.

If having a green funeral when you pass away is important to you, it's best to learn about all the options you have for an eco-friendly funeral. Whether you want to ensure a natural burial, or you want to be cremated in an energy -efficient way, it's important to think about now or your family may not know your preference. Familiarize yourself with these options and have a discussion with your closest loved ones too.