Not too long ago, when someone died, the body was either buried or cremated. There were no other choices. Today, the list of possibilities for the disposition of the body is growing at a fantastic pace for several reasons. Today, the cost of burial can be exceedingly expensive in big towns and cities, and cremation and burial are responsible for the production of CO2 and other gases that have been implicated in the greenhouse effect.
In February 2023, The New York Times reported that plots in the city ranged from $4,500 to $19,000, with some going for as much as $1,000,000. It also noted that burial in a concrete vault (required by most cemeteries) is responsible for 833kg of CO2, while the CO2 produced by cremation produces as much fuel as a 500-mile car trip and creates 233g of CO2. In 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association reported that cremations outnumbered burials for the first time in 2015.
Alternatives to burial
The most straightforward alternative is probably immediate burial, in which the body is transported to a funeral home that creates a death certificate, obtains a burial permit, then buries the body without embalming, formal viewing, or funeral service. Depending on the city, a traditional funeral may cost $6-8,000 without a gravesite or a headstone, so immediate burial reduces greenhouse gases and avoids the cost of a funeral (perhaps in favor of a memorial later on).
Green burial has been added to the list of possible ways to handle the body—by the Green Burial Council (www.greenburial.org). In many ways, this alternative is a return to the 19th century, allowing the decomposition of the body and the coffin to occur naturally. Many Jewish and Muslim burials are still essentially green, although the cemetery may not be designated as green. The body is wrapped and buried in a coffin made of natural wood, bamboo, or even cardboard in a green burial. Green burial is low-cost and eliminates the hazardous chemicals used in embalming, conserves the hardwood, steel, and copper used in caskets and vaults, and is offered by non-profit,
A new variation on green burial reported by Live Science (www.livescience.com) involves encasing the body in a shroud embroidered with Infinity Mushrooms that release toxins from the body as it decomposes. No coffin or casket is needed. Live Science also reported that for a mere $1,000, you could have the remains shot into low earth orbit, or for another $9,000, the body can be deposited in deep space where it will not return to the earth.
Alternatives to cremation
Cremation requires that a furnace is heated to over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit for 60-90 minutes. As you might imagine, this process releases carbon dioxide and many toxic chemicals like mercury stored in the body. A new way to accomplish the same thing is green cremation (www.greencremation.com) which relies on water infused with potassium hydroxide to dissolve the tissues of the body, leaving only bone fragments. Potassium hydroxide is, however, a moderately hazardous chemical; it is debatable whether this is a significant improvement over ordinary cremation.
The New York Times reported that five states, including Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, and California, have legalized human composting as a means of disposition. NY will soon follow suit. First, the body is slipped into a cylindrical vessel made of plant material and wrapped in a cotton shroud. Next, people add flowers and other materials, and then air or moisture is pumped into the vessel to ensure that conditions are right for decomposition. After 6-8 weeks, the body has been reduced to bone fragments and nutrient-rich soil. Next, bones are ground to powder and returned to the earth. Eventually, one cubic yard of new soil is created from the process.
Perhaps the most interesting alternative to cremation is alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “water cremation.” The body is placed in a water-tight chamber, bathed in 95% water and 5% alkaline chemicals like lye. The chamber is then sealed and heated to about 300 degrees for up to 16 hours. When the chamber is drained, all that remains are bones, which are then pulverized (as they are in ordinary cremation) and returned for scattering, burial, or other forms of preservation. There are no harmful emissions or other negative environmental impacts (https://returnhome.com/what-are-the-different-types-of-eco-friendly-burials/).
It is also the case that many universities and hospitals accept body donations for medical science. The body is usually delivered to the donor organization shortly after death. Some of these organizations even maintain body farms. A body farm is a place where bodies can decompose outside in the elements, stripped by animals and birds. Several universities, including the University of Tennessee, Texas State, Southern Illinois University, Colorado Mesa, and the University of South Florida, have body farms studying body decomposition.
Finally, there appears to be no end to how you can manage the ashes or bone fragments that result from many processes of disposition. Of course, you can bury them and keep them in an urn, but you can also have them compressed into a diamond or turned into a vinyl record. You can have them stuffed into fireworks and shot into the sky. You can put them in a concrete container and lower them into the ocean as part of new reef construction. Ashes can be turned into glass paperweights, hourglasses, or golf balls. They can be incorporated into necklaces, rings, pendants, or lockets. They can be mixed in ink to create a tattoo. As the baby boom moves into the final stages of life, we may find more creative ways to manage the disposition of the body and use the ashes.