The ‘green death’ movement: Scientific advances give more eco-friendly funeral options
Each year in the United States, more than 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted by a surprising group of people: the dead. With more than half of Americans choosing to be cremated upon their death, the result is the carbon emissions equivalent to the energy used by 42,532 homes in a year. It is an upward trend, with the cremation rate projected to reach 78% in the next 20 years.
Traditional burials, studies show, are even worse for the planet. More than 4 million gallons of embalming fluids are released into the ground each year, and 20 million board feet of hardwood is used annually for caskets.
These long-accepted body disposal processes are leaving behind more than just grieving relatives, and people are taking note.
Led by those determined to make their last act on the planet a less toxic one, a green death movement is slowly gaining momentum across the country. Studies show that most Americans view the protection of the environment as a top priority, and cities are struggling to make space in graveyards to accommodate the more than 70 million baby boomers expected to die in the coming decades. While most Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths favor burial, and Hindus and Buddhists favor cremation, church attendance in the United States has reached an all-time low, with 22% of Americans identifying as unaffiliated with any religion.
Eco-friendly options have grown to include burial without the toxins and cremation that uses water instead of fire—and there are more options on the horizon. Later this year, a Washington law legalizing the composting of human bodies will take effect, a move that Colorado and California are seeking to replicate.
These alternatives for body disposal are shaking up the $21 billion funeral industry, one that isn’t particularly known for embracing change.
Until the end of the 19th century, when someone died the body was cared for by family members. Embalming, the cornerstone of the funeral industry, was legitimized in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln’s body was embalmed and displayed for weeks after his death, according to Gary Laderman, Emory University professor and author of two books on the history of the funeral industry. By the beginning of the 20th century, the business was flourishing, with professional undertakers handling arrangements for the deceased.
Over the years, the funeral industry grew to include cushions installed in varnished caskets and grave sites lined with concrete, and with that growth came a bad reputation. The sheer idea of having to make a financial transaction and worry about being upsold during what may amount to the most upending moment of your life is reason enough for some to take issue.
“Funeral directors were made into death merchants,” said Joe Sehee, cofounder of the Green Burial Council. “I think the industry has contributed to a problem that we don’t talk a lot about, which is complicated grief.”
When Sehee was contemplating the idea for conservation burial, a burial that works to conserve the environment, he didn’t think the idea would catch on unless there were ecological standards that consumers could trust. Something, he said, needed to combat the “greenwashing,” or deceptive eco-friendly marketing, that had become pervasive.
“We really need to leverage the marketplace to help heal the planet,” Sehee said.
He got to work, collaborating with environmental leaders and death care providers to create a set of standards for funeral homes, manufacturers, and cemeteries that strip away the environmentally cringeworthy components of traditional burial practices. In 2005 he founded the Green Burial Council, creating an independent third-party standard-bearer. The council offers three certification classifications—hybrid, green, and conservation—all of which prohibit embalming and concrete grave liners as well as require burial containers be made from biodegradable material.
The green burial standards also invite mourning loved ones to participate in the body disposal process, something that has gone by the wayside in traditional burial over the years.
“There’s a distancing from death that a lot of people are tired of,” said Suzanne Kelly, author of Greening Death. “The green burial movement in many ways isn’t just about the environment; it’s about bringing people back into the fold of our death practices.”
Today there are 260 green burial cemeteries across the country, more than half of which opened in the past seven years, said Lee Webster, director of the Green Burial Council. Green burial plots in New Hampshire cost as little as $400, while plots in New York can reach prices of $18,000, she said. According to Everplan.com, the average cost of a traditional burial plot is between $1,500 and $2,500.
Another death care alternative that has gained some traction is alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation. The process works similarly to traditional cremation, though instead of destroying organic carbon-based material with fire, it dissolves it in a mixture of water, alkaline chemicals, and heat. Both processes leave behind bone, which is then pulverized into a powder commonly referred to as ashes. Water cremation, however, does not involve combustion, so it does not result in air pollutants. Bio-Response Solutions, a U.S. company that makes water cremation equipment, claims the process saves 90% of the energy of flame cremation and leaves one-tenth of the carbon footprint.
In Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic paved the way for commercial water cremation by pushing for its legalization in 2003 so that it could be used for final disposal of its body donations. A few years later, Jason Bradshaw was looking to add a crematory to his business, Bradshaw Funeral & Cremation Services, which runs several funeral homes in the Twin Cities area. At the time, Bradshaw said, close to 70% of Minnesotans were choosing cremation.
Permit requests to add a crematory by two other other funeral home business owners, however, were voted down by his local city council.
“This was an opportunity to try something different,” Bradshaw said.
He ran focus groups and ultimately decided to invest in the alkaline hydrolysis system, which cost him about $750,000, and his company began offering the service to families in 2013. In doing so, Bradshaw’s business became one of the first funeral homes in the United States to offer this service.
“We were coming up with all of this verbiage on our own…We were never intending to be the first one,” Bradshaw said. “It’s been very interesting to be on the front edge of something, especially in an industry that doesn’t change a lot.”
Bradshaw said that the first families to opt for water cremation came in already wanting cremation for their loved ones. Mayo Clinic has a good reputation in the state, Bradshaw said, which made people feel less as if their family members were a science experiment.
“Overwhelmingly right from the beginning, it was well received. Honestly, we were a little surprised by that,” he said. “People said, ‘This just sounds better,’ whether it was from an environmental perspective or that water is just gentler than flame.”
Between 70% to 80% of his customers interested in cremation choose water cremation, Bradshaw said, and his business recently surpassed a count of 2,000 families who have chosen alkaline hydrolysis for their loved one.
Twenty states have legalized alkaline hydrolysis, whether by altering the definition of cremation or by adding a new form of death disposition to the law books. Of those states, fewer than 10 have facilities that offer the service, amounting to about 35 providers in the U.S. and Canada, Cremation Association of North America executive director Barbara Kemmis said. The price for the service is similar to that of cremation, which has a national average of $2,195, though some practitioners consider it a premium service, Kemmis said.
The low number of providers offering water cremation could be due to the fact that the process is relatively unknown. A 2019 survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association showed that only 7.5% of respondents were even aware of alkaline hydrolysis.
Another reason is that funeral directors might not see the financial benefit. The technology for water cremation, Kemmis points out, is still emerging. While Bradshaw’s water cremation system takes about four hours, lower-pressure systems can take up to 10 hours, he said. Traditional cremation, Kemmis said, takes only two to three hours.
“You’re not trading on volume,” Kemmis said. “It’s still early days for sure.”
The newest death care option introduced into the industry is natural organic reduction, a process that translates to composting a human corpse. The idea was the brainchild of Katrina Spade, who in 2013 was studying architecture and researching how to bring nature into death practices when a friend told her about livestock composting.
“I thought, well, that’s beautiful, we should do that with humans,” Spade said.
So she founded Recompose in 2017 and developed a way to speed up the composting process by cocooning a corpse with organic materials such as wood chips and alfalfa inside a vessel. Oxygen is added through aeration, which provides the perfect recipe for microbial activity. In about a month, the remains are reduced into a cubic yard of soil.
“When that happens, I can’t help but think it’s a bit of magic,” Spade said. “It continues to astound me every time.”
While creating the system, Spade teamed up with scientists at Washington State University to help determine whether composting human remains was safe. The answer was yes—it reduced pharmaceuticals by 95%, and the soil met state and federal safety requirements for human and plant life.
According to a Recompose study, natural organic reduction uses one-eighth of the energy used by cremation and saves one metric ton of carbon from entering the atmosphere. If just 10% of Americans who died in 2018 had opted for this body disposal option, the effect would be equivalent to removing 61,339 passenger vehicles from driving for a year.
Spade worked with lawmakers in the state of Washington to pave the way to allow natural organic reduction to be a legal body disposition option. Legislators had already discussed water cremation, so the groundwork for more death care options had already been laid.
The new law, which also legalizes alkaline hydrolysis, goes into effect in May, but Recompose’s facility won’t be up and running until early 2021. The company raised $4.7 million from investors over a nine-month period, and a newsletter sent out to potential customers now reaches 17,000 people.
Recompose will offer one option: $5,500 for natural organic reduction service, which includes a memorial. The national average cost for a funeral and traditional burial is $7,640.
Seattle ended up being the perfect spot for her business. With more than 42,000 cremations in 2018, Washington ranked the second-highest state for cremations per capita and also ranks among the least religious states in the country.
The only group to voice opposition to Washington lawmakers over the new body disposal options was the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church, to which 22% of the U.S. belong, only began officially allowing for cremation in 1963, though the church enacted further guidelines in 2016 to clarify that ashes should not be scattered or kept in urns, but kept in a sacred place such as a cemetery.
“It’s more about respect for the deceased, respect for the body and remains, which ties to our beliefs of resurrection,” said Mario Villanueva, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference. Christian religions believe that when Christ returns at his second coming, Christians who died will be resurrected—body, soul, and spirit.
Protestants, another Christian sect, who represent the largest religious group in the United States, have a more lenient view on resurrection and what is respectful. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said that he believes most Evangelical Protestants, who make up about 25% of the country’s population, would be open to the new death care option because the focus of their beliefs around death don’t rely on the physical remains.
“It’s not the demise of your physical body that matters; it’s the power of God in resurrection that matters,” Stetzer said. “Evangelical Protestants are really okay with any form of respectful body disposition because their focus is on resurrection, and that doesn’t mean a perfect body. If you think that, then everyone who was killed in a horrific accident is going to be in a horrific situation in heaven.”
Burial practice for Jews, the largest non-Christian religious group in America, is already “90% green burial,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, the chair for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Though they still use concrete liners, Jewish burials forbid embalming, and tradition mandates a 100% biodegradable shroud and coffin, Dobb said.
“The coffin is classically called the plain pine box, and the beautiful thing about the plain pine box is it is simultaneously socially just and ecologically sustainable,” he said. “We are supposed to return to the earth from which we came.”
Other body disposition options, Dobb said, aren’t as acceptable in the Jewish faith because they don’t involve immediate placement of the body in the ground.
Beyond faith-based concerns, there is also some skepticism about the viability of a natural organic reduction business.
David Nixon, who for more than 40 years has run a funeral home consulting business with clients across the country, has questions about whether the demand is really there.
“It has to be heavily promoted for consumers to really take notice to do something different,” Nixon said. “Unless they catch the attention of the existing network of funeral directors, it’s going to be a real uphill battle.”
Introducing something new is difficult in any business, but especially so in the death care industry, Nixon said. The industry, Nixon said, is made up of a small, tight-knit community that is reluctant to change. Those who work in death care tend to lead the customers, Nixon said, and families tend to go back to the same funeral homes when deaths occur.
“Funerals are unsettling, and [the bereaved] return to familiar surroundings,” Nixon said. “Reluctance to change by death care [business owners] and consumers makes real change very challenging.”
Recompose is a public benefit corporation, so its investors, a mix of individuals, investor groups, and other funds, make a minimum investment of $100,000 and are what Spade calls “heart-aligned” investors. They believe in the company’s long-term mission to change the landscape of death care and understand that the business’s growth, and thus their returns, may be slow.
Along with getting the Seattle facility up and running, Spade is also working to create a vessel system that can be licensed out to businesses across the country. But first the laws have to change in each state to allow for the new body disposal process. Washington’s law goes into effect this year, and lawmakers in Colorado introduced a similar bill in January. The following month, California followed suit.
“I want to be a tree,” California assemblymember Cristina Garcia said. She even knows which type: a dark plum fruit tree.
Maintaining good air quality and being a good steward of the environment are key issues for Garcia, so sponsoring the bill will allow her to continue that legacy into the afterlife and for others to do so as well. She believes that demand for natural organic reduction will increase as more Californians learn about it.
“My job is to give people options,” she said. “There will be plenty of people that say this is not for them. You’re still going to have a lot of people who follow the tradition. This is going to make the (death care) industry rethink their business, but there’s space for that.”
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