We’ve made innovations in how we live, but what about how we're laid to rest? With the ever increasing environmental toll caused by traditional funerals, the growing modern burial movement seeks to find simpler, more graceful ways of returning to the earth; burying unembalmed bodies in biodegradable coffins or shrouds, putting QR codes on headstones, creating facilities for human composting in city centers.
As Caitlin Doughty, funeral director and founder of The Order of the Good Death, told Hopes&Fears, “There’s a large segment of the public that doesn't understand why they can’t just be buried under a tree. Not only for the sake of simplicity and thrift but because there is a yearning for a return to nature. These aren’t necessarily people who even know that they’re part of the alternative funeral movement. But because of what they believe and want for their bodies, they effectively are.”
Natural burials were standard affairs in the U.S. before the Civil War—when embalming became necessary to preserve bodies of soldiers who died far from home—and there’s growing interest to cycle back to those sacred rites today. “When you really accept that your body is made up of atoms that you have to effectively give back at the end of your life, it radically changes your entire perspective,” said Doughty.
Changes are happening in traditional cemeteries, too, with some adapting portions of their acreage to accommodate green burial grounds, while others are accepting Quick Response, or QR, code on tombstones. As cremation rates rise, cemeteries are building crematorium spaces filled with niches for urns. Meanwhile, private companies are investing in unconventional ways to use ashes after they are cremated.
Options are a good thing, Katrina Spade, founder of the Urban Death Project, explained to Hopes&Fears. “People often say, ‘just cremate me, I don’t want to make a fuss.’ But I think our deaths are a big deal. I think death should be fussed over.”
Here are just some of the ways the death industry is moving into the next century.
Green burials are the minimalist, eco-conscious burials of the future, but emerging from a history deeply rooted in the past. The dead are wrapped in cloth shrouds or placed in simple coffins made from natural materials like cardboard or pine and buried in a green space, such as a rural or woodland area. “It turns a gruesome procedure into something more natural and celebratory,” explained Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.
He describes the process as, “returning a body into the earth, where it’s allowed to degrade naturally, renourish soil, push up a tree, rejoin a natural cycle of life.” And, green funerals are much cheaper, with most costing in the low thousands, whereas the median cost for a funeral requiring a vault comes in at over $8,000. According to Harris, “the current cemetery functions less as a resting ground for the dead than a landfill of non-biodegradable and sometimes hazardous materials.”
In a conventional ten-acre burial plot, there’s enough wood to rebuild 40 homes, and enough toxic embalming solution to fill a small backyard swimming pool. The amount of concrete used in the United States funerary industry can create a highway running halfway across the country; the amount of metal used in American caskets is enough to completely rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge every year.
People take funerary arrangements for granted, Harris explained. They often don’t realize, for example, that a body does not have to be embalmed, or that you don’t have to go through a funeral home. “The great thing about natural burial is that just like compost, it happens. It’s very simple,” he went on. “It’s not just an eco-phenomenon for Hybrid driving enthusiasts. It’s a form of burial that speaks to good old fashioned American values: simplicity, thrift, love of family, a desire to do it yourself.”
The funeral services market at a glance
The number of funeral homes in the United States in 2004
The number of funeral homes in the United States in 2015
of funeral homes in the US are privately owned by families or individuals
are owned by
people were employed by funeral homes, cemeteries, crematories, and other funeral services in 2012
The approximate revenue of the funeral industry in 2012
Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first green cemetery in the U.S, opened in 1998. The original site stretched a quarter-mile along a creek in South Carolina and consisted of 33 acres of protected woodlands.
Funeral photos from the preserve show a different ritual of death. Not polished wood, stiff faces and black suits, but dirt paths through pine forests, graves surrounded by wilderness, flower petals spread over the fresh, raw earth. Bodies are wrapped in floral shrouds or placed in unembellished wood caskets.
The mourners come dressed for the outdoors, in jeans, dresses, flannel and tie dye. Some bring acoustic guitars. Some smile brightly and make silly faces. Burials happen through the seasons: in freshly green spring, in the rich redness of autumn, in barren winter or the thick of summer.
Harris sees green cemeteries as more than just graveyards. “These become places of life, not just places of death,” he said. Cemeteries become reserves where people can picnic, stroll, and commune with nature. The flat fieldstone grave markers (upright ones are not allowed) are covered with leaves and pine needles. “They blend so seamlessly with the landscape, you can walk through Ramsey Creek and never realize you’re in a cemetery,” Harris said.
The site will remain protected regardless of what happens to Memorial Ecosystems, the funeral service parent company, ensuring that the burial plots remain undisturbed. For Harris, green burials are the future. “We’re at the start of a movement,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just hyperbole—green burial will change burial practices in our lifetime.”
Seven years ago, when Harris first wrote Grave Matters, there were about half-a-dozen green cemeteries in the U.S. Now, there are over 200, many of which are smaller areas in extant cemeteries. He’s also seen a rise of the “old-fashioned coffin shops,” merchants on Main Street selling funeral wares. The Green Burial Council certifies funeral directors for green burials, and there’s growing attention paid to the end of life care.
According to Harris, it’s about time. “When you look at what our modern burial methods do, with the embalming and gussying up of the corpse so it looks like somebody asleep instead of somebody actually deceased... We spend much of our time denying death,” he said. “But now we’re finally having this conversation.”
Funeral costs in the United States, itemized
the median cost for an adult funeral with a casket in 2012
That cost if a vault is included
Here’s how those numbers break down
Nondeclinable basic services fee
Removal and transfer of the remains to a funeral home
Other preparation of the body
Use of facilities and staff for viewing
Use of facilities and staff for the funeral ceremony
Car or van service
Basic memorial printed package (memorial cards, register book, etc.)
For Spade, the organic process of death and decay is equally important, but it can occur in a different landscape: the metropolis.
The architect has a vision for a library branch system of Urban Death Project facilities across city spaces, buildings where bodies are composted, then restored to the public in the form of memorial gardens and green spaces.
Each UDP building will have a three-story vault at its center to process the bodies. Mourners carry the deceased up a circular ramp to the top floor and complete a ceremonial laying of the body in a space called “the core,” which can hold up to 30 corpses at a time.
A body is surrounded by woodchips and sawdust, and as it decomposes, it moves down the core. Finally, the remaining materials are screened, cured, and fill up what Spade estimates to be a three-foot cube. The resulting organic matter can be used as fertilizer for the soil. Loved ones can use the compost to plant a tree in their own backyard, contribute it to the onsite memorial garden, or distribute it to a city park.
Turning corpes into compost allows them to complete the cycle from life to death and back again. “To decompose naturally is about the most respectful thing you can do for a person after they’ve died,” Spade says. Even in traditional burials, with the heavy defenses of embalming fluids and complex caskets, bodies still decompose.
The Urban Death Project is a compost-based renewal system. At the heart of the project is a three-story core, within which bodies and high-carbon materials are placed.
Spade sees current funerary practices as “a status quo we’ve created” over time. They’re not meaningful—spiritually or culturally, and are toxic to the environment. “People are starting to question things and figure out that they can and should be reframed,” she said.
Spade finished a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the UDP in early May, raising about $90,000 from over 1,200 backers all over the world. The UDP is also collaborating with students from Wake Forest University School of Law to help work out the legalities of human composting. Currently, death care laws vary by state, with most states permitting burials, cremations and donations to science.
This August, Spade will see the results of UDP’s first human composting experiment in Western Carolina. “We’re going to uncover the matter—I don’t even really want to call it bodily, because at some point our bodies transform into other material,” Spade said.
Recently, Spade and her team uncovered the bodies, tested the soil, and began planning a design system for actual UDP facilities. The next stage is to build a small prototype of what the system might look like. The initial trial is a more simplified version of the UDP process: “simply a body, laid with woodchips, with more woodchips on top, relying on natural aeration.” It takes four to six weeks for bodies to decompose, which is a longer than the time frame Spade imagines for the UDP.
In the future, Spade hopes to see a UDP facility in almost every neighborhood of every city, each with its own individual design and character: “Part funeral home, part park, part museum and part secular sacred space.” Each building would also be a sanctuary for the living to contemplate the dead.
“I envision people going on their lunch break, even if they haven’t lost someone, and just sitting there and being confronted with this idea that we’re all part of nature in the end,” Spade said. “There’s something powerful to me about that.”
Change is seeping into the soils of traditional cemeteries, too. Some are turning into hybrid institutions, providing zones for green burials. Some host spaces for cremated remains, and others yet are bringing what has always traditionally been an earthbound industry into the digital realm.
Companies like Quiring can add QR code to new or existing tombstones. The barcodes link to an online profile “similar to a personal Facebook page,” which features a memorial website with information uploaded by the family, such as an obituary and the personal history of the deceased—as well as ways to share that information on social media.
The QR code stands out on granite, a jarring modern incursion on a long historical tradition. The idea is that loved ones will be able to connect with the story of the dead from afar, and long after his or her death. Headstones get worn away with time, but digital records are forever—or, at least, as long as the data is safe, and the technology still relevant.
The historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York houses multiple, modern crematory spaces. The Tranquility Garden, its most recent addition, is a light-filled, zen-like space, surrounded by bamboo plants, cherry trees and grass. There are meditation areas, a fountain, a koi pond, and plenty of space and quiet to contemplate the dead. The building is composed of “the elements of nature itself”: stone, wood, water and metal, and like the cemetery itself, it’s a surprisingly lovely place to spend an afternoon.
By the end of 2015, cremation rates are expected to outnumber burial rates for the first time. By 2030, the National Funeral Directors Association estimates cremation rates will be over 70%. The growth of cremation comes from practical concerns for cost and environment, of course, but it might also have something to do with all the bizarre things you can do with your ashes afterwards. According to Doughty, that’s a good thing. “There’s no such thing as a strange burial method,” she said. “We’ve been doing weird and wonderful things with our dead bodies since the beginning of human history.”
Death and mortality
in the United States
The number of deaths in 2012
The death rate per 100,000 population
The average life expectancy
The infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births
The mortality rate per 100,000 Americans in 1935
The MORTALITY RATE per 100,000 Americans in 2010 (a 60% change)
Among the weird things you can do with your ashes is blasting them into the cosmos. Services like Celetis will fly a small, sealed capsule of your remains into space. They’re “symbolic” portions that weigh between one to seven grams, placed aboard the Celestis spacecraft, which is attached to a rocket (Families and loved ones can watch the launch unfold.)
The first private space burial took off in 1997, and carried the cremated remains of 24 people, including the ashes of psychologist, philosopher and LSD aficionado Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (actually Roddenberry’s second trip to space: some of his ashes traveled aboard NASA’s Columbia space shuttle in 1992), a space physicist and a rocket scientist, to an altitude of 38,000 feet.
The length of the orbits ranges from five weeks to several hundred years. The spacecrafts are attached to the rocket until it reenters and becomes consumed by the Earth’s atmosphere, “blazing like a shooting star in final tribute to the passengers aboard.” A lift into space (subsequent return to earth included) will run you $1,295, while launching the remains to the moon or deep space starts at $12,500.
If you’d prefer to stay earthbound in the afterlife, you can mix your ashes with concrete to create an artificial marine reef. Eternal Reef will create the mixture and place it into a mold, which is cured and finished overnight. Survivors get a chance to view the reef, engrave a bronze memorial plaque and leave any last traces on the memorial. Then it’s out to sea for the reef’s placement, and a final goodbye. The constructed Reef Balls simulate natural reef structures. Fish will congregate and plants will grow, allowing it to become a permanent fixture of the undersea ecology. The simplest reef cast, with no family involvement, costs $2,495, while a large marine reef fixture that weighs up to 4000 pounds costs $6,995 and can accommodate four sets of remains.
If you can’t bear to part with a deceased love one, you can also turn a portion of his or her remains into a diamond that will, well, last forever. LifeGem will create jewels in a vast variety of colors and shapes from cremated ashes—or, a Victorian-style lock of hair. The company extracts and purifies carbon from the remains until it is converted to graphite. The graphite goes into a diamond press, which applies heat and pressure to generate raw diamond stones. Finally, diamond cutters facet the stone. Aside from a traditional colorless diamond, they also come in red, green, yellow or blue. Prices go from $2500 to $20,000.
And, if you’re the poetic type, you can always remind others of their imminent mortality. Get a portion of your cremains made into an hourglass by In the Light Urns. Sadly (fittingly?), these curvaceous vessels can’t keep exact time because of the consistency of their insides. They can, however, broadcast to everyone else that their days are numbered too. Urns go for $330. Or, you can opt for a wearable silver necklace filled with ashes for just $100.
The rising popularity of cremation in the United States
Of the dead were cremated in 1998
Of people preferred cremation as a method of disposition in 2013
The estimated percent of cremations by 2020
The percentage of people cremated in Nevada, the state with the highest rate of cremation, in 2012
The percentage of people cremated in West Virgina, the state with the lowest rate of cremation, in 2012
The percentage by which the number of people cremated increased between 2008 and 2013
The annual growth rate in cremations from 2008 and 2013
Not ready to die, and very wealthy? Take a page from William Gibson’s sci-fi masterpiece Neuromancer, and consider investing your capital in cryonics, or the preservation of your body with the hopes that one day, technology will allow your life to be restored. Alcor, a “life extension foundation” based out of Arizona, will preserve your entire body for $200,000. Or, use an ice-free “vitrification” process to save just the head for $80,000. There’s no guarantee that the you’ll be revived in the future. But if recovery does work, cryonics patients “will have been unconscious, not dead.”