Memorial Day weekend is a wonderful time to reconnect with family and remember those who have served our nation. This year I was able to go down to the small Southern town my family has lived in for about seven generations (excepting me, the token Yankee) and soak in all the sunshine, home-cooking, and fantastic tales of my ancestors’ antics. But as I helped my grandmother and aunts prepare flowers for graves, our conversation inevitably shifted to the more somber topic of funerals and burial arrangements.
While I’m actually rather partial to weathered old stone markers under shady pine groves, there are a lot of interesting alternatives these days for people who want their body to keep contributing to environmental sustainability after they are gone.
Instead of lying under a tree, you could be the tree. Fast Company featured a piece on Capsula Mundi, a biodegradable pod that holds a body. Through decomposition, the burial capsule slowly nurtures a tree chosen by the deceased and planted above. The idea is to grow forests instead of cemeteries. Similarly, the Urban Death Project is exploring composting humans. A variety of emotional and legal obstacles would have to be overcome, but composting offers a more economic and space efficient practice, addressing some of the problems caused by massive urbanization. The project recognizes that efficiency cannot come at the expense of respect. Ritual and symbolism remain crucial for mourners and so incorporates a “laying in” ceremony.
Cultural and religious practices associated with death are powerful, but by no means immune to adaptation. In fact, the traditional American burials which embalm the body really only date back to the Civil War when families needed more time to transport bodies home from distant battlefields. They are hardly a natural or ancient burial practices. Embalming fluid, containing carcinogenic formaldehyde, and metal or concrete burial vaults cause environmental problems in addition to the spatial and financial difficulties of traditional burials. Even cremation is problematic as it releases greenhouse gases. The natural burial movement not only seeks more environmentally sustainable burial practices, but propose a means of connecting people with nature through death. Furthermore, many of these initiatives seek to give back to modern society as well, by contributing to parks or gardens.
Although death and burial remain somewhat taboo topics, there are a lot of options being developed to help people make final decisions that reflect their priorities. Death comes to us all, but there’s plenty of room to think about how we approach it.