The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

October 27, 2010

Green Burial: Like Composting Food Waste, and Your Body is the Food.

This post might creep some of you out.  But with Halloween coming, the members of the Green Moms Carnival decided to do something a little macabre and write about green funerals.  I’m okay with that.  While it’s hard to talk about death and what happens to us after we die,  I do find myself thinking about it a lot as I’m walking home from BART late at night, glancing around furtively to make sure no one’s following me.  Will this be my last walk home?  What haven’t I finished? Have I done enough so far? And what will happen to this body I carry around once I’m not in control of it anymore?  I don’t want my final act to contradict my life’s work.

Traditional Cemetery = Landfill

traditional cemeteryBy equating a cemetery with a landfill, I’m not trying to be disrespectful here. All my friends and family who have passed on are buried in traditional cemeteries. But as in a landfill where organic matter like food scraps, yard trimmings, and paper are sealed up in plastic trash bags and preserved under ground, in a traditional cemetery human bodies are preserved from decomposing as well.  Not only are the bodies pumped full of formaldehyde, but the casket itself is protected from moisture and pressure inside a strong burial vault in the ground. Burial vaults can be made from cement (which requires tremendous amounts of energy to produce and pollutes the air), but increasingly they are made of  strong plastic.

Take a look at this video demo of a super strong Eonian plastic burial vault, and then answer the question: Why?

And the burial vault is not the only plastic used in to preserve the remains.   While infant and pet caskets have been made from plastic for a long time, a new Greenville, Michigan company has developed a line of adult-sized plastic caskets, which are less expensive than wood.  “Since the caskets are made with injection-molded plastic, they won’t rust and will outlast wood or metal caskets.”

Because the winner is the one whose corpse lasts the longest, right?

I’m being a little snarky here, but I do understand the drive to preserve the body.  It’s hard to imagine not being around.  It’s hard to think about our loved ones decomposing.  It’s crappy to think of giving up control to the earth and the elements.  While we’re alive, we work so hard to keep it together, right?  But our denial of death is not healthy for us or the planet when you think about the plastic and chemicals leaching into the earth in our attempt to stave off the inevitable.  Ironic, isn’t it?

Cremation = Incineration

This one is obvious.  Cremation involves some of the same concerns as waste incineration.  Massive amounts of energy used, toxic emissions from mercury and other substances released in the burning process, and simply, the waste of organic material that could have been returned to the earth as nutrients.  I’m talking about our bodies.  In contrast to some of the alternatives I’ll talk about next, cremation is a pretty wasteful process.

Donation = Recycling

When I die, I want my body to be used for as much good as possible.  Yes, I’m an organ donor.  But please don’t come take my liver until I’m dead.

There are all kinds of other ways my body could be useful, according to Mary Roach in her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I read years ago and loved. I could help medical students practice their techniques. I could be tossed out of airplanes or used as a crash test dummy. I do not want to be used for ballistics tests, thank you. And I’m not sure about the chemicals used to preserve bodies donated to science. One of the green moms has a post in the carnival on the topic. I’m looking forward to learning more.

Green Burial = Composting

Freeze-Drying: Back when I read Mary Roach’s book, I was intrigued by a process being developed by Susanne Wiigh-Mà¤sak’s Swedish company Promessa, whereby a body is freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen and then shattered, basically breaking into dust. At that point, it can be buried in a compostable box in a shallow grave. The freeze drying helps break down the body so that it can compost quickly. And burial in a shallow grave allows oxygen and other elements to play their part in the composting process.  But as you can imagine, this process is not yet available in the U.S.

burial shroudBurial Shroud: I’m also intrigued by the idea of the burial shroud. Yes, there are a growing number of green casket makers using materials like paper pulp, cardboard, banana leaf, willow, bamboo, and a whole host of other biodegradable materials, but I like the simplicity of a simple piece of cloth. The less material to break down, the better.

And whether I’m buried in a casket or a shroud, I want everything removed from my body (jewelry, outerwear, dentalware, etc) that is not also biodegradable. The earth doesn’t need those things and neither will I. I promise.

Green Cemetery: It’s also important to me to find a cemetery whose purpose is to protect and preserve the land rather than cramming it full of as many bulky, chemically coffins as possible. Browsing last night, I found one right across the bay from me in Mill Valley. According to the web site, natural burial at Forever Fernwood “uses no toxic embalming fluids, no vault, and only a biodegradable casket or burial shroud. Natural rocks, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees serve as markers, and each grave is locatable via Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.”

I’m not sure how much it costs to be buried in a green cemetery vs. a traditional one, but I like what the Natural Burial Coop has to say:

What makes a natural burial different from a financial perspective is that the costs are better allocated, with money carrying on the legacy of the deceased by protecting green space instead of going towards the mark-up on expensive, unnecessary consumption.

So even if the plot costs more, the money is being shifted from preserving the body and the casket to preserving the land in which the body rests. I like that idea.

Find Green Burial Providers

There are several web sites you can use to research green burial providers of funeral services, cemeteries, and products. The Green Burial Council has a list.

My Big Party

Here are a few more notes — in case anyone involved in my personal affairs is reading this post — about what I want on the day of my funeral. It should be a party. There should be karaoke like crazy and lots of food. The food will be your favorite, whatever that happens to be. I won’t be there, so eat all the freakin’ cilantro and onions you want. Cry or don’t cry. Laugh or don’t laugh. Whatever it takes is fine. It’s so hard to think about not being there and sharing in the fun. I know someone who threw his own wake before he died for just that reason.

Oh, and make sure someone writes a blog post and lets my readers know what happened so I don’t just disappear from cyberspace with no explanation. That’s one of my biggest worries about dying unexpectedly.


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12 years ago

Donating one’s body is a very generous act, but be careful to choose an institution that is not in it for profit. It sounds macabre, but some companies will harvest certain tissues and sell them for use in bone grafts and other medical products – a very profitable business. Working with a medical school is a safer option.

Cremation is becoming greener, with better emission controls and eco-friendly urns in bamboo, paper, corn starch and other natural materials. It’s considered greener than traditional burial, but obviously it’s no match for a true green burial. Unfortunately, green cemeteries are still rare in the U.S.

Regina Sandler-Philliips
12 years ago

Dear Beth,

Thank you for raising these issues in the context of environmental responsibility.

I would like to suggest one change to your otherwise excellent rubric of “TRADITIONAL BURIAL = LANDFILL.CREMATION = INCINERATION. DONATION = RECYCLING. GREEN BURIAL = COMPOSTING.

As indicated in previous comments, the use of formaldehyde for embalming
and the use of expensive, non-biodegradable “caskets” are not really “traditional” in the broader perspective of human history. After all, “to dust you shall return” is very ancient language. A more accurate reference to modern practices would be “conventional burial.”

Also “conventional” today are well-intentioned efforts to party away the natural pain of loss. At best, the party approach tends to pile up more plastic and environmental waste. At worst, it tends to distort the bereavement process, in a culture where many feel the need to escape from uncomfortable feelings–and apologize for tears. Healing through grief takes time, and a real celebration of life does not deny this essential truth.

As a burial fellowship activist, I watch over and care for the bodies of the dead in my community, and I educate others to participate as well. Facing death in this intimate way, I have witnessed–again and again–how these sacred practices can bring extraordinary consolation and healing to a broken world. I know that I can celebrate more fully and joyfully with those who also share my grief in times of loss.

Again, thank you for opening this conversation, which needs to be sustained in discussing our funeral plans with those we love.

Regina Sandler-Phillips

12 years ago

I’m going GREEN! years ago, i wrote a short eulogy… “no box, no rocks, plant me beneath a redwood tree” … and willed all that i leave behind to people who live to make the earth a greener, more friendly place. Thanks for the encouraging story.

geoff chin
12 years ago

I had recently started to look into the green burial cemetery in Mill Valley. I stalled after learning that the owner was involved in some legal issues which made me wonder if the whole set-up at Fernwood was a scam or not. Given the greenness we feel in the Bay Area, such a place would seem like a perfect fit…if it were the real deal. If you learn anything more about it would you please post some answers? Though I should probably just try and go pay them a visit myself, doing so is not very high on my list of things to do. Life gets in the way.

Michelle Cassar
12 years ago

Great discussing this Beth. I’ve already explained to my boyfriend when I go I want a lemon tree planted on what is left of me. (I’m also a donor. Though not sure I fancy the idea of being hurled out of a plane?!) That way I can be used in hummus & as cleaning products! & of course they are yellow & look lovely.

But maybe I should write it down, just in case I pop of earlier than I’d like to go. & end up in a “posh” box…. a true nightmare!

Melanie Jade
12 years ago

I love this post, Beth. I’ve never been a fan of burials, but I never quite thought of it as a landfill. So true. This is a very thoughtful and informative post (as always). Thank you for taking the time to write it and let us all know about eco-friendly burial options.

12 years ago

Yeah, I’ve always found Western burial customs to be strange. This is essentially how Muslims bury their dead. They wash them, wrap them in cloth, and bury them within 2 days (to avoid having a decomposing body on your hands). No chemicals, no boxes, no plastics.

12 years ago

A couple of points:

Having read too much Edgar Allan Poe, I’m really concerned about premature burial. So were a lot of people in the 1800’s, because they didn’t have EKGs or other ways of telling if people were really dead. So there were all sorts of inventions, such as bells that went over the grave with a string down into the coffin, so that if people were just comatose and woke up, they could signal. The occasional misburial of a still-living person may also have helped give rise to legends of vampires.

I’m also thinking of how in Huxley’s “Brave New World”, the dead are liquified and vaporized and the valuable minerals in their bodies recovered. When one character for some reason isn’t disposed of in this way, another character laments that he is “wasting his phosphorus”.

Ancient Zoroastrians exposed the dead in “Towers of Silence”, to be eaten by the birds. Their modern descendants, the Parsis of India, still do this. Unfortunately, most of the vultures in India have been killed off, so this is not working too well.

I also want my body to go for research when I die. But I would like my skull to be extracted first, so that at my memorial service, someone can hold it up and say, “Alas, poor Ridley! I knew him! A fellow of infinite jest! Of most excellent fancy…Where are all your jests now?”

OK, actually, I want to be fed to the zombies. Or better, my cats. Like the dying Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors”, who wants to be fed to the plant, to be part of it.

When I die, bury me low
So I can hear the petroleum flow
It’s the sweetest sound I ever will know
The rolling hills of New Jersey. (See, I want the petroleum still to be in the ground, not having been taken out to make plastic.)

12 years ago

Great idea to discuss this on halloween. Yeah, about the concrete seal around the casket – I always thought that was to prevent groundwater contamination. Is the formadehyde just so that the body will still be presentable at a wake? Yeah, a deceased relative doesn’t need to be preserved like a collectable doll… that’s for sure. I think there is something beautiful about being returned to the earth. Although, with our large population – I wonder if we can support so many bodies in the ground decomposing without groundwater contamination. (?) Not a statement… just a question…

12 years ago

Where i farm, my landlords’ mother is burried. she was a peace activist & environmentally minded lady. she was the coolest grandma i’ve ever met. they burried her in a simple box her family made. her grave is marked with stones & flowers. this tells me 2 things. these people care for their land- they burried their loved one there & talk about walking the walk! I always say hi to grandma & tell her I hope she is happy w/ how I am farming. It’s like our farm has a guardian angel. I like the idea of having your loved one physically near to remind you of your heritage & that you are responsible for passing on the land to the next generation. I told my dad about Mrs. T & he’s really into the idea. You spend your life caring for the land, you want to be apart of it afterwards.

I’ve always said, chunk my ass in a cardboard box, shove me in a holler, and throw the biggest party the county’s ever seen. make sure the food is local, the music’s good, & the booze is plentiful. tell stories but don’t be sad. make donations to causes i support & take care of my animals. agriculture is the 2nd most dangerous occupation (behind mining), so it’s something to think about…

Lynn from
12 years ago

Beth, great post! I have to say, I had never considered cremation to be anything other than a more environmentally friendly practice than traditional burial, so your post opened my eyes to that!

As you can probably guess from my post, I’d love to be buried in Bermuda, but not sure that will be an option! Also, I updated my post with some gorgeous pix – thanks for your comment and go check out the pix! :)

12 years ago

Very informative post. I want to leave no trace behind except in the hearts of my loved ones. But since I am an Orthodox Christian I will be buried (more than likely) in that way. Eastern Orthodox Christians follow with the Jewish way of burial also. Simple wooden box, baptismal garment, no embalming, returned to the earth.

But personally, I have claustrophobia. And I’ve always feared that maybe, by some remote chance, I just might not be dead… just yet… only to wake up in total blackness trapped in a box.

And now I am learning of so many other ways that not only would prevent that from happening, but allow me to “leave not a trace” as is my wish. You see I don’t fear death, I fear being alive in a box underground.

Perhaps someday it will be required to bury loved ones in the most simplistic way, or some other ‘green’ way. To me the most creepy thought of all is the millions of bodies that are pocketed in the earth and will be so for a very long time.

Thank you for sharing all these options!

Ms. Adventuress
12 years ago

Wonderful post. I love this stuff. I thought my burial preference was green before, but I had no idea all these other options were happening. Thanks for enlightening us and for directing us to more resources. Love it!

12 years ago

Wow..thanks for doing your research…something we don’t often want to think about but if we want to try to “die like we live” pre planning is opened up a lot of ideas and thoughts about different ways to look at the always in a most enjoyable way..even on a topic as goulish as this one! Thanks Beth..Happy Halloween

12 years ago

great post!

John Costigane
12 years ago

Hi Beth,

Landfill/EfW Incineration, both unwanted aspects of everyday living, also apply beyond life, as mentioned earlier. Composting, whether at home, locally or in industry, can replace whole categories of current waste arisings. Why not use the process to speed the return of the deceased to the natural cycle?

The Swedish system is fine but expensive to run while a suitable composting system would require no such extreme processing. The Bokashi, yeast based system, allows all food sourced tissues to be prepared for composting in a simple sealed bucket after which normal home composting can be employed.

This small scale approach could be adapted, with some ingenuity, to a larger situation for the deceased. Such a system is a complete change from today but could end the setting aside of needed land, the waste of burning and the delayed decomposition described earlier.

Admittedly, this is a challenge to present day thinking but where more and more people are looking for Green funerals this system could be one approach.

Pamela Melcher
12 years ago


12 years ago

Great topic and one I’ve wondered about in the past. Laura beat me to the Jewish perspective but I’d like to add to that. Jewish burial practices have changed over time. In ancient times, there were two burials: the first when the person died, and the body was meant to decompose in time for the second burial. At the second, the bones were exhumed and rearranged in a particular pattern — this is why ancient graves in Israel seem tiny.

I always thought this seemed sensible, as it takes up less space. I’ve also read about people being buried vertically instead of horizontally to save space.

Lots of food for thought.

12 years ago

I was just listening to a radio show where a guy cracked a joke about a butt plug (ok, I didn’t say it was a good radio show), and this young girl on the show asked what a butt plug was, so he explained that they’re used to keep bodies from leaking after autopsies. he went on to say that they remove the organs and put them back in in plastic bags. I’ve been thinking about what coffins are made of and how they’re sure to have some plastic in them (like the fabric or stuffing) and are made to delay decaying, but I hadn’t even considered the embalming process. it makes me want to make a will to specify my preferred method of burial, but that’s a lot to think about, and like you said, that’s something you have little control over since you wouldn’t be around to oversee it. I’ve thought about the Jewish method, as Laura described, and how I’d almost prefer cremation since the thought of my body rotting tends to creep me out (even though I believe in the whole process of death and decay fueling life), but as you mention, cremation is not very good for the environment. the freeze-dry method seems like a good alternative, but what kind of impact does the process of attaining the liquid nitrogen have? I’ve also thought about donating organs, there’s gotta be a lot of plastic involved, but since we avoid plastic in order to preserve life, donating seems in line with that mentality. I’ve been thinking the same thing about donating blood. I’ve recently been seeing the amount of plastic waste in hospitals and it’s sort of astronomical. I want to find a green consultant to help them reduce their amount of trash. I think that’s a field that would benefit from biodegradable plastics, but I think they incinerate all their trash anyway.

thanks for posting this, it may be a taboo topic that people are squeamish about but we have to consider plastic in all factions of life.

12 years ago

Interesting topic. I have read a few articles on “green” burial option, including coffins made of molded cardboard pulp, or for those wanting to be creamated, having your ashes added to a reef ball to create habitat .

I wanted to add the Jewish perspective to all this, since it is very environmental on this topic. Traditional Jewish burial is in a simple wooden box with the person wrapped in a shroud. The body shouldn’t be embalmed or preserved in any way ). Headstones are common, but flowers aren’t used at the funeral or to mark the burial site. If a Jew visits a grave site, they leave a small rock on the headstone to show they were there. My understanding is that these practices are to allow the body to biodegrade and to return to its natural state without showings of wealth or status symbols. I really like this.

Just wanted to share!

12 years ago

first of all, holy crap i would miss you terribly even though i’ve yet to meet you so you better please never die. ok?

secondly, thank you so very much. this is one of my ocd topics and you have really helped me with what i hope is the final edit of my letter of final wishes.

my first choice has always been tibetan sky burial (but here, not in tibet).


LInda Anderson
12 years ago

Both of my parents were preserved with chemicals, sealed in a metal casket, then buried in a cement vault. Even though I was grieving when each passed away, I could not understand the benefit of this burial custom. They are not going to decay for a really long time. It’s so wasteful and weird. You are right, Beth. Our bodies should give back all the elements that we borrowed for our lifetime.

12 years ago

Beth, the whole problem boils down to the single letter word you and others use repeatedly: “I”

There is no “I” except what is in our heads. Our bodies are already indistinguishable from the natural world around us – we breathe, we defecate, our skin peels, many parasites live both inside and on our bodies.

Because there is no “I” other than a psychological state, it’s meaningless to say “I don’t want to be cremated” because the “I” is gone when one dies. Graves are good for only one thing – a marker that the bereaved can go to for comfort. Even that purpose is lost after a few decades. Go to old graveyards and you can’t even decipher the names on the headstones…all it shows is the pointless and impossible grasping for immortality driven by fear. Stop to think – should one fear something that is inevitable? No.

It makes sense to discuss what to do with a body regarding the environment, though, so your post is by no means out of line. But the thought should begin with what would be a good idea to do with all bodies, because there is nothing to distinguish “you” and “me” after death.

Fearing nothingness by a consciousness is understandable but illogical because as Epicurus said “when I am, death is not and when death is, I am not.

12 years ago

check out “tibetan sky burials”. certainly a different way to go.

12 years ago

you know we’re gonna party down and sing a few songs
But that’s gonna be aeons from nw- We need ya around to help us get the 411

Marieta Francis
12 years ago

Thanks Beth. I have to admit that i had not considered several of these options. I always enjoy your clever take on things.

12 years ago

Wonderful post and deadly delightful topic! Don’t like the idea of being packed into a plastic casket at all. I was going to be cremated, but now I want to explore the freeze dried option. My ex used to say if I pass on he was going to bury me under the big oak tree on the property. That suited me just fine. But now, well, I’ll have to get with friends to talk about what would be the best way to dispose of my done body. BTW I loved watching a couple the Monty Python u tubes, esp. the Galaxy Song. Thanks very much, for this information and I would really miss you if you suddenly stopped FPF. I look for your posts, Beth!

Anna@Green Talk
12 years ago

Beth, sometimes I think we are sisters. I want a party too when I die. I am sure with all my healthy living, I will be here a long time so I would have lived a good life. In fact, plant a few trees for me as well and throw in a couple of tomato plants and I will be happy in heaven.

Bury me in hemp, throws some of my beloved plants on me. Done.

Oh, if they have to pick the music for my party, I am kind of stuck in the 80’s. Madonna, Madonna, Madonna…

12 years ago

LOVED the book “Stiff” too!

I don’t think that the plastic casket is necessarily about preservation (didn’t watch the video so maybe I’m speaking out of my bum!), but about cost.

My Dad specifically stated “bury me in a pine box”, which translates into “buy the cheapest casket”. The mortuary refused our request for the cardboard (only used for cremation – yes, a $700 casket is/was REQUIRED for cremation), so the next LEAST expensive was $4,000 and it wasn’t even pine. The pine casket was $8,000!!

After reading “Stiff”, I too want my body donated to science, I don’t care what they do with me but I would like my toes painted before they ship me off to whatever my assignment is! Afterward, I want it cremated and turned into pink diamonds to give to my friends, with all of the jewelry inscribed, “I’ll always be with you” – which I think is hilarious and creepy!

12 years ago

I have absolutely NO problem with green burial. I won’t be there anymore, just an empty shell I once lived in, so I prefer what’s going to be best for the planet and those who have to live on it after I leave.

Thanks for outlining the options!

12 years ago

Sorry, hit the submit button too quickly!

I wanted to add that it’s really important, once we make up our minds how we want our bodies to be treated after we die, to WRITE IT DOWN. I need to take my own advice on this! Like you said in the beginning of your post, our last day could be today (yikes).

Alyssa Lee
12 years ago

It’s interesting that you posted this because I was just listening to a podcast yesterday about cremation from Stuff You Should Know (called How Stuff Works by Josh and Chuck). They touched on quite a few subjects and weighed the greenness of burial vs. cremation. Since the podcast was on cremation, they didn’t talk about these other options, but in my head I was thinking, “Is there a way I could just be buried with like some leaves and stuff?” and I made a mental note to look it up. I forgot but thanks to you, I know now! Anyway, it is a bit of a sober subject to think of you or anyone being gone… When I was little. I was scared I would die so I made a will which basically said. “Give all my toys to my sister and donate all my clothes and some (not all) of my stuffed animals.” Haha :) So I’m glad there are better options, but let’s hope it’ll be a while before this is needed. Thanks, Beth!

12 years ago

Thanks, Beth – I bet a lot of us first heard of green burial from watching Six Feet Under (no spoilers here in case there are still those out there who want to watch on DVD!). It is definitely both intriguing and difficult to think about these alternatives. I know for sure I don’t want to be pumped full of toxic chemicals when I die (after spending my life trying to avoid them!).