How To Recycle Your Body After You Die

What do you want done with your body after you die? It’s the kind of morbid question most of us try to avoid answering for as long as possible. But, a growing number of people are considering options with less of an environmental impact than traditional burial or cremation. Musician and psychiatrist Clark Wang is one of those people — and his decision to be buried in a garden in the woods of North Carolina is the subject of a new award-winning documentary, A Will for the Woods.

A traditional American burial is a complicated affair. The body of the deceased is embalmed with formaldehyde-based fluid to stave off decomposition and create a more “natural” appearance. Then, it’s often laid out for a viewing at a funeral home or church, and finally sealed in an elaborate, metal coffin. It’s estimated that about 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are buried in American cemeteries every year. Burial also involves hard-to-produce concrete grave liners or vaults, which prevent the grave from looking sunken as time passes. The Green Burial Council notes that the manufacturing and transporting of vaults requires a huge amount of energy and results in significant carbon emissions. Plus, it costs a pretty penny — between $700 and $1,000 per grave liner, and from $900 to $7,000 or more for a burial vault. Then, there’s the cemetery fee for using outside products.

A typical 10-acre conventional cemetery houses more than 20,000 tons of vault concrete and nine hundred tons of casket steel, and those things last far longer than the dead bodies they’re designed to protect (in fact, as Funerals.org notes, it’s actually a myth that burial vaults prevent the process of decay). Putrefaction of the human body sets in after two or three days, and it takes about two decades for an embalmed, buried body to fully decompose. Meanwhile, these man-made materials remain, taking up space even after their residents have disintegrated into dust.

Cremation is another option, and one that has increased in popularity — but it also carries environmental effects. A typical cremation requires 28 gallons of fuel and releases approximately 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere alongside various other greenhouse gases and vaporized chemicals such as mercury. “Funeral homes and cemeteries can make it seem like the chemical treatments, the sealed caskets, the big concrete and metal vaults...are all legal requirements,” explains mortician and death-positivity advocate Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematory. “They’re not,” she adds.
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With a green burial, the body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally, free of man-made barriers — save for a biodegradable (wooden, cardboard, or wicker) coffin or a cotton shroud. It generally takes from eight to 12 years for an unembalmed adult to decompose into a skeleton when buried six feet under normal soil and without a metal coffin. For situations that demand embalming — such as transporting a body via air travel — the Green Burial Council recommends formaldehyde-free embalming fluids; there’s one that’s made entirely of nontoxic and biodegradable essential oils. If you're thinking, I wonder if our bodies could be composted? you're not alone. As The New York Times reported this week, Katrina Spade, the 37-year-old founder of the Urban Death Project, has just been awarded an environmental fellowship to explore this possibility. 

“People always say, ‘I don’t want to be buried; we’re running out of land,’ says Doughty. “What they don’t realize is that with more conservation burial grounds opening up, that [type of burial] is saving highly endangered land,” she stresses. “The second you put a dead human body somewhere beautiful and serene, with native plants and animals, that land is protected from development. It’s the equivalent of chaining yourself to a tree in protest, post mortem.” Candace Currie, the director for planning and sustainability at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, agrees. “I think we’ll see a tremendous shift towards burial grounds as land conservation efforts,” she says, noting that’s she’s seen an overall growing interest in green burials.

An interest in conservation helped motivate Wang’s decision to have a natural burial — the choice chronicled by the documentary, A Will for the Woods (recently released on DVD). At age 42, Wang was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma, which fast-forwarded him into making end-of-life choices. As documentary co-director Tony Hale recalls, “Clark looked into all the standard options. He saw such waste on the conventional side.” When he passed away in 2011, Wang was buried in his chosen location — the verdant quiet of Pine Forest Memorial Garden in Wake Forest, North Carolina — in a simple, pinewood box. For co-director Amy Browne and the rest of the crew, the experience of documenting Wang's story was almost overwhelming at times. “Before I started making this film, I was extremely fearful and anxious about death. I think those strong feelings were why I was so affected by the comforting, meaningful idea of green burial,” Browne says.
Nature can have a calming effect on the bereaved, too, as funeral director Sarah Wambold has witnessed. “All [green] burials are different, but the similarities are that it feels more relaxed [than traditional burial]. And, the survivors are more involved. Just the very nature of standing on unpaved ground, surrounded by trees and plants, allows people to let their guard down around death,” she says. And, as Doughty adds, there’s a spiritual element to the experience. What natural burial symbolically represents, she says, is “giving your body back to the earth, not putting any barriers between yourself and the natural world — realizing you are the natural world.”
Doughty has worked tirelessly to de-stigmatize death and encourage discussion around it. With her Ask A Mortician Youtube series, she aims to shine a bright, cheerful (and delightfully self-deprecating) light into death’s dark corners. A recent episode, “How to Talk to Your Parents About Death,” addressed a crucial issue that often goes ignored until it’s too late. Death industry professionals across the board stress the importance of communication between family and friends in regards to preferred end-of-life plans. Currie recommends that families broach the subject while their loved ones are still healthy. “Grief and heartache will be part of the process regardless of having the ‘talk’ or not; it’s comforting to the ones left behind — who often make the burial arrangements — when they are able to fulfill a loved one’s wishes upon death,” she explains.

As A Will for the Woods helps make clear, people’s end-of-life desires are changing. Hale believes that as families begin to be more open with one another about their final wishes, green burial and other alternative options will become even more popular. Overcrowded churchyards and cemeteries are not a purely medieval concern — no burial complex will ever be short of potential residents — so it’s a positive step forward to see people looking at more natural options. And, if going green can make a death and funeral feel more serene and meaningful for everyone involved, that’s all the more reason to do it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Pine Forest Memorial Garden is in Seattle; it is in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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