By Christina Cilento
If you’re reading this you’re probably conscious about living sustainably, but do you know how to be dead sustainably?
It’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention, but environmentally friendly end-of-life services have been growing more and more popular in recent years. And that’s because standard funerals use incredible amounts of energy and resources.
According to Qeepr.com, a memory preservation site, the US funeral industry buries 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde annually, 2.3 billion tons of concrete and 115 million tons of casket steel. Those numbers would fill 1.2 Olympic swimming pools, build 36.8 Three Gorges Dams and construct over 2,000 Empire State Buildings, begging the question: why are we using so many resources on dead people?
The funeral industry has started to consider this exact question, and some funeral service providers are now taking steps to offer more eco-friendly options.
Passages International, Inc., based in Albuquerque, started selling less-intensive products to funeral homes in 1999, when the concept of a green funeral was still new. The company offers sustainable alternatives to classic burial materials, like urns made of salt or clay and caskets made of bamboo or seagrass.
Founder Darren Crouch said his products are meant for people who spent their lives being green and want their end-of-life arrangements to reflect their sustainable decisions. But the unconventional product choices have an appeal outside environmentalism, too.“People don’t want the same funerals their grandmas had,” Crouch said.
Crouch’s business is approved by Green America as a “socially and environmentally responsible business,” according to their website. Passages is also one of 22 companies to have its products certified by the Green Burial Council, an organization that accredits funeral homes, cemeteries and manufacturers for their green operations.
While Passages was one of the newcomers to the green funeral concept, numerous organizations have caught on to the trend in the past decade.
One increasingly popular service is flameless cremations, formally called alkaline hydrolysis. While normal cremations use gas for burning, resulting in emissions of mercury and CO2, alkaline hydrolysis uses 85 percent less energy than a standard cremation and creates a fraction of the carbon emissions.
The procedure places the body in a stainless-steel machine filled with a heated mixture of 95 percent water and five percent lye. The solution circulates over the body in a sped-up version of natural decomposition, leaving only bones, which are then dried naturally and broken down into a powdery consistency. The ash that’s left after the cremation is completely sterile, with no DNA, RNA or diseases, and the water can be returned to a sewage facility.
While flame cremations take about one and a half to three hours, flameless cremations run six to eight hours. Prices can vary greatly between the two options, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Depending on the provider, flameless services can either be more or less expensive than standard methods.
Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in nine states, including Illinois, with several other states considering legislation to make it an acceptable form of cremation. The Mayo Clinic switched from conventional cremations to alkaline hydrolysis for their full-body donors in 2006, and others have since followed suit.
AquaGreen Dispositions, Illinois’ only flameless cremation service, opened in September 2012, right after former Gov. Pat Quinn passed a law redefining cremation. Owner Ryan Cattoni said he was inspired to start his business after hearing about the Mayo Clinic’s switch and after witnessing standard cremations in-person. “It’s not the nicest process,” he said. “I’ll put it that way.”
Cattoni said more and more people have become interested in alkaline hydrolysis for religious beliefs, environmental reasons, or simply because they find the process more bearable than burning. And with an increased cultural focus on sustainability, Cattoni said he sees flameless cremation becoming widespread in the future.
“I do believe it’s going to get very popular, however it’s just the process of informing everybody that they do have the option,” he said. “A lot of families come up to us and say, ‘We had no idea this was out there.’ ”
Still, these options aren’t for everyone. Zach Watson, a Medill sophomore and sustainability advocate, was introduced to green cremations and burial options at the Chicago Green Festival in October and was slightly taken aback by the concepts.
“It was very, very different than what I’m used to,” he said. “When you look at funeral stuff, in my opinion, the point of it is to leave something behind, something to remember you by… It kind of seems like the opposite of what most people want because you’re not leaving your mark; you’re just getting rid of your body in the most efficient way.”
Aside from consumer skepticism, reluctant industry leaders may present an obstacle to making burial practices green. “The funeral industry is a very slow-changing industry,” Cattoni said. “A lot of funeral directors are very traditional people; they like to do things how they’ve done them for the last 30 years.”
Although massive change isn’t on the horizon any time soon, the existence of a green funeral industry speaks to a spread of sustainability beyond its conventional scope. “For someone who takes sustainability seriously, even if a green funeral isn’t for me, it’s still exciting to know that there’s that development in the field,” said Watson.