Whether it’s sudden or a long time coming, we all draw a last breath. What happens next is largely driven by tradition, regulation, and a multimillion-dollar industry: About half of Americans choose cremation, and the other half are buried. But what if you want your body to be useful still? Ideas emerging from an alternative community of mortuary and hospice professionals offer ways to give your body back to nature. As strange as some of these methods might seem now, they are at least getting us talking “outside the box” about death.
Mushroom mycelia are woven into the suit to help decompose flesh.
Infinity burial suit
The body is buried in a casket made of organic material or placed directly in dirt wearing a biodegradable suit woven with a mix of mycelia and other micro-organisms. As the body decomposes, fungi help with decomposition, neutralize toxins in the body, and transfer nutrients back to the environment.
Soil scientists with the Urban Death Project in Western Washington are prototyping the “recomposition” process on human remains after successful trials with livestock remains. The eventual plan is to build a recomposition structure for use on a metropolitan scale.
First, the body is placed inside a vertical chamber layered with wood chips, similar to the way compost piles use leaves as a carbon source.
Over several weeks, as the body is decomposed by bacteria, it shifts down the chamber. Other bodies are laid on top as part of a continual process.
Eventually, all that’s left is a nutrient-rich humus ready to nourish new life.
If cremation is still the most cost-effective option, consider this alternative to an urn. Florida-based Eternal Reefs offers to add your ashes to a concrete structure designed to attract aquatic plants and animals when set out on the ocean floor. Eternal Reefs’ partner, the Reef Ball Foundation, sets out artificial reefs in areas of development to encourage estuary restoration and habitat recovery. Besides reef propagation, they are also used as breakwaters.
The simplest solution might be natural burial grounds, which let you go into the grave without a casket or even embalming. An essential oil solution can be used as an alternative to formaldehyde. Plots are marked by GPS tags rather than headstones to maintain the landscape’s natural appearance. Some cemeteries and brokers facilitate conservation burial by purchasing land for the use of green burials, thereby designating it exclusively for cemetery use in perpetuity.
Jennifer Luxton is an illustrator and page designer at the Seattle Times and the former lead graphic designer at YES!