So much of death is a mystery, between how and when we’re going to go, if there’s anything beyond the grave - you know, all the pleasant stuff. But while a lot of this is out of our control, there is one aspect of our impending deaths that we usually can choose: what happens to our body.
Sure, there are the traditional routes of burial or cremation, but there’s a lot more you can do with your remains, including some alternatives that are more environmentally friendly than others. In fact, green burials are becoming increasingly more common, according to Elizabeth Fournier, who identified herself as “the one-woman funeral service in the rural town of Boring, Oregon.”
Also known as the “Green Reaper” and author of The Green Burial Guidebook, Fournier tells Lifehacker that a lot of people want to have an environmentally conscious burial, but don’t know where to start. “I wish people knew that it was very family-centric, eco-friendly, wallet-friendly and the most sustainable choice one can make,” she says.
Similarly, the end-of-life service provider iele paloumpis, explains that traditional cremation and burials are more environmentally problematic than people think: “There are a lot of steps being taken to consider this and to think about what are more earth conscious ways to dispose of our remains,” they tell Lifehacker.
“Obviously, we can think about the ways that things like embalming are highly toxic and ultimately do seep into things like the land, as well as the carbon imprint of cremation and the amount of energy and gas that gets released into the air through burning bodies.
There’s a lot of people who are really trying to think of ways that we can have less of a negative impact, given the climate crisis that we’re in right now, which I think is really important and admirable and something that I feel inspired by.”
As paloumpis points out, the decision of what to with our remains is a very personal one, and is dependent upon a number of different factors and reasons - cultural, religious and otherwise.
In their work as a death doula, paloumpis says they offer these other options as just that - “other options that people may be less aware of, without any personal feeling on my part that one is ‘better’ than the other, because there’s just so many things to consider.”
Don’t have your own death doula (yet) and aren’t sure where to start? Here are a few options for your remains. And like paloumpis, we are not advocating one method over another; this is merely a list of options, some of which you may not have known about previously.
Donate your body to science
Those who wish to make a difference when they’re no longer alive may want to consider donating their body to medical research. If you’re curious about this, you can read more about it in our previous coverage - including how to do it and why this may (or may not) be the right choice for you.
But what happens with your body when the medical school is done with it? Typically, they cremate the remains at no cost to the individual or their family, and then return the ashes a few weeks after the donation.
Have a traditional burial
Since 2015, cremation has been more common than burial, with approximately 70 per cent of Australians in urban areas opting for cremation, versus around 56 per cent in rural areas, according to News.com.au.
There are two categories of cremations: traditional and green. Traditional cremation is exactly what it sounds like—using fire to reduce a body to ashes consisting of bone fragments. Green cremation, also known as bio-cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, happens when a body is placed in a pressurised stainless steel chamber along with water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide, then heated to 175 degrees Celsius.
Like traditional cremation, the result is bone remnants. Both types of cremation take around two to three hours. “Since alkaline hydrolysis is reductive, the body will go through the same breakdown process as it would in soil, but in a matter of hours rather than over a long period of time,” Fournier explains.
Once a body is cremated, there are several possibilities for what to do with the remains. You could purchase an urn (yes, they’re available on Amazon) and store your loved one there. You can also opt to scatter the person’s ashes in different locations, per their request.
It’s always a good idea to check first to see if the location they had in mind allows ashes. For example, Disney World prohibits this practice, although (or maybe because) it’s a popular location.
Beyond that, there are a few other things to do with your ashes, depending on your budget and what you want to accomplish. Be sure to check the laws and regulations in your state before moving forward with any of these plans.
Compost the body
Similar to green cremation, body composting speeds up the natural decomposition process. The difference is that composting takes a body, places it in a temperature and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated with wood chips, alfalfa, straw and a mixture of nitrogen and carbon.
Become a diamond
When ad agency copywriter Frances Gerety came up with the slogan “a diamond is forever” for De Beers in 1947, she probably didn’t have this in mind. But yes, it’s possible to turn your ashes into a diamond.
Become part of a reef
Ever want to live near the water? Well, if you're in the U.S. and - well, dead - you may get your chance, though it’s more like under the water, than on the water. A U.S. company in Florida called Eternal Reefs will take your ashes and incorporate them into an environmentally safe cement mixture designed to create artificial reef formations.
The artificial reef is then placed underwater in an approved ocean location off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. In addition to providing an unusual final resting place and a probably a pretty fun funeral on a boat, Eternal Reefs create new marine habitats for fish, turtles and other forms of sea life in areas where the natural reefs are deteriorating.
Become one with the water
If reefs aren’t your thing but you’re a fan of the water, you may want to consider a water urn. This biodegradable urn is designed to allow your loved ones to scatter your cremated remains in an ocean, river or lake - or any other body of water of your choosing.
Basically you pop the urn in the water and for the first few minutes, it stays upright like a buoy. After that, it becomes submerged in the water, the urn dissolves and the ashes are released. A few different companies make them, but The Living Urn’s website is the most comprehensive, if you’d like to learn more about this form of burial at sea.
Get buried in an infinity suit
Those looking to make the greatest positive environmental impact after death may want to consider being buried in an infinity suit or shroud made by a company called Coeio.
After passing away, the deceased is dressed in either a custom-made suit or wrapped in a shroud, both of which are biodegradable and come with a built in biomix, made up of mushrooms and other microorganisms. This fabric does three things: aids in decomposition, works to neutralise toxins found in the body and transfers nutrients to plant life.
So not only will you be decomposed in an environmentally friendly way, you’ll actually leave the soil better off than before you died and were buried there. You can be buried in an infinity suit or shroud with or without a coffin, and if you opt for the coffin, the suit will help it break down and become healthy soil too.
Both the infinity suit and shroud go for $US1,500 ($2,150), which isn’t bad, considering you’ll be wearing it literally until it (and you) fall apart.
Become a tree or plant
If you want to leave your loved ones with a memorial to you, but don’t want to make them schlep to a cemetery, you may be interested in having your ashes mixed with soil that is used to grow a tree or plant. One company that specialises in this is Soul Trees, which has branches in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. They offer a 'Bios Urn' that 'convert[s] you into a TREE after life' - and who wouldn't want that?
Become a tattoo
Death is forever, and so are tattoos, so for some people, it makes sense to combine them. Some companies in the U.S. like Engrave Ink and Cremation Ink will take human ashes, mix them with tattoo ink and use it to create a personalised memorial tattoo for a lost loved one.
The technical term for these are “ritual” or “commemorative” tattoos, and though it sounds like needling another person’s ashes into your skin might not be the best move health-wise, Sandra Whitehead, M.D. the director of program and partnership development at the National Environmental Health Association, told Vice that it’s no more dangerous than non-human ink ingredients:
“There are health risks inherent in tattooing itself, regardless of the kind of ink used or other material injected under the skin. A very small amount of cremains in the ink does not, in general, present a risk, even if the deceased loved one was very sick.”
Having said that, she also noted that there have been relatively few studies conducted on the safety of tattoos using human remains and the ones that do exist are inconclusive. So your best bet for these—or any—tattoos is to pick a reputable and experienced artist.
Be turned into a record
Vinyl records have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity to the point that they’re not an option for your remains. A company called Vinyly, based in the UK, will take your ashes and press them into a vinyl record to allow you to, in their words, “live beyond the groove.”
Not only will your ashes be incorporated into a record, you also have 12 minute on each side of the record to fill with whatever you want: you reading your will, sending messages to friends and family, airing grievances, sharing memories, singing, reciting a poem, playing licensed music or even the sound of the popping and cracking of a fire if you want to “hear” the ashes. Haunting your loved ones via record doesn’t come cheap, though: one record starts at £3000 — or approximately $5500.
Go out with a bang
If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be shot out of a gun, you can have your chance after you die. A U.S. company (of course) called Holy Smoke will put your ashes into shot shells or cartridges which can be fired off in a final salute. According to their site, one pound of human ashes is enough to produce 250 shotgun shells, or one case.
The aim of the company is to provide “an eco-friendly way to spread or use those ashes while conducting a favoured activity.” The website also notes that they can place ashes into almost any calibre or gauge of ammunition. The prices aren’t listed on the site, but you can call the company for more information.
Live on inside a stuffed animal
If you don’t feel like a traditional urn is the right place for your ashes, you could always opt to have them put inside a stuffed animal.
Companies like Cami Bear and KeepItUnique Keepsakes will place ashes in a chamber inside of a stuffed teddy bear, dog, elephant, cow or other animal of your choosing. The idea here is presumably to keep your deceased friends and family close to your heart and still be able to hug them even after they’re gone.
The bottom line is that the death industry is changing and there are more choices than ever for your remains. If you have a strong preference for what you want to happen to your body, it’s probably a good idea to let people know or put it in your will.