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How I Want to be Buried, Cremated, or Composted

by Gary Miller

Cremation and burial options

In his recent New York Times opinion piece “This is How I Want to Be Dead,” writer Richard Conniff reflects upon a growing funerary trend: woodland cemeteries. Inspired by the burial site of Kenneth Grahame, author of children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, Conniff says, “what struck me most was that all of Grahame’s characters would have been at home there.”

In the natural settings of woodland cemeteries, bodies are interred without chemical preservation, steel caskets, or burial vaults, and allowed to return naturally to the soil. This method of burial, both new and ancient, achieves a number of goals. Primarily, it reduces environmental impacts and preserves the landscape to provide lovers of the outdoors with a burial option harmonious with the natural world.

In the Times piece, Conniff further reflects on the realities of traditional American burial customs. He considers how and why these customs are being reconsidered by a generation intent on a new way of death. And, since the readers of the Times are a thoughtful and opinionated bunch, it’s little surprise that Conniff’s musings drew a broad range of responses, from the serious to the humorous and the sublime.

One reader, Glenn, offers his own take on a burial at sea ceremony: “I want to be cremated, squished into a hard ceramic ball and shot from a cannon of a pirate ship into the Gulf of Mexico. We all have our dreams.”

A reader identified only as CBT announces his wish to be buried in his old ’41 Ford, and promises to “save the seat next to me for my wife.”

And reader Kata Karáth expresses that “I want my organs to be donated and what’s left of my body to be buried in one of those organic cocoons that will spring into a tree.” 

The reader's comments reflect a growing awareness that when it comes to death, we have a much broader range of options than ever before. And we can choose options that express not only the way we’ve lived, but the way we want to be memorialized. Here is information about these options, and why people commonly choose them.

Traditional Burial

In 2017, traditional burial is the choice of less than half of Americans. The body is embalmed, placed in a wood and/and or metal casket, and interred in a cemetery plot or burial vault. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) about 43.5% of Americans choose this method. Reasons cited for this choice include the ability to visit and pay tribute to loved ones at a grave site. Yet the popularity of traditional funerals is slowly declining, and cremation continues to rise.

Cremation

According to the NFDA, 50.2% of Americans chose cremation in 2016. The organization predicts that by 2035, cremation rates will have risen to 78.8%. Reasons given for choosing cremation are personal, but primarily reflect the lower cost of cremation. Additionally, the ability of loved ones to keep remains close at hand in memorial urns, cremation urn jewelry, and memorial keepsakes, or to scatter ashes are of prime importance. The variety of adult cremation urns, from more traditional brass urns and ceramic urns for ashes to eco friendly urns that degrade naturally over time, offers the chance for an intimate personalization. And cremation keepsake jewelry offers the possibility of loved ones to divide remains into smaller portions amongst them, and keep the ashes in a discreet or not-so-discreet cremation pendant or bracelet.

One overlooked benefit of cremation, for those who opt to keep the ashes, is the mobility aspect. We are a very mobile society. If your loved one get buried in Oregon and you move to New York it's unlikely you'll have them moved. If the ashes of your loved one is in an urn, or even a portion in a cremation keepsake or jewelry for ashes, you can carry them to any part of the world.

The Advantage of Eco Friendly Cremation Urns

Another reason for choosing cremation is its ability to lessen environmental impact. Biodegradable cremation urns can be used for sea burials or land burials. An urn such as the Simplicity biodegradable box degrades naturally, allowing remains to return to the environment. And because embalming chemicals are not used in the cremation process, there is no concern of damage to water systems. Finally, as cremation does not require the use of a cemetery plot, choosing this option can help minimize the footprint of burial plots.

Green Burial 

Seeking sustainable burial options, more people are choosing green burial. While practices vary, those seeking green burial typically avoid embalming and opt for biodegradable burial enclosures ranging from simple cloth shrouds to unfinished pine caskets or even caskets woven of reeds. In addition, green burials involve interment at a shallower depth so that the body can decompose more easily. In woodland cemeteries, the money people pay to be buried in a natural setting allow for the preservation of the acreage as conservation land. In “Urns that Create Homes for New Life,” we look at a few ways that death can contribute to new life.

Donation to Science

In response to the Richard Conniff’s opinion piece, one Times reader, Joanne, wrote “I don’t care what happens to my dead body. It is just a container for my living cells. I hope to donate my body to a medical school. Let someone learn from it.” The option of whole body donation offers not only a way to contribute to the world of medicine, but to reduce funeral costs. Typically, the organization receiving the body offers free cremation after they are finished with the body.

Outlying Options

While the options above represent more common funeral options, consumers have also begun to take advantage of trends ranging from ancient concepts to cutting edge technologies. In our previous two-part blog, “Memorials, Cremation Containers, Death and Design,” we investigate themes relating to death and how certain options materialize into unique designs. Below we look at a few non-traditional funerary choices.

Bio-cremation
While not cremation in the traditional sense, this method of reducing human remains involves the placement of the body in a heated solution of water and an alkaline substance such as potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. In this solution, the soft tissues of the body quickly decompose. The bones remain, and after the liquid is siphoned off, they can be crushed to ashes and placed in a traditional or biodegradable cremation urn. This process offers the advantages of traditional cremation, with a smaller carbon footprint.
Composting
Based in Seattle, Washington, the Urban Death Project is working to develop a process by which human remains can be composted and returned naturally to soil. The process involves interring bodies in layers of organic material and allowing them to compost naturally over a period of four to six weeks. The compost can be used as an addition to a garden as regular compost would be. If successful, this project will allow for a burial that has a low carbon footprint, is free of chemicals, and does not need the space required for a traditional burial plot.
Cryonics
According to a 2016 NBC News report, over 100 Americans have chosen to have their bodies preserved cryonically. In this process, the body is quickly cooled after death and stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature approaching -200 degrees F. Unlike other methods for handling a dead body, cryonics exists to offer hope for a second chance. People who pursue this option hope that one day their bodies will be able to be thawed and brought back to life. Despite the six-figure price tag, cryonics practitioners can offer no proof at present that this is possible.
Promession
This method of decomposition and burial is being developed in Sweden, but is not yet available to the public. Like cryonics, promession also involves the use of extreme cold. Placed in liquid nitrogen, the body freezes. The body is then vibrated until it is reduced to small particles, which are freeze dried. After any toxic metals are separated, remains are then buried in a biodegradable casket, which can be planted beneath a tree seedling to provide the tree with nourishment. The intent of promession is to offer many of the benefits of traditional cremation, with a smaller carbon footprint.

 

Given all these options, one thing is clear: more choices than ever are available to consumers, and the range of choices will continue to expand. It’s evidence that the funeral industry is working to meet the needs of its customers and respond to the growing demand for personalization, sustainability, and lower costs.

 

A writer, editor, and teacher living in Vermont, Gary Miller is co-founder and creative director of Writers for Recovery, which provides writing workshops for people recovering from addiction. Gary’s short story collection “Museum of the Americas” was nominated for the 2015 Vermont Book Award.

 

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