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Biodegradable Urns: What Are They?


Giving back to Mother Nature after death

Being a good steward of the planet doesn’t need to end when one passes away. There is a significant rise in the number of people who are exploring “green” alternatives to support the goal of giving back to the planet after they pass away. Since 2005, the Green Burial Council (GBC) has worked extensively in this specialized conservation area to provide eco-friendly death care solutions for yourself or a loved one.

If you have decided that cremation is a choice for you or a loved one, choosing a biodegradable urn for the ashes is a meaningful way to continue to honor conservation values. Created specifically with the environment in mind, the urns are crafted entirely from natural products, such as coconut shells, clay, salt, recycled paper, or even sand, and dissolve naturally over a period of time.

Decide how the urn will be used to choose the right biodegradable urn

How do you choose the right eco-friendly urn for yourself or a family member? Perhaps consider what aspect of the earth or water hold the strongest resonance and concern. Deciding on if the ashes will be returned to the ground, immersed in water, or simply scattered to the air, will help steer your choice.

If you are exploring the idea of a biodegradable urn choice, here are a few ideas you might consider:

  • Water Immersion

You’ve likely heard stories of burials at sea. Biodegradable urns for water, such as the Sea Turtle, provide family and friends the ability to set the urn with ashes afloat in the ocean or other body of water. The urn gracefully slips under water where the urn naturally dissolves and the ashes are subsequently released - a fitting send off for anyone who loves the water.

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn…

… or Seattle or Minneapolis or wherever you are! Burying ashes with a memorial tree is a symbolic gesture of life after death, and serves as a lasting tribute to your life. Not only do you give back to Mother Nature - you become a part of nature. Alternately, ashes can be buried in a biodegradable urn alongside a new seedling, providing a wonderful way for ashes to be eventually released into the soil. 

  • Into the Air

Another common way to dispense ashes is to scatter them, typically in a location that is significant to the deceased or the family. Some people decide to take to the air with a scattering urn and then release the ashes from a small plane. Others might climb a mountain and release the ashes into a gentle breeze. There is no negative impact to the environment, and the symbolism of the individual being free from any pain or suffering is a powerful metaphor.

What materials are used to make a biodegradable urn?

The distinguishing quality of biodegradable urns from other urns for ashes is that they are made of organic materials capable of decomposing naturally. These materials include:

  • recycled paper
  • leaves
  • handmade paper
  • wool fiber
  • tree barks
  • natural untreated wood
  • compacted peat
  • coconut shells
  • rock salt
  • sand and various other materials that breakdown in the earth and water.

There are also special biodegradable porcelain urns and even urns made from corn-starch.

The production of a biodegradable urn employs natural eco-friendly substances. No plastic, metal or chemicals go into their manufacture. No dyes or adhesives are used. To keep the paint nontoxic, a natural base such as milk is used. The dyes, too, are plant based or derived from other natural substances like clay.

What other considerations are there when purchasing a biodegradable urn?

Consider ease of portability. If one quickly scans through the materials used for biodegradable urns, the majority are lightweight and easily portable. They are by definition organic. They are most often easy to transport.

Within the family of urns, biodegradable urns are more economical when compared to non-biodegradable options, such as metal and marble.

Biodegradable urns differ from other urns in additional ways. They are created in the spirit of becoming one with earth and water. Hence, they are not primarily keepsake urns, but are meant to merge with the elements of nature. 

Specially designed scattering urns and earth burial urns easily become part of nature. Water biodegradable urns float, sink and ultimately dissolve in water, along with the ashes. Earth burial urns break down over time into their constituent elements and become part of the texture of the earth.

How do cremation and biodegradable urns help the environment?

The trend toward an increase in cremation is fueled by both cost and environmental concerns. Crematoriums have gone from being coke fueled to using gas, to running on electricity. They continue to evolve toward being more efficient and eco-friendly.

Growing Trend to Green Burials

All forms of after-life rituals carry an environmental impact, some less and others more so. The Chesterfield Borough Council features a page on their website titled “Environmental Impact of Burial and Cremation.” According to the information, originally the move from traditional burial to cremation was brought about due to land use. Post World War II, land was sought to be utilized primarily for food, and less used for casket burial. As the use of cremation became recognized for its sustainability and environmental friendliness, the concerns for land use became less of an issue.

Factors related to burials that carry environmental concerns are:

  • the impact of herbicides and prolonged use of petrol lawn mowers used in cemeteries
  • the effects of embalming fluids used by funeral homes
  • coffins made of, or contain, large amounts of materials like plastic and steel which have a direct negative effect on the environment

The Center for Natural Burial estimates that a 10-acre cemetery contains:

  • 1,000 tons of casket steel
  • 20,000 tons of concrete for the vaults, and
  • enough wood from coffins to build over 40 homes

Our blog “What’s the Environmental Impact of Our Death – Part 1” provides details relating to the environmental impact of traditional burials on the earth.

Cremation, while bypassing these long term effects, sometimes utilizes fossil fuels or releases toxins from the body, which could be from dental fillings, body implants and so on. Our planning guide “Cremation: What is it?” provides issues to discuss with a crematory advisor to make well-informed decisions. More and more crematoriums recommend that devices like pacemakers and spinal cord stimulators, which might explode in the furnace, be removed before cremation in a step towards being more environmentally friendly. 

Whichever choice one makes, there is a definite pull towards eco friendliness, drawing attention to processes of burial rituals and materials used. One’s personal concerns for the environment needn’t end with one’s life, but can become part of one’s legacy. There are various ways of doing this. 

Many people donate to charitable organizations that support the environment. Others donate their bodies for scientific research or vital organs for transplant and so on.

While all of us will one day merge back into the elements of which we are composed, some feeling of grace and comfort exists in doing so in an ecologically sensitive manner. It both honors the spirit of the departed, as well as the earth, on which we survive.