Religion and tradition aside, the idea of my fully dressed dead body spending eternity in a sealed wood-and-metal box lined with fabric has always been… unsettling. Even as a young spitfire, the idea was incredibly strange. Why inject me full of chemical preservatives to stave off natural decay, cram my stiffened limbs into an outfit deemed somehow appropriate for the occasion, then lower me into a hole while others look on in grief, horror, relief, whatever? Plus, with all us humans crowding the planet and our irritating tendency to die, it’s always seemed like a colossal waste of space. I decided at a young age that I have to protect my body from meeting such an end, and made it known that in the event of my untimely death I wish to be cremated. My parents were of course thrilled to hear their elementary school student make such an announcement, probably in front of the neighbors.
As I’ve grown, a desire to step lightly on the earth — to live a more “green” life — has infiltrated my strong opinions, even those on dying. It’s been disturbing to realize just what a high toll “traditional” burials, and even cremation, take on the environment. And it’s been (disturbingly?) exciting to discover how many “green” options exist for disposing of one’s body at the end of its earthly life — to die a more green death, as it were. Here are some intriguing end-of-life options to consider, some of which aren’t quite available yet, but may just be when your time comes.
Certified Natural Burial
This is basically my story above, except no carcinogenic embalming chemicals (harmful to workers and the environment), a simple shroud for cover and a biodegradable box made from natural fibers. As defined by the Green Burial Council, who sets the standard for natural burials in the U.S., a green or natural burial “furthers legitimate environmental and societal aims such as protecting worker health, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources and preserving habitat.” This is an option you can exercise in cemeteries or funeral homes in 39 states, including at least three cemeteries in Colorado.
Urban Death Project
Compost your body! That’s basically what this organization plans to allow you to do. In their words: “The Urban Death Project has created an innovative new model of death care that honors both our loved ones and the planet Earth. At the heart of this model is a new system called recomposition that transforms bodies into soil so that we can grow new life after we die.” Key phrase: “transforms bodies into soil,” which is exactly what doesn’t happen naturally when you’re sealed in a varnished box and pumped full of embalming chemicals. That soil, created in the project’s “recomposition centers,” is made available for use in parks, gardens and green spaces. What better way to seal your eternal connection to the earth and its life cycles?
This is not where bodies are grown, but rather where they are studied in their post-death state. This imperfect popular term actually refers to “outdoor forensic anthropology research laboratories,” where experts study how bodies decompose in order to better understand cause and time of death, as well as what happens to a body after death in various situations, including when scavengers, bugs and barnacles are part of the process. That’s because, as a Forbes report on the matter says, “while the general process of decomp is biologically universal, the rate of it is significantly affected by variables like temperature and humidity, not to mention by the method of disposal of the body.”
The six university labs reported to have outdoor forensic anthropology research laboratories: University of Tennessee Knoxville (this one’s the oldest, est. 1981), Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and there’s even one here in our state — Colorado Mesa University. Contact the facility of your choice to donate your body to their research.
Tibetan Sky Burial
This is my favorite, but probably not my mom’s. A Tibet tourism website describes sky burial pretty perfectly: “Sky burial is simply the disposal of a corpse to be devoured by vultures. In Tibetan Buddhism, sky burial is believed to represent their wishes to go to heaven. It is the most widespread way for commoners to deal with the dead in Tibet.” I am not Buddhist, but I can appreciate a good allegory. I would much rather my body become food for raptors than have it tease the worms and other soil-dwelling decomposers from inside my box, forever. Plus, it’s taboo for family members (or strangers) to attend a sky burial, so one’s final wishes to be absorbed into the food chain can happen in peace.