Dying To Be Green: The New Life of Death
By Gurubaran Subramaniam
New “green” death options as viable eco-friendly alteratives to traditional post-death practices.
When most people die, their bodies are either buried underground after being filled with potentially toxic chemicals, possibly contaminating the soil and groundwater, or burned for several hours at temperatures approaching 1000 degrees Celsius, an energy-intensive process that emits up to 250kg of carbon dioxide. What if your mortal remains could instead be broken down into nutrients for plants, freeze-dried and reduced into a powder that can be used as fertiliser, or converted by microbes to light, while being much gentler on the environment? These are increasingly plausible futures that could materialise given the rising popularity of new “green” death options as viable eco-friendly alternatives to the dominant funerary practices of burial and flame-based cremation.
Amidst the wave of eco-consciousness reverberating around the world, these traditional post-death practices are coming under question for their adverse environmental impact. Conventional burial takes up a lot of land space and requires steel or concrete burial crypts in the ground, and toxins from the embalming fluids and casket materials leak into the soil. The average flame-based cremation on the other hand, requires about the same amount of energy used by a single person for an entire month and produces carbon emissions equivalent to two full car fuel tanks. Columbaria where cremated ashes rest also require a lot of land, and individual niches are becoming increasingly expensive, particularly in high density urban centres where land is at a premium. With urban populations projected to grow rapidly the next few decades, potentially creating further pressures on land demand, and the burgeoning ageing populations in many societies worldwide, it might be timely to consider adopting some of these alternative green funerary practices.
There currently are several different ecofriendly alternatives to flame-based cremation and conventional burial. Aside from being more environmentally-friendly, these alternatives are considered to be more gentle post-death options, particularly in comparison to cremation, which involves burning corpses at high temperatures and grinding the remaining bones to ashes before they are returned to the deceased person’s next-of-kin.
The most common is natural burial, where the body preparation involves either no embalming fluid or a non-formaldehyde-based formula. The body is then placed in biodegradable casket or shroud, buried in a grave with a simple headstone or marker, and left to decompose organically. Most burials that are currently carried out under Islamic and Jewish customs would be considered natural burials.
Another method that is currently less mainstream but quickly gaining in popularity is liquid cremation, also known as resomation or aquamation. Liquid cremation involves an accelerated process of alkaline hydrolysis that reduces a corpse to a disposable liquid and sterile bone residue. The body is placed in a silk bag and loaded into a pressure vessel, which is then filled with an alkaline lye solution. The solution is heated to a temperature of around 160 degrees Celsius under high pressure, which prevents it from boiling. Proponents of liquid cremation liken the process to a final soothing spa session, in comparison to the more forceful process of flame-based cremation.  In about three hours, the corpse is effectively dissolved into the end-products of a DNA-free greenish-brown liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts, as well as soft and porous bone remains that can be easily crushed into dust. The effluent liquid can be discharged into the sewage system or used as fertiliser as it is very nutrient-rich. The remaining dust is returned to the deceased’s next-of-kin. Liquid cremation’s carbon footprint is just a tenth that of flame-based cremation, and consumes about a quarter of the energy. While it may sound rather futuristic, liquid cremation is not entirely new. It was used to dispose of the carcasses of animals infected with Mad Cow Disease, as it was found to be the only way to destroy the proteins that caused the disease.  It is also now used to dispose of cadavers that are donated to science.
Yet another emerging method is natural organic reduction, or human composting, where a body is turned into two wheelbarrows full of usable and fertile soil in four weeks. Composting is also not entirely new, as it has been long used on livestock carcasses. In this process, the body is placed in a reusable hexagonal steel container along with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. By carefully controlling the humidity and ratio of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, the system creates the perfect conditions for thermophilic microbes to dramatically accelerate the normal rate of decomposition. Pilot studies have shown that the entire body, including bones and teeth, can be reliably transformed into compost. Recompose, the first operational human composting facility in the United States, accepted more than 50 bodies less than a year after opening in 2020, and has had nearly 800 individuals sign up for its death care services when they eventually die. Recompose touts its human composting process as using an eighth of the energy of cremation and saving one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions per person compared to conventional burial and cremation.
A more nascent and unorthodox option is promession, where the body is cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen to a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius, making it extremely brittle. It is then mechanically vibrated and reduced into tiny crystallised particles, which can either be used to nourish plants or buried in a shallow grave to be transformed into soil. Though it has only been used on pigs so far and is yet to be tested on humans, promession has been heralded by its founder as an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective process that could revolutionise the cremation and burial industries.
Another novel yet promising option is anaerobic bioconversion, where decomposing bodies could be turned into light through the latent bioenergy within the corpse. At the time of writing, this vision is still being conceptualised and prototyped, but it involves breaking down corpses into their basic chemical and biological components through a process known as microbial methanogenesis. The methane produced is then converted into light energy through another process, anaerobic carbon cycling. Researchers from DeathLab at Columbia University — the pioneers and advocates of anaerobic bioconversion — envision it leading to death and remembrance being interwoven into municipal and social infrastructure, where these glowing vessels are placed in public spaces, forming constellations of light that illuminate urban areas such as parks and bridges while serving as memorial tributes to the dead. A human body can power a glowing vessel for up to a year before being replaced.
We are seeing a rising interest in green death options, both due to a growing influence of environmental consciousness in shaping decisions surrounding post-death care, and the desire to leave a different legacy after death. Over half the respondents to a 2019 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association indicated that they would be interested in exploring these “green” funerary options. Some celebrities have also become trendsetters in this regard: Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry chose to be buried in a “mushroom suit” — a suit threaded with mushroom spores that break down and consume the body after death. Several jurisdictions have also either legalised or are beginning to legalise the various new green death options. For example, liquid cremation has been legalised in the United Kingdom, Mexico, South Africa, 20 American states, several Canadian provinces and five Australian states. Human composting is now legal in Washington, Colorado and Oregon, with California and Delaware possibly following suit soon. We are also seeing a growing diversity of ways people are choosing to memorialise their deceased loved ones, such as opting for sea burials, inland ash scattering, and turning cremated remains into gemstones, tattoos or even corals. Virtual memorial sites dedicated to the dead are also becoming increasingly popular. On these sites, people can pay respect to and purchase virtual offerings for the departed, such as flowers and incense. Social media giants such as Facebook are also jumping onto the bandwagon, introducing new features to transform the profiles of users who die into memorial pages for their friends to pay tribute to them.
In a plausible future, people could want more choice and control over what happens to their bodies after they die and how they are remembered, beyond what is legally prescribed. As a result, conventional flame-based cremation and burial options might come to be perceived as outdated, obsolescent or even unacceptable. Additionally, with the younger and more vocal “Generation Z” being increasingly environmentally-conscious, pledges towards eco-friendly deaths could become part of low-carbon lifestyles as well as climate movements and rebellions. Demand for cemeteries, crematoria, and columbaria could also fall as green death options gain acceptance and become more common. The rising popularity of alternative remembrance and memorialization forms might mean that there could be reduced demand and need for individual and physical markers to honour the dead. As a result, the memorialisation of the dead could fundamentally change, becoming decoupled from space and de-individualised, freeing up precious land space and allowing the energy saved to be channelled towards other uses.
The rise of green funerary options will breathe a new meaning to life after death.
We could be approaching a juncture where urgent action is required to address climate change and when energy resources such oil, coal and gas become increasingly scarce or obsolete. Urban death rates are also rising and could perhaps be exacerbated by more frequent and deadly pandemics and disease outbreaks. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, crematoria and cemeteries in many countries were overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies they had to process. Therefore, with the emergence of the various green funerary options, death could eventually be reconceptualised to encompass more than just a teleological end of life and the symbolic remembrance of the dead. Instead, corpses could come to be seen as essential resources for the living, with more and more people wanting to “give back” to create new life in various ways after they die. This could pave the way for a new circular economy of life and death that could redefine the relationship between the living and the dead.
Currently, it is uncertain if the carbon emissions and energy consumption from cremation are particularly urgent problems that necessitate the shift towards more eco-friendly funerary practices. Singapore produced 46,429 tonnes of carbon dioxide as a result of cremation in the Financial Year 2019–20. However, this pales in comparison to the carbon dioxide produced by waste incineration: 868,800 tonnes. Potential breakthroughs in innovations such as developments in underground space and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies could also negate concerns about the land- and carbon-intensive nature of current dominant funerary practices. It is also unclear if the emerging alternative forms of remembrance, such as virtual memorialisation, are actually replacing physical memorialisation or simply taking place alongside it. The shift away from current burial and cremation options could also potentially encounter socio-cultural obstacles in the form of entrenched traditions and beliefs, such as the annual Qing Ming festival in several Asian societies and the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico, where rituals such cleaning up graves, setting up elaborate altars, and making physical offerings are central to remembering and honouring ancestors. It might also be argued that the “fear factor” surrounding death may also cause the public to avoid the eco-friendly burial and memorial sites that may also double-up as civic spaces. However, the high demand for new flats in Singapore’s Bidadari area — which used to be a sprawling cemetery — and the popularity of Green-Wood cemetery in New York — which hosts regular interactive events and performances featuring music, art, and film screenings — indicate that spaces intimately associated with death might not necessarily evoke fear and avoidance.
Therefore, enacting a shift towards these eco-friendly funerary practices could have some larger benefits, particularly for land-scarce cities and countries that are committed to reducing their environmental footprints. However, enacting a cultural shift on the issue of death is not a completely alien undertaking for many societies. To free up precious land for development, multi-religious Singapore successfully moved away from burial and towards cremation as the dominant funerary practice in the 1960s, underscoring the fluid conventions and asynchronous taboos surrounding death and funerary practices across the major religions and traditions. Thus, it could be useful for governments to consider if the benefits from these new green death options would justify the trade-off in bringing about a new cultural shift to gain acceptance for them.
With these emerging eco-friendly funerary practices and memorialisation forms enabling more customisable and personalised deaths, it could also be worthwhile for governments to consider their potential implications, such as the impact on mourning, grieving, and remembrance rituals like funerals and wakes.
Given the rising popularity of these green death options, it might also be useful to think about the necessary regulatory reforms surrounding funerary practices and urban “deathscapes”. This would include the legalisation and normalisation of green death options as well as the liberalisation and diversification of the funeral and death industries. In many jurisdictions, archaic laws governing death and dying that are premised on narrow definitions of cremation and burial are leaving promising emerging death technologies without the legal ground to establish themselves, preserving the dominance of traditional big players in the funeral and death industries such as casket companies and crematorium operators. For example, in Kansas, the legal definition of cremation requires “the separation of the flesh from bone by the destruction of the flesh,” which does not apply to several of the newer green death options.
Finally, would the utilitarian use of the bodies of the dead as resources for the living be a particularly significant cultural re-orientation? In several countries, including Austria, Belgium, Chile, Singapore and Spain, opt-out organ donation programmes have already legitimised and institutionalised the removal of functioning organs from the dead for the benefit of the living. Therefore, a future reality where this utilitarian view of the dead is extended to entire bodies may not be too far-fetched in many parts of the world.
Will the utilitarian use of the dead bodies as resources for the living lead to significant cultural re-orientation?
Gurubaran Subramaniam is Lead Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.
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