Why we need to consider the environment when making decisions about how to deal with our bodies after death

Earlier in her career, Emily Nelson worked for a big death-care corporation that owns several thousand funeral homes across the US and Canada. “I am so grateful for my time there because it was extremely eye-opening,” she says. “I really got to see behind the curtain.” She describes the “high-volume, high-scale world that people often don’t even know exists.”

Working in this world forced Nelson to confront a reality that many of us try to ignore: In North America, how we typically deal with bodies after death is atrocious for the environment.

With traditional casketed burial, first the body is embalmed. “You’re exposing the dead body—and you’re exposing the funeral workers—to really toxic chemicals that then can leak into the earth over time,” Nelson says.

According to the Green Burial Council, burials in the United States use about 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid each year, and approximately 827,060 gallons of that is formaldehyde, methanol and benzene. Plus, burials consume an enormous amount of resources, including concrete, steel, copper, bronze and hardwoods.

Even more common than burials these days is fire cremation, which involves “burning fossil fuels and just using a ton of energy,” Nelson says. She estimates that in terms of energy, a single fire cremation is “the equivalent of driving about 600 miles in a standard passenger vehicle.” Plus, “if you have mercury dental fillings or any other toxins, that’s just going up in smoke and into the atmosphere.”

For some time now, consumers have been seeking options that are easier on the environment but still affordable. “The funeral industry is really slow to adapt and adopt change,” Nelson notes. “Consumers are more ready for these green options than the industry is.”

Nelson is now the founder and CEO of Be a Tree Cremation, which opened its doors in January 2021. The Denver, Colorado, company offers water cremation.

Also known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis, water cremation has been around for more than a century. The process was patented in 1888, though initially it was used only for animal remains. It wasn’t until the last decade or so that some funeral homes in North America began making it available.

“Instead of fire, we use water and a little bit of alkali, which is the same thing used to make soaps and many other common household goods, and that gently circulates over several hours, really breaking everything down in a way that mimics natural decomposition” Nelson explains. “And at the end, we’re left with skeletal remains and we’re left with water. Skeletal remains dry and then get processed for the urn.” As for the water, it’s full of nutrients. “We actually return that back to the Earth, and it nourishes a local farm.”Be a Tree CremationWater cremation uses electricity, not fossil fuels, and has a carbon footprint about one-tenth the size of fire cremation. Financially, the two methods of cremation cost about the same for the consumer, while the price for a traditional casketed burial is around three to four times as much.

When Nelson first started her company, she wondered if only dedicated environmentalists would choose her services. Instead, she sees a broad range of people opt for water cremation. “We get people really across the spectrum,” she says. “Some people may have had a fear of fire or a fear of being buried and so this just feels a lot gentler for them, and just feels better.” She adds, “That idea of living on through nature is huge for people as well, which is connected to the environmental impact, though it’s kind of a different motive.”

Water cremation isn’t the only eco-friendly alternative to fire cremation or a traditional casketed burial. Companies such as Recompose offer green burial, also known as natural burial, organic reduction or human composting. The human remains are wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and placed directly in the ground, with no embalming involved.

Many parts of the United States and Canada still do not offer green death options. “If someone lives in a state where it’s not yet legal, I recommend writing to your state representative and telling them that you want these green options available,” Nelson advises. “That’s how we’ve been able to make change here in Colorado with water cremation, then more recently with natural organic reduction or human composting, was because we had politicians who are willing to sponsor that and advocate for that and get it passed.”

Nelson believes that people are finally becoming more willing to contemplate death. “I do think that the pandemic and the awareness around what’s going on in our environment is increasing awareness of death,” she says. And she commends the younger generation for their willingness to discuss difficult issues such as mental health and death. “I just really honour them for being able to talk about these taboo topics.”

Planning for death

Emily McClatchey talks about death—a lot.

A child psychologist who specializes in helping children cope with grief and loss, she is also a death doula and a hospice volunteer. After recovering from cancer and learning about green burials, she added another job title to her extensive resume: Green Funeral Steward.

McClatchey works for Keefe Funeral Home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helping her clients understand the full range of options available along with the various ways to reduce the environmental impact of each choice. “Like skipping embalming, using the container that’s provided, selecting a crematory that has advanced filtration systems that tend to have less emissions, things like that, all the way through home preparation,” she says. “Basically, the whole gamut.” If green options aren’t available in a client’s region, she can help calculate the carbon footprint of transporting human remains to an area with water cremation or natural burial.

“I approach it much as I do clinical psychology. There’s no judgment or belief about what one should do. It’s all about following what the client would like to do or what they’re interested in,” she explains. 

For far too many people, the subject of death is taboo. “There’s this notion: If you think about it, it will happen. Or if you plan for it, it will happen,” McClatchey says. “We like to say death is like pregnancy or sex. Talking about sex isn’t going to make you pregnant. Talking about death isn’t going to kill you. But I think people are just incredibly reluctant to face their own mortality.”

She advises anyone who cares about the environmental impact of their death to have the hard conversations now and also to make plans with a trusted funeral home. “If you want a greener death, you have to be intentional about it because, for very practical reasons, you’re not going to be using embalming, so you don’t have a lot of time for preservation of the body,” she says. “I think pre-planning is a really good idea for people who are a little bit concerned that maybe their wishes would not be granted by somebody making their arrangements.”

Eco-friendly options will become the norm in her industry, McClatchey predicts. “Green is not new. Green has been around forever. And a return back to the traditional way of doing things, I think, is a natural progression,” she says.

“Profit, unfortunately, drives a lot of what has happened in the funeral industry. But I think the funeral players who are going to survive are going to be the ones who are apprised of consumer trends and consumer choices and willing to support and engage those consumers in a meaningful way.”

Further reading

A community of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists created The Order of the Good Death, which has the goal of “building a meaningful, eco-friendly and equitable end of life.” This death-positive website is filled with information—some practical, some simply fascinating—about green funerals, eco-friendly death technology, dealing with anxiety surrounding death, how to talk about death and more.