What's the greenest way to dispose of my dead body?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 17 2009 12:01 PM

The Green Hereafter

How to leave an environmentally friendly corpse.

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If you do decide to go with interment, there are plenty of ways to green up the process. Choose a simple, locally sourced, metal-free coffin and a cemetery that doesn't require a cement vault. (Even if you choose a biodegradable, recycled-paper burial pod, sealing it up in an underground tomb will keep both you and the vessel from composting properly.) Also look for a funeral home that will forgo embalming in favor of refrigeration or dry ice, or at the very least use formaldehyde-free preserving fluid. Contrary to what some funeral directors may suggest, embalmment is rarely legally required. The Green Burial Council's list of recommended providers is a good place to start your planning. (By 2010, they'll be certifying crematoriums, too.)

The absolute greenest option would involve a shroud made from biodegradable fabric and a cemetery that inters its inhabitants in shallow graves and has been designed with an eye toward preserving the local ecology. Right now, there are about 20 burial grounds in the United States that practice varying levels of eco-consciousness, but that number will almost certainly grow in coming years. If you decide to take your everlasting rest in one of these pastoral settings, keep in mind that you may have to factor in longer road trips. Ask your family to keep your graveside service small and to keep future pilgrimages to an absolute minimum.

If you can manage to stick around for a while, two new technologies have eco-geeks (not to mention sci-fi fans) excited. The process of alkaline hydrolysis involves liquefying your body in a solution of lye and water, resulting in a pile of bone ash and a bottle of biofluid that you can pour on your houseplants. One of its leading proponents, a Scotland-based company called Resomation Ltd., claims that the procedure has a carbon footprint 18 times smaller than a typical cremator. In the other procedure, called promession, a corpse gets freeze-dried with liquid nitrogen and then shattered into powder, Terminator-style. Neither of these options is commercially available yet, but both the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida use alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of their teaching cadavers. So, you experimental types—why not turn yourself into the ultimate recycling project and donate your body to science?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.