Funeral Care is Changing and Becoming Green


There’s a growing movement to wrestle death care away from the needlessly expensive hands of the Funeral Industry and to return to simpler methods of care and burial of the dead. The Order of the Good Death is an international organization committed to helping people find safe, green, affordable and natural options for burial. The Order is young, but growing quickly in part as a response to the startling statistics about our modern burial practices.

“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.” via Just How Bad is Traditional Burial?

One of the primary chemicals used in embalming fluid is formaldehyde, making all those gallons of embalming fluid highly toxic. Practitioners are required to wear full body and face protection and the chemicals aren’t always safely contained in our modern sealed caskets and concrete vaults. Flooding, earthquakes and even simply shifting ground can allow embalming fluids to leach into the soil and ground waters.

Cremation isn’t much better, releasing many dangerous pollutants into the air. There is, however, a new technology available called Aquamation which chemically breaks down a body using Alkaline Hydrolosis. The process is simple and transformative according to green funeral director Jeff Jorgenson

The AH process is that of heating a solution of water and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH), which breaks down the complex molecules that make up the soft tissue of a body. In most human AH machines, this solution is pressurized and heated well above the boiling point of standard atmosphere. This high pressure/high temperature accelerates the breakdown of these complex molecules to a liquid. What remains are just the bones of the deceased, which is the same result you see with cremation. The process in human machines takes around three hours. Most animal AH machines however, this one included, do not use pressure for the process and thus, the temperatures used in the process are far lower, and that equals a longer processing time. This longer process means that you must perform multiple aquamations in one cycle to make it viable…

The water at the end of the cycle then gets discharged into the sanitary system like all other waste water. I would like to take a moment to explain that the liquid that is discharged is nutrient rich and safe enough to use in the garden for all of your vegetables. In cremation, all the tissues and liquid are vented up the chimney in the form of particulates and steam. In the both cremation and AH, what is returned to the family is simply bone and trace materials.

Aquamation is new technology and it may take some time before it becomes widely available and accepted. For those who want a more natural disposition of their dead there are green cemeteries popping up where bodies are simply buried in the soil with only a natural shroud or a biodegradable coffin. There are also now burial suits that turn bodies into clean compost. Decomposition is natural and safe. There is also a growing number of funeral directors who will assist you to be involved in the care of the body at your own level of comfort. That may be as simple as helping to wash and dress the dead or as complex as keeping the body at home and arranging for transport and burial. It is not a legal requirement that bodies be embalmed and it is perfectly safe to keep a body at home for several days with simply ice packs to slow down decomposition. 

A home funeral is what used to be called”a funeral,” since all funerals took place in the family home. Nowadays it means choosing to keep a body at home after death, as opposed to having the body immediately picked up by a funeral home. It is a safe and legal choice for a family to make!

Now, an important caveat is that each US state (for instance) has different laws – some states require you to hire a funeral director to file a death certificate or to transport a body.  This won’t effect the keeping the body at home part, but the funeral director will need to be involved in the process.

To find out what the home funeral requirements are where you live, you can find more detailed information here.

And if you’re interested in the requirements around embalming, burial, and cremation, read your consumer rights listed by state.

I encourage you to visit the Order of The Good Death. The site is full of resources and interesting articles about this growing trend in after death care. They also have information to help you begin conversations about planning for death and advanced directives. Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. There’s no need to fear talking about it.

I’d also like to thank Avalus for prompting me to write about this. His photographs of mushrooms in a natural burial cemetery peaked my curiosity. We’ll be sharing Avalus’ mushroom photos daily over the course of this week and I encourage you to check them out, too.





  1. says

    A friend of mine’s a mortician, and she’s been talking about trying to promote clean low-energy ways of disposing of the dead. (I don’t think “dispose” is the word they use) -- she was telling me about a process where they pressure cook the corpse with a bit of lye. I was thinking “that has to be the worst soap ever” but apparently it uses much less fuel than cremation.

  2. avalus says

    Thank you voyager, thats really interesting! With bodies there is always the problem of disease vectors, so it is not such a simple problem. Burning wet stuff is not easy, cooking it much more so.

    [It is mortician and not undertaker. *does a facepalm* Damn you popculture … No wait, damn you, my own lazyness! overriding my word-checking! ]

  3. Nightjar says

    Thanks, Voyager, for the interesting post and links.

    For those who want a more natural disposition of their dead there are green cemeteries popping up where bodies are simply buried in the soil with only a natural shroud or a biodegradable coffin.

    That is exactly how I always wanted my burial to be. Hopefully I will not be hazardous waste when I drop dead, so I can’t see why I would need any kind of special disposal treatment. Just bury whatever parts of me are not usable organs and let nature do what it does best: recycling.

  4. Nightjar says

    Avalus, from what I read, those handling dead bodies should certainly take precautions not to be contaminated by potential pathogens, but once bodies are buried the microbiological contamination dissipates rather quickly. There is a lot of fear, but not much evidence that buried dead bodies present a public health risk. Obviously some considerations should be taken when choosing a burial site, taking into account soil porosity and groundwater proximity. I once read a review paper about this, I will try to look it up.

  5. Nightjar says

    Of course I can’t find it. I don’t think it was this one I read, but it says more or less the same thing. Also, WHO says that “unless the deceased has died from a highly infectious disease, the risk to the public is negligible. However, there is a risk of diarrhoea from drinking water contaminated by faecal material from dead bodies. Routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent waterborne illness.”

    When it comes to pathogens, dead bodies aren’t more dangerous than live, walking bodies. I’d say they are less, because they are not walking around infecting other people, the pathogens they may have harboured can no longer thrive, and they are no longer producing faecal material on a daily basis.

  6. kestrel says

    I didn’t have time to read this yesterday but this is pretty fascinating… I recently listened to a podcast about donating one’s body. It seems that various tissues are really necessary to help develop, for example, new dental surgeries, and many more things I never thought of. When the tissues have been used the remains are cremated and returned to the family, along with a letter explaining what types of science or research their loved ones helped to move forward. It sounded like a fantastic way to make one more tiny effort in leaving the world a better place.

    In farm work, one occasionally has the task of taking care of the dead body of a large animal. I know for us, we’re told to compost the body, as that is considered to be the best thing to do, as well as safest for the environment. I think it’s terrific that some of those options are opening up for human beings.

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