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  • Writer's pictureCayla Townes

The Body After Death: A Brief Guide to Disposition Options

Updated: Jun 12

When people think of what happens to someone after they die in Canada and the USA it's usually one of two things: traditional burial or cremation. Unfortunately, both of these mainstream disposition options can carry hefty price tags, both for your bank account and the environment. But are there other options? Which are the most environmentally friendly? What do they cost? Can I still have a traditional funeral if I choose one of these other options? Read on for information about alternatives to traditional funerals and cremations.

Flowers on a coffin

When it comes to end-of-life planning, many people are now considering alternative body disposition options that align with their values and environmental concerns. Traditional burial and cremation have long been the norm, but there are now greener alternatives available. In this brief guide, we will explore the various body disposition options, including traditional burial, cremation, green burial, alkaline hydrolysis, and composting. We will examine the processes, environmental impacts, and frequently asked questions surrounding each option.

(It is worth noting that not all of the options listed below are available throughout Canada and the USA. Each province, territory, or state has its own laws regulating body disposition practices so be sure to look into the options that are available where you live.)

What is Traditional Burial?

Traditional burial is the most common method of body disposition, involving the interment of the deceased in the ground. It typically includes embalming, a viewing or visitation, a funeral service, transportation to the cemetery and burial in a casket. This method has been practiced for centuries and is deeply rooted in cultural and religious traditions.

The Process of Traditional Burial

The process of traditional burial begins with the embalming of the body, which involves the preservation and sanitization of the deceased through the use of chemicals. This allows for public visitation and extended time between death and burial. Following embalming, a viewing or visitation is held where family and friends can pay their respects to the deceased.

After the viewing, a funeral service is conducted, which can take place at a funeral home, church, or other appropriate location. The casket is then transported to the cemetery for burial. The gravesite is prepared, and the casket is lowered into the ground. Often, a memorial marker or headstone is placed at the gravesite as a lasting tribute.

Environmental Considerations

While traditional burial is a deeply ingrained tradition, it does have environmental consequences. The use of embalming fluids, caskets made from non-biodegradable materials, and the land required for cemeteries all contribute to environmental impact. Additionally, the maintenance of graveyards and the resources required for the production and transportation of caskets, headstones, and burial vaults further add to the ecological footprint.

What is Cremation?

Cremation is a popular alternative to traditional burial, with its popularity steadily increasing in the Western World over the last 60 years. The process involves the reduction of the body to bone fragments through the application of intense heat in a cremation chamber. The resulting bone fragments are then processed into a finer substance known as cremated remains or ashes.

Cremation provides flexibility in terms of memorialization options. Families can choose to keep the ashes in an urn, scatter them in a meaningful location, or even incorporate them into jewelry, artwork, or shoot them into space on a rocket (seriously!). Cremation also offers a more affordable option compared to traditional burial.

The Cremation Process

The cremation process typically takes two to three hours. The body is first placed in a specialized container, often referred to as a cremation casket or container. This container is then placed inside the cremation chamber, where it is subjected to intense heat, usually between 1,400 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

During cremation, the heat breaks down the body's organic matter, leaving behind bone fragments. After the cremation is complete, the bone fragments are processed into a finer substance using a machine called a cremulator. The resulting ashes are then placed in an urn or other container and returned to the family.

Environmental Considerations

While cremation is generally considered more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, it still has a carbon footprint. The process requires energy and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, there are alternative cremation methods that offer greener options. One such method is alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation.

What is Alkaline Hydrolysis?

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation, is an innovative body disposition method gaining recognition for its environmental benefits. It involves the use of water, heat, and an alkaline solution to accelerate the natural decomposition process.

How Alkaline Hydrolysis Works

During alkaline hydrolysis, the body is placed in a specially designed-vessel. Water and an alkaline solution, typically potassium hydroxide, are added to the vessel, which is then heated to a high temperature and pressurized. This process breaks down the body's organic matter, leaving behind bone ash and a sterile liquid.

The liquid produced during alkaline hydrolysis is safe to be discharged into the wastewater system, as it is free from harmful pathogens and chemicals. The bone ash can be returned to the family, similar to traditional cremation.

Environmental Advantages

Alkaline hydrolysis offers several environmental advantages over traditional cremation. The process requires significantly less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases. It also eliminates the release of harmful substances, such as mercury from dental fillings, which can occur during traditional cremation.

Furthermore, alkaline hydrolysis uses a smaller amount of water compared to traditional burial, making it a more water-efficient method. Overall, this innovative approach to body disposition offers a greener alternative for those seeking environmentally friendly options.

peaceful path through trees with bench

What is Green Burial?

Green burial, also known as natural burial, is a body disposition option that aims to have minimal impact on the environment. It embraces the natural decomposition process and avoids the use of embalming fluids, non-biodegradable caskets, and concrete burial vaults.

In a green burial, the body is placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud and interred directly in the earth. The burial site is often located in a designated green cemetery or natural burial ground, where native plants and trees can flourish.

The Green Burial Process

The process of green burial involves several key steps. Firstly, the body is prepared for burial without the use of embalming fluids. Instead, refrigeration or dry ice may be used to temporarily preserve the body. The use of biodegradable materials, such as a simple wooden casket or a shroud made from natural fibers, is encouraged.

The burial site is carefully chosen to minimize the impact on the natural surroundings. The grave is dug to a shallower depth than in traditional burial, allowing for more efficient decomposition. Native plants and trees may be planted to enhance the ecological value of the burial site.

Benefits and Environmental Impact

Green burial offers numerous benefits from an environmental perspective. By avoiding embalming and the use of non-biodegradable materials, it reduces the release of harmful chemicals and limits the consumption of natural resources. The shallow burial depth allows for faster decomposition and returns the body's nutrients to the soil.

Additionally, green burial sites often serve as nature preserves, contributing to biodiversity and providing habitats for wildlife. The use of native plants and trees helps restore and maintain local ecosystems. Overall, green burial is a sustainable and ecologically conscious choice.

What is Human Composting?

Composting, once exclusively associated with organic waste, has now expanded to include human remains. This emerging body disposition method, known as human composting or natural organic reduction, offers a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative.

The Process of Composting

Human composting involves the natural decomposition of the body, facilitated by the use of microbes and organic materials. The body is placed in a vessel along with wood chips, straw, and other organic matter. Over a period of several weeks, the body breaks down, ultimately transforming into nutrient-rich soil.

The resulting soil, known as compost, can be used to nourish plants and contribute to the regeneration of the natural environment. It offers a unique way to return the body's nutrients to the earth and promote sustainability.

Environmental Benefits of Composting

Composting offers numerous environmental benefits. It reduces the need for traditional burial space, which can consume valuable land resources. Additionally, the process does not require the use of embalming fluids or non-biodegradable materials, minimizing the release of harmful chemicals and waste.

Composting also sequesters carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. As the organic matter decomposes, carbon is stored in the resulting soil, preventing its release into the atmosphere. This process contributes to the regeneration of the earth, creating a healthier and more sustainable environment.

handwritten notes on cardboard coffin for natural burial

Frequently Asked Questions

Which body disposition option is the most environmentally friendly?

All the body disposition options discussed in this guide have varying degrees of environmental impact. Green burial and composting are often considered the most environmentally friendly choices, as they promote natural decomposition and minimize the use of chemicals and non-biodegradable materials. However, each option has its own unique benefits and considerations, and the choice ultimately depends on individual preferences and beliefs.

How much does each body disposition option cost?

The cost of body disposition options can vary depending on factors such as location, service providers, and personal preferences. Traditional burial and cremation can involve significant costs, including funeral services, caskets, and cemetery plots. Green burial and composting may offer more affordable alternatives, but it is essential to research and compare prices from different providers.

Can I still have a traditional funeral with alternative body disposition options?

Yes, it is possible to combine alternative body disposition options with traditional funeral practices. For example, if you choose cremation, you can still have a funeral service with the casket present before the cremation takes place. Similarly, green burial and composting can be preceded by a traditional funeral or memorial service. Discuss your preferences with a funeral director or home funeral guide to explore the available options.

The Body After Death: What Do You Think?

Choosing a body disposition option is a deeply personal decision that should consider both individual preferences, cultural and religious considerations, and environmental impact. Traditional burial, cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, green burial, and composting each offer unique benefits and considerations. By understanding the processes, environmental impacts, and frequently asked questions surrounding these options, you can make informed choices that align with your values.

By planning ahead and letting those who care for you know what you'd like done with your body after death, you can also take some of the guesswork out of how they can honor and respect you and your values.

If you'd like help or support planning ahead for your death or finding other end-of-life-related resources, feel free to reach out to me anytime.

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