You drive an electric vehicle. You recycle. You’re a vegetarian. Do your final wishes reflect your eco-friendly lifestyle? Though it’s not likely to be discussed at a funeral, the popular methods of body disposal—traditional burial or cremation—both pose major environmental hazards.
In recent years, natural interment has made a comeback, with promises to protect the planet. Here are eight eco-friendly ways to make your last act on Earth a kind one.
1. Be buried in a mushroom coffin.
Mushrooms are masters of myco-remediation—a process in which fungi break down toxic compounds in the environment. Loop, a Dutch company, is applying this idea to human burial with its Living Cocoon, a person-sized box made entirely of tough fungal fibers call mycelium. While the box is above ground and empty, the mycelium dries out and becomes solid; but when it’s buried with a permanent occupant, the moisture in the soil reactivates the fibers and the fungi begin to grow. Eventually, the body will be consumed, and the surrounding soil will be enriched. It’s an appealing thought for the green at heart, even though “eaten by mushrooms” may not be exactly how they pictured going out.
2. Dissolve in a warm bath.
With aquamation—also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis—the body is placed in a stainless steel vessel filled with a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. A combination of rushing alkaline waters and temperatures around 350°F causes the body to dissolve in essentially the same process that happens to a body left outdoors or in a stream—but what would take months in nature takes about 20 hours in an aquamation pod. By the end, all that’s left is the skeleton, or parts thereof, which is ground up into a white powder with a pearly sheen. The remains are given to the loved ones, who may choose to scatter them like ashes or place them in a biodegradable urn. Advocates say the process emits about a fifth of the carbon dioxide of traditional cremation. Aquamation is legal in 25 states as of January 2023.
3. Plant yourself at a body farm.
In the early 1970s, anthropologist William Bass wanted to study how bodies decompose naturally. Using donated cadavers, he created a “farm” for forensic anthropologists to study a wide array of body decomposition scenarios. What does it look like if a body rots in a swamp? If it’s eaten by maggots? Crows? Welcome to the body farm, where disturbing dreams come true.
Texas lays claim to the largest body farm in the U.S., located on Freeman Ranch at Texas State University. The body farm is responsible for massive developments in criminal science and thanatology (the study of death); it’s aided in critical discoveries including the “microbial clock”—a process by which time of death can be identified by examining the posthumous microbiome.
People can donate their bodies to a local body farm to further research (and save a good chunk of change on interment). There are seven currently operating in the United States, with more in other countries.
4. Let vultures consume your remains.
In Tibet, Buddhists practice “sky burials” meant to encourage good karma. They take bodies of their loved ones to high-elevation charnel grounds where vultures come to eat the flesh, offering back to the world what was taken in life: meat. It’s believed that the practice encourages the dead to move along to the next life without being held back by one’s greatest attachment—their physical body. Ritual aside, these sky burials are a practical solution in a region lacking in wood and usable burial grounds (the rocky earth makes it hard to dig).
5. Decompose naturally.
Green burials look pretty much like normal burials, except for a few important differences. No embalming fluids or toxic chemicals of any kind are used. The grave is often dug by hand (either by the green burial ground staff or, if they choose, the loved ones themselves). There is no cement plot. Only biodegradable caskets, such as those made of wicker, can be used; sometimes the body is simply placed in an unbleached cloth shroud. This allows the corpse to decompose naturally, returning its nutrients to the earth. Many green burial grounds also serve as wildlife refuges, creating spaces for animals and native plant life—families can choose from a variety of live, wild grasses and flowers to adorn the grave.
Aside from being environmentally friendly, this is a cheaper option than traditional burial considering the price tags on caskets and funerary services. The average cost of a viewing, embalming, and burial was almost $8000 in 2021, while a green burial could cost half that amount or even less.
6. Commit your body to the deep.
Following in the tradition of Vikings, sailors, and pirates, those who loved the ocean in life can return in death with a sea burial. In addition to the countless water-soluble urns for cremains on the market, an entire body can be buried at sea in designated areas off the U.S. coast. Environmentally inclined businesses like New England Burials at Sea offer more eco-friendly (and affordable) options such as natural burial shrouds hand-sewn by New England sail makers. A full day charter takes your funeral party out to sea and facilitates the service before dropping the body. Companies such as Eternal Reefs can also mix cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to create artificial reefs that support marine life. Not everyone would want to sleep with the fishes, but many sailors consider it the most sacred of exits.
7. Compost yourself.
As of December 31, 2022, six U.S. states have legalized human composting—Washington was the first, followed by Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York. In this process, a body is placed in a reusable tank and covered with organic materials like straw or wood chips. Microbes get to work breaking down the remains. About a month later, the deceased’s loved ones can collect the contents, now transformed into (roughly) a cubic yard of environmentally-friendly compost that can be added to gardens or flower beds.
8. Accidentally fall into a peat bog.
Peat marshes (or bogs) are highly acidic environments that preserve flesh and other materials placed in them. Hikers in Ireland and Scandinavia have stumbled upon mummified, tea-colored bog bodies dating back hundreds or thousands of years. So, while the alkaline waters of aquamation will dissolve a body post-haste, the acids in the bogs give a pH akin to that of vinegar. This acts like a pickling agent, freezing the body in time, and the tannins in the peat dye the bodies a leathery brown. Accidentally falling into a bog probably isn’t the next big trend in green burial, but it is a way to preserve human remains without harming the environment.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.