Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — The human body can be measured by many measures, one of which is one cubic yard (0.8 cubic meters), which represents the amount of compost produced by a corpse when combined with plant matter and left to decompose for a period of between 6 and 10 weeks.
This calculation was conducted by the Seattle-based human composting company Recompose, and shows the extent of the organic richness we leave behind when we dispose of this mortal body, and the extent to which it can be used for environmental use.
The green burial movement is not only about finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of burial, but finding ways for people to make a positive impact after death. This last idea, which will soon be rolled out in the US by New York City-based startup Transcend, will give people the chance to “turn” into a tree after they die.
Transcend describes the process like this: Clients select a type of tree suitable for their preferred burial site, on land owned by the company. When a customer dies, their body is shrouded in biodegradable linen and buried surrounded by a mixture of wood chips, local soil and fungi to facilitate composting.
A two- to four-year-old tree, capable of absorbing the rich flow of nutrients secreted by the corpse, is planted over the body. A commemorative sign is then placed on the site, and the tree is allowed to grow.
A drawing showing the concept of burying a tree. The body is surrounded by wood chips, soil and a mixture of fungi, to help compost human remains, and to encourage the tree above to absorb the nutrients excreted by the body. Credit: Courtesy Transcend
Transcend says it has not yet located the first burial sites, but is seeking to do so so that they are no more than two hours away from a major city. The land is being selected in partnership with the not-for-profit One Tree Planted, based on its need for reforestation, and will be legally protected from future development.
Businessman Matthew Coachman founded the company. “What made me personally align myself with the green burial movement, questions like what is the simplest and most natural path? What is the method that has been used for thousands of years?” he told CNN.
Coachman was inspired by the “Capsula Mundi”, the biodegradable, oval-shaped box designed by Italians Raoul Pretzel and Anna Cetelli, on top of which a tree could be planted. While the duo has created a proper version of the burning ashes, they haven’t yet produced a model of the body.
“By the end of 2023, we hope that there will be a few open and vital sites in which to plant many people,” Coachman noted. I want to be a tree when I die’”.
Breaking the duopoly of burial and cremation
A prototype of the ‘Capsula Mundi’: an elliptical sarcophagus designed to contain the ashes of human remains has sparked a debate about alternative burials.Credit: Courtesy Giacomo Bretzel
Two types of funerals are popular in the United States and have environmental drawbacks. Traditional burials annually use millions of gallons of chemicals like formaldehyde, millions of feet of wood, more than a million tons of concrete, and thousands of tons of copper, bronze and steel, according to the Green Burial Council. The majority of Americans now choose cremation, but while it does not use up the land in the same way as traditional burial, it does produce 1.74 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, as well as some heavy metals, including mercury, into the atmosphere.
It wasn’t always that way, according to Jimmy Olson of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, an early adopter of modern green burial options.
He explained that he began practicing mummification during the American Civil War, and the boxes were inserted into a concrete container after World War II to prevent the graves from collapsing, when heavy digging equipment and lawn mowers became common in cemeteries, pointing out that “all we do here is go back to the way we used to.” We did it 100 years ago,” in natural burial grounds that are scattered in meadows and wooded areas.
“Many people tend to think of traditional burial and cremation as the only options, but once they see green burial (and other alternatives), they reconsider,” said Caitlin Hook, former president of the International Green Burial Council.
Recompose, a Seattle-based company, offers human compost, one of the most sustainable funeral alternatives available in the United States.Credit: Recompose
And for those who want to give back to the earth upon their death, options have expanded in recent years.
A form of liquid cremation, known as “aquamation,” is legal in more than a dozen states and can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of cremation while producing nutrient-rich liquid compost.
Transcend is “on a mission to reforest the world,” Coachman said, and each burial purchased will be valued at 1,000 One Tree Planted trees, meaning customers can make an impact even before they die.
“It’s hard to get people to think about death directly.”
Transcend has managed to attract high-profile support such as Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky, who serves on the company’s advisory board along with human decomposition expert Jennifer DeBruin, a microbial biologist at the University of Tennessee’s Body Farm, and One Tree Planted founder Matt Hill.
“It’s a daunting task to get people to think about death directly, but people are very involved with the environment,” Aronofsky said at a recent Transcend seminar.
According to a 2017 US National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) survey, only 21% of people discussed their funeral plans with family, although nearly two-thirds acknowledged the importance of doing so.
“A lot of what we’re doing here is using the tree as a metaphor to get people into an uncomfortable conversation,” Coachman said, noting that “nature has the ability to be a calming tool.”
He added, “I don’t look at us as a death care company or a funeral company… The reason behind this company is to heal society’s relationship with death.”
Transcend’s burial offering is estimated to cost $8,500, higher than the average cost of a funeral with burial ($7,848) or cremation ($6,971) during 2021, according to NFDA data, but not by much.
Running a funeral care start-up is unlike any other industry, Coachman acknowledged.
The founder declined to put a figure on how many customers would be required to sign up to make the business viable in the long term. “Even if the Transcend program is closed, all implemented tree landfills will be 100% protected,” the company posted on its website.
However, Coachman is optimistic that the company will conduct its first burial this spring or summer, and is currently awaiting confirmation of the first burial sites. It is a delicate and complex process, he said.
Even before excavating the first burial in the United States, Coachman is already thinking internationally, taking research trips abroad, and firmly believing that tree burial can find cross-cultural and religious acceptance.
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