Sustainability in Death

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Most of us give some thought to how we want to be cared for at the end of our lives, and how we want our family and loved ones to honor us after we have passed, but the practice of embalming is something that until recently has been a pretty standard procedure. Embalming means preserving a deceased body. It is a cultural practice that has been in place since ancient Egypt. The modern practice utilizes formaldehyde and was discovered in 1867. In America the practice became popular during the Civil War era as a way to preserve bodies long enough to return home to families. However, the process today still uses formaldehyde, which is known to be carcinogenic and toxic to wildlife. This has led some environmentalists to ask whether embalming is really leaving the legacy they want behind. A few local entrepreneurs focusing on sustainability now offer more environmentally friendly solutions to our end of life practices.


Millions of gallons of embalming fluid, containing the known carcinogen formaldehyde are injected into our deceased each year, while cremations release over a billion pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the non-profit Green Burial Council. Not only are these practices costly to our environment, they are also financially costly. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates overall funeral costs average $7360. 


Laura Starkey, the founder of Heartwood Green Burial saw the problems with the status quo embalming procedures, the costly caskets, and the cemeteries that rely labor and chemically intensive landscaping and felt she could make a difference by offering people a less costly and more sustainable option. 


Heartwood Preserve Conservation Cemetery, is a 41 acres natural cemetery and nature preserve located in Trinity, Florida. They offer an earth-friendly option for human burial that is done naturally, without chemicals, using biodegradable materials. According to their website, “Heartwood Preserve is a place where end-of-life decisions are made 

in harmony with nature, where all of life’s passages are honored and celebrated, and the natural ecology of a beautiful and unique habitat is protected.” Starkey shares that by treating death as a natural process, which is actually beneficial to the earth, loved ones often feel more at peace. They encourage loved ones to come and visit grave sites and enjoy the beautiful Preserve that supports wildlife and a thriving ecosystem that is too often lost amongst human development. Heartwood Preserve also hosts “Death-Cafe” which promotes dialogue about death and helps people prepare and cope for the inevitable. This is what Starkey calls having a “healthy relationship with death”. 


Another innovative option is located off the coast of Florida where Neptune Memorial Reef is the first underwater cemetery. It is located 45 feet beneath the ocean’s surface the cemetery with gates, pathways, plaques and even benches.Neptune Memorial reef.It is the world’s largest man-made reef covering over 600,000 sq feet. Your remains can be turned into an underwater tribute statue which will become a part of this underwater remembrance. The cemetery is able to be visited by SCUBA divers.


Human Composting. In 2019 Washinton became the first state to legalize human composting. It was also approved in 2021 in both Colorado and Oregon.  How does it work? The process is similar to composting your food waste. The actions you would take are similar to cremation. Your body is given to a facility and after a period of time, the remains are given back to you. But instead of using gallons of fuel for cremation and receiving ashes, you would receive usable soil. The process is called “natural organic reduction,” which turns a body, when mixed with some brown natural material like wood chips and straw, into compost. The process takes less than a month and according to US Funerals Online, natural organic reduction uses ⅛ of the energy of flame cremation.


Tanja Vidovic, Grace Behnke, Evan Greenfield


Sustainable Living WMNF 88.5FM