I’d thought it was as simple as burial versus cremation: a dichotomy for my final wishes, a straightforward decision made easier by limited options. It didn’t take much time for me to realize I was wrong.
Several years after my parents’ tragic deaths—both killed in cycling accidents two years apart by teen drivers—I met with an attorney to document my final wishes. I’d learned the hard way that death could come at any point, and I chose cremation as the method of disposition. I didn’t overthink the decision as it seemed easiest to me.
But there was one minor catch: I’d grown up with a father who evangelized—in a good way—about his desire for a green or natural burial, although we didn’t know the terms at the time. He wanted his death to nourish the land, rather than dump toxic chemicals in the soil from embalming or burn fossil fuels for cremation. During his burial at our neighborhood cemetery, two years after my mother was killed, the children scooped dirt onto the handcrafted pine casket, with a “thud” that landed like a deep prayer in my chest.
As a mother, professor of environmental education, and person of faith, I began to learn about more sustainable choices than I’d imagined for my body in my home of western North Carolina. So I took matters of life, death, and earth into my own hands with a one-year journey to revise my final wishes with climate and community in mind.
My “death plan,” as my daughters, age 22 and 15, called it, involved decisions about my body and the climate that only I could make. Fifteen years ago, I’d chosen flame cremation for its convenience (as easy as picking up a prescription) and its cost (affordable). As a single mom, I knew price was a major factor in my decision, but the cremation of one body produces about 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of a 500-mile car trip. Cremation is a better choice for the climate than conventional burial with a concrete vault and embalming, but it’s not a green practice in the least.
During my research, I volunteered at a conservation cemetery, attended home funerals, observed at a body farm, researched human composting, and more. I also spent a year talking to my daughters about the logistics of death, and here are the lessons I learned:
There are choices beyond flame cremation and conventional burial
Conventional burial typically involves a vault and often embalming, which isn’t required in any state. The contracts for many neighborhood cemeteries actually allow burial without a vault. In my case, I advocated for natural burial at the cemetery on the college campus where I teach. Flame cremation is convenient and affordable, but it’s not the only option to that end.
The funeral directors I talked to described aquamation as the next more sustainable trend in cremation. Aquamation uses water, lye, and pressure, so it has a lower impact on the climate. It’s becoming available in more states every year at a similar price to flame cremation.
Conservation burial grounds and ‘natural cemetries’ exist throughout the country
Conservation cemeteries protect the land through conservation easements in partnership with local land trusts. In North Carolina, Carolina Memorial Sanctuary partners with Conserving Carolina, the nonprofit that oversees the legal protection of the land. There are 16 conservation burial grounds in the US but more natural burial grounds, which allow burial without a vault or embalming but without legal protections for the land. Check out the Green Burial Council’s website for locations.
Human composting is legal in Washington State, Oregon, and Colorado, and is being considered in additional states. A company called Recompose outside Seattle spent the past 10 years investing in research and development of this process. You can prepay to compost your body, and friends and family can take home the soil or donate it to a local conservation group.
You can donate your body to a ‘body farm’
Donation to a medical school typically requires embalming to preserve the body. But there are seven body farms across the country, where research is conducted on human decomposition. I interviewed students and researchers at the Forensic Anthropology Program at Western Carolina University, where I also observed the donation of a body. The only cost is transport of the deceased to the facility. The research at this regional university contributed to human composting as a viable scientific process.
Local funeral homes often do have green choices
You don’t have to involve a funeral home in your end-of-life plans, but local mortuaries are also becoming more open to both affordable and sustainable options. As one funeral director told me: “If a family wants a pine box, I can find one. But people often don’t ask.
During my research, I interviewed death doulas who bring compassionate care to the decisions that have to be made before and after death. In addition, nonprofits like the Center for End of Life Transitions in Asheville, North Carolina can provide support during home funerals if family and friends want to keep the body at home before disposition.
Only 100 companies contribute to 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions: Such statistics often make me feel overwhelmed about my capacity to make even a small difference. Yet I heed the advice of climate scientist Dr Katharine Hayhoe, who says the number one thing we can do to confront the climate emergency is to talk about it. My research revealed that we don’t talk enough about the climate—or about death—yet we have the power to engage in dialogue about both intersecting issues.
Certainly, the final wishes of one person living and dying in the Appalachian Mountains won’t shift the climate crisis. But taking ownership of the one decision that involves my body after death connects me more deeply with my daughters and those in my community who are working nonstop to heal our relationship to this land. I am part of something bigger than my one life and death—and I’m taking that embodied knowledge to my grave.
Mallory McDuff is the author of four books, including Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love. She teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC