People have long had limited choices in treating remains after death, with traditional burial or cremation being the main options. Unfortunately, these options can result in high monetary and environmental costs. For example, traditional burial is expensive and often includes the use of embalming chemicals, concrete, plastic grave vaults or liners, and the use of metal or exotic wood caskets.
Cremation exudes toxic emissions, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals. Research suggests that cremation releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year.
Some people hope to be eco-friendly, even in their last moments, and they may be surprised to learn that their life insurance policy’s death benefit can help pay for their “green” burial.
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5 Alternative Green Burial Options
Green burial options run the gamut from a less-toxic burial in a green cemetery to cutting-edge technology such as human composting. Now is the time to investigate opportunities in advance and find a funeral you’re comfortable with both in price and process.
Natural Coffin-less Burial
Many caskets are made with materials that are not biodegradable and costly to source. People looking for a more environmentally-friendly burial may want to avoid embalming or use biodegradable caskets and shrouds — or go fully casket-less. You could also try to keep the burial area as natural as possible, avoiding using fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, mowing, or pruning.
There are certified green burial sites across 34 U.S. states, including embalming-free funeral homes and places that combine traditional graveyards and conservation areas. Families that select these sites can then choose between native wildlife plantings and/or large engraved rocks to mark their loved one’s burial. This gives loved ones an eco-friendly destination to visit in the future.
Composting to Soil
Also called natural organic reduction, human composting uses natural processes to rapidly transform the body into rich, organic soil. Human composting saves over one ton of carbon dioxide per person compared to cremation.
The body is stored in a container with wood chips, straw, and other materials over the course of several weeks as it decomposes. The remaining material is processed again and returned to the surviving family as rich compost that loved ones can scatter in a chosen place.
However, natural organic reduction isn’t yet widespread and is only legal in Washington State, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York.
This approach may also be called aquamation, alkaline hydrolysis, or flameless cremation. Aquamation originated in the 19th century and uses water, alkaline materials, heat, and pressure to break down the body, which can take up to 20 hours. Aquamation uses far less energy than traditional fire-based cremation, with a lower carbon footprint.
The remaining bones are crushed into a powder-like substance, and returned to surviving loved ones. Family members can then scatter the ashes or keep them in an urn.
An at-sea burial can be an environmentally friendly method if you offset greenhouse gas emissions from boat or plane usage. The Environmental Protection Agency still enforces strict guidelines about how remains can be disposed of at sea.
For example, non-cremated remains must be placed into water at least 600 feet deep and three nautical miles from land. The remains must not contain toxic chemicals and go into a special shroud casket or a casket modified by a licensed, sea-burial-certified funeral director.
Sea burial isn’t the only ocean-related option. Some companies specialize in creating a living reef from cremated ashes. However, cremation is not as green as many alternatives.
You can donate your body to a medical school to help train the next generation of doctors and scientists, usually at no cost. Typically, you must meet minimum qualifications, which can vary by institution. For example, you might not qualify if you were infected with certain infectious diseases during your lifetime.
After your body has benefited the medical community, the remains are typically cremated and then returned to your family. Some schools, such as the Mayo Clinic, may also offer aquamation. Other universities operate what are known as “body farms,” where medical or forensic anthropology students observe the process of natural decomposition.
Know the Laws and Regulations Around Green Burials
Not all states allow every type of green burial, and many have land-use laws that can make green burials challenging. With that said, green burials are available in many U.S. states:
- Green Cemeteries: Available in 34 states
- Aquamation: Legal in 24 states.
- Human Composting: Permitted in 6 states
Even if you don’t live in a state with green burial options, you may still be able to organize a sea burial or donate your body to science.
Can Life Insurance Pay For Your Green Burial?
Depending on where you live, green burials can often be more expensive than traditional direct cremation but cheaper than a full funeral. Additional costs can result from body transportation, death certificate filing, funeral home purchases, memorial or celebration of life services, and burial plots.
Life insurance death benefits can help pay for your end-of-life choices. Death benefits typically come with no strings attached and will cover any burial costs, green or otherwise. If you want to ensure your policy is enough to cover your specific choices, you should get a reasonable estimate of everything you want done and then review your policy with your agent.