Read my latest for VICE.
When I die I want my body used as fertilizer for cannabis so my friends can smoke me. Please plant me in a calming Indica plant so I may reduce the anxiety I caused while I was alive: Sophie Saint Kush. Plus, it’d be good for the environment. Green funeralsare on the rise as an environmentally-conscious generation starts thinking about our wills. And with good reason: Traditional burial methods can take a serious toll on Mother Earth.
“Modern burial—by which I mean the burial of an embalmed body in a metal casket, which is then set into a concrete burial vault, essentially the standard funeral home send off—consumes vast amounts of resources and leaves a trail of environmental damage in its wake,” Mark Harris, former environmental columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of the book on green burial Grave Matters, and co-founder of Green Meadow Natural Burial Ground, told VICE. “A typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough coffin wood to build more than 40 homes and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool. Additionally, every year we divert enough concrete to burial vaults to create a two-lane highway running halfway across the country, and enough metal for caskets to annually rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge. Given those statistics, I’ve come to see cemeteries less as bucolic resting grounds for the dead than as landfills of largely non-biodegradable and hazardous materials.”
“Green burials are a healthy start to nipping our pollution issues in the bud. Also, you save money on not purchasing a casket or a casket,” said Amber Carvaly, a mortician and family advocate who has spent the last year helping build Undertaking LA, an alternative funeral service in Los Angeles.
Not to mention, embalming is disgusting. “During the conventional embalming process that happens in the United States every day, spiked caps are placed in the eyes to keep them closed, mouths are wired shut, blood and abdominal cavities are vacuumed out and all (I mean ALL) holes get plugged up with cotton to prevent “leakage,” Theresa Purcell, natural burial advocate and former president of the Trust for Natural Legacies, told VICE. “People spend so much money on these air tight Tupperware-like caskets trying so hard to keep nature out, but in that type of environment you are trapping the body with anaerobic bacteria and as the body naturally decomposes, gasses are released. The body then bloats and putrefies, sometimes causing the coffin to explode!”
Yikes. In search of a better way of decaying, VICE sought out some more peaceful, planet-friendly alternatives to exploding in a toxin-filled casket. (Some of our ideas were better than others.)
Use your body as plant fertilizer
“I think this is a great idea,” said Carvaly. “If you cremate your body all that is left is dry calcium phosphates, salts of sodium and potassium. It’s not really much in the way of nutrients. Once you are cremated you burn off most of what would be beneficial. However, you can choose a green burial and your body will absolutely benefit the surrounding plants and animals.” Some environmentally-friendly companies are already capitalizing on this idea. “I would definitely use a “tree urn” a new way that your body can literally help grow a forest,” said Albe Zakes, Global VP of Communications for recycling company TerraCycle and co-author of Make Garbage Great: The Terracycle Family Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle. “It’s much greener than being pumped full of formaldehyde and stuffed into a wood box treated with even more chemicals,” he told VICE. “Plus who knows if reincarnation actually exists, but you know for sure you will live on as a tree, providing shade, purifying the air and water, and maybe even making a home for a nice bird family!” Of my weed idea, Theresa reminds me: “How dank your death gets depends on if you can legally grow weed in your area.”
Get cremated and mixed into tattoo ink
What if your “I heart Mom” tattoo could actually contain your dead mom? “It’s been requested before. It’s a symbolic gesture,” tattoo artist JK5 told VICE. Some tattoo-lovers hope to have their cremated ashes mixed with tattoo ink so their loved ones can be tattooed with their body. “I’ve heard of this and it sounds awesome! I don’t personally know if this increases the risk of infection or anything like that, but if you can find an artist that can do it safely I say go for it,” says Purcell. Unfortunately, cremation may not actually be so green after all. “Cremation is a valuable option and absolutely better for the environment than modern burial practices, but the process of cremation requires a significant amount of non-renewable energy and emits toxins, like mercury, into our atmosphere. Still, it’s a good choice for you and yours. Just not as great for the environment as sometimes portrayed.”
Freeze-dry yourself like astronaut food
A choice better than cremation is promession. I learned about this method from my friend Grant, who once took me on a date in a cemetery. Promession is freeze drying—you more or less turn your body into astronaut food. “Promession rules,” agreed Purcell. “I first found out about this idea by reading STIFF by Mary Roach. Promession is the process of freeze-drying a body with liquid nitrogen and exposing it to ultrasonic vibrations until it disintegrates into particles and you are left with a dry powder about 30% of the original weight. Basically a form of compost that’s way more environmentally friendly than conventional burial.” Unfortunately, promession is not yet legal in the United States.
Use yourself as kitty litter
My friend Brooke wants to be cremated and used as kitty litter. “To achieve this you would need to fill out a Disposition of Cremated Remains form with your funeral home/crematory that says you plan on taking the cremated remains home and then doing NOTHING with them,” advises Carvaly. “Then you can do whatever you want with them after that. Wink wink. Legally you cannot put the remains in the litter, but… I doubt you’ll ever get caught.”
Get turned into a nice piece of jewelry
If human bones are already being made into art, why not make a cameo in the afterlife as bone jewelry? “My dream would be that when my time was drawing to a close I could go out into the woods, curl up under the trees, and let nature take it from there,” says bone jeweler Kaya Tinsman. “If I could find an artist or jeweler familiar with cleaning bones whose work I felt a connection to, I would love to have my bones used as art as a memento mori for loved ones left behind. Unfortunately, all of this is highly illegal right now.” The idea of “mourning jewelry” is one that goes back centuries. “For hundreds of years now the hair of deceased loved ones have been woven, twirled, and set behind a clear stone, such as quartz. I’ve thought about using my final living years making jewelry incorporating my own hair for the people I love,” Tinsman said.
Mourning jewelry is similar to Aboriginal mortuary rites, Purcell’s personal favorite burial ritual. “Bodies were placed on a raised platform, covered with leaves and branches, to decompose for months until just bones remained,” Purcell explained. “Those bones were then painted with red ochre and placed in a cave or worn by their family members.”
Get broken down into chemicals
One of the newest and coolest ways of body decomposition is alkaline hydrolysis. “This is where the body is placed in a chamber that is then filled with a mixture of water and lye. It is then heated to 160 °C, but at a high pressure, which prevents boiling,” explained Carvaly. “The body is broken down into its chemical components (amino acids, peptides, salt, sugar) in liquid form. The process takes about three hours. This is not legal in all states yet but I am sure that one day it will be.”
Donate your body to necrophilia…?
Some people would rather go out with a bang. My friend Marty says he wants his body donated to a necrophiliac. Would that work? “Oddly enough this would be the only one that would be difficult in accomplishing,” said Carvaly. “You could temporarily donate it, but you would really need to make sure that whoever has control over your body at the end of your life is onboard with it. It’s likely they could temporarily let your favorite necrophiliac have a go and then give the body back. Because at some point the state needs to know where that dead body went. I don’t really know of any bodies that slipped through the cracks and were never buried, cremated, or donated to science.” None of the death babes were into this idea. “Yeah, no. Sorry, Marty,” says Purcell. “Gonna have to try and visit the bone zone while you’re still alive.”