Over the lifetime of the nation, residents of the United States have used different methodologies to dispose of mortal remains after people pass on. During the first 100 years of the nation, little was done to prepare a body after death. The remains were bathed and dressed for viewing, but not embalmed. A body was buried or entombed in a crypt. During the Civil War era, embalming rapidly became standard practice in nearly all instances. By the 1980s, an increasing number of remains were cremated, the percentage of bodies cremated now hovering just over the 50% mark. In the past decade, Americans have started to more fully embrace a number of different ways in which to dispose of their remains after death. These alternate ways of remains disposition include:
- Biodegradable caskets and burial shrouds
- Green and woodland burials
- Eternal reefs
- Green embalming
- Human composting
Promession is a relatively new process of addressing human remains following death. Promession involves the freeze drying of human remains. The first phase of promession is the initial freezing of remains to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. When that is accomplished, the remains are then placed in a vat filled with liquid nitrogen. The temperature in the vat drops to -320 degrees Fahrenheit. Whilst in the vat, a mechanical device vibrates the remains which results in the body disintegrating. The final part of the process is the placement of the remains in a vacuum chamber where the particles are freeze-dried, removing all remaining moisture. The remaining dry powder is placed in an urn or another desired receptacle.
Biodegradable Caskets and Burial Shrouds
Biodegradable caskets and burial shrouds are being used more frequently at this juncture of the 21st century. They are replacing hardwood and metal caskets. Biodegradable caskets or internment containers are made of materials that quickly breakdown when buried that include:
- Banana leaves
Burial shrouds are made from cloth that also breaks down relatively quickly when placed into the earth with human remains.
Green and Woodland Burials
An extension of the use of biodegradable caskets and burial shrouds are green and woodland burials. There are a small number of cemeteries, including a few in California, that permit green burials on their premises. Green and woodland burials also take place outside the perimeters of cemeteries. The key is identifying specific locations where it is legally permissible to bury human remains.
When green or woodland burials are undertaken, the remains are not embalmed. In addition, a gravestone typically is not used. Indeed, modern-day technology is taking over and GPS is used to identify a green or woodland burial plot.
Human remains that have been subjected to cremation or promession are being incorporated into coral reefs. This is accomplished by inclusion of these types of human remains into what are known as “reef balls.” Reef balls are hollow and perforated spheres generally made of concrete. They are used to expand and restore coral reefs.
An alternative to chemical embalming is being used with a bit more regularity in this day and age. In fact, green embalming involves practices and procedures that have been used for thousands of years.
Organic compounds are used in place of chemicals like formaldehyde to stave off decomposition for a relatively brief period of time. (Bear in mind that chemical embalming does not fully stop decomposition. Rather, it merely slows down decomposition.) Organic compounds used in green embalming include:
- Pine oil
- Juniper oil
- Onion oil
- Palm oil
- Lichen resin
- Oloeo gum
As a precursor to using these natural or green preservatives, the remains are washed in wine. In addition, frankincense is used to mask any odor that might be present during a viewing of remains or at a funeral or other type of ceremony.
A bio urn is one of the newer methods of disposing of human remains after death. Cremains and a tree seed are placed together in a biodegradable urn. The entire urn is planted. The seed germinates and grows into a tree, with the cremains being a part of the overall process.
Human composting is the newest method for addressing human remains after death. Human compositing remains in the development stage and has not yet been made fully available to the general public. Human composting is the brainchild of Recompose and the Urban Death Project. Recompose describes human composting in this way:
“(A)n alterative choice to cremation and conventional burial methods … Recomposition gently converts human remains into soil so that we can nourish a new life after we die.”
The technology is operational for human composting. The process is being successfully undertaken on a smaller scale at this time.
When considering alternative methods of disposing of human remains, Americans who choose such a course typically have one or another (or both) of a pair of considerations in mind. First, these people are looking for a means of disposing of mortal remains that is more environmentally friendly. Second, these individuals desire a means for remains disposition that is more affordable. The alternate means of body disposition discussed here are all environmentally more friendly than “traditional” burial practices involving embalming and a hardwood or metal casket. They are also more environmentally friendly than cremation. Moreover, some of these alternatives do provide a less expensive means of mortal remains disposition. In fact, at this time, promession and human compositing (as noted, human composting is not yet available to the general public) tend to be the only processes that currently cost more than cremation.