As we navigate through life, we make conscious, informed choices based on our experience and preferences. But how about when we die? While we may suggest how we’d prefer our lives to be celebrated, typically our funeral choices boil down to “burial or cremation?” However, there may be another way. And you could make an altogether different mark on the planet.
Many people are now more conscious of the impact their everyday lives have on the planet. Indeed, rarely a day goes by when we don’t hear the words “climate crisis.” But did you know, our impact on the environment continues after our death? Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to plan for a more eco-friendly funeral?
You see, there’s a consensus among a majority of the scientists who specialize in climate – 97 percent of them, in fact. The agreement is that the global climate crisis is increasingly driven by human activity. The climate crisis is fueled by a rise in the Earth’s temperature. That, in turn, is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has determined that around 75 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are a result of burning fossil fuels. This can come from the most mundane activities, such as turning on a light, heating or cooling our homes, charging a phone or driving our cars. All of these contribute to our carbon footprint.
There are conscious choices we can make to reduce our carbon footprints. But have you ever thought about the impact a funeral will have on the planet when we’re gone? Well, some innovators have, and, as a result, there’s a new style of burial capsule emerging that’s more eco-friendly.
The history of the funeral dates back hundreds of thousands of years. For example, sites in Europe and the Near East have been uncovered to reveal skeletons bearing distinct layers of pollen. It suggests a deliberate placement of flowers, and, although there is no firm evidence to support it, indicates some form of ceremonial burial.
Funerals vary from one culture to another, with many holding great religious significance. However, throughout history, these burial ceremonies are often typified by five distinct “anchors.” They tend to feature a gathering of people, notable emblems, a ritual gesture, a reflection of the deceased’s culture or heritage, and the passage of the body to another phase.
For instance, Buddhists believe that the deceased moves on to another life. In Hinduism, it’s thought that the body is simply a vessel for the soul, which is reincarnated into another being after its host’s death. There is a similar belief in Sikhism, with the caveat that the next life will reflect a person’s actions in the previous one.
However, funerals in North America, traditionally consist of three segments. First there’s a visitation, such as the viewing of the deceased, followed by the funeral ceremony, and finally the burial service. Central to this three-part ritual is the casket. And, although burial receptacles have existed for hundreds of years, it’s only relatively recently that’ve they been widely used.
The word “coffin” is thought to have been first used in 14th century France. Its roots are in “cofin,” meaning sarcophagus or basket. That, in turn, derives from the Latin word “cophinus,” meaning basket or hamper, which is a derivative of the Greek “kophinus,” or a basket. However, the concept only became widespread across the U.S. during the Civil War.
There were, of course, a great many casualties of the Civil War. Estimates suggest anywhere between 620,000 to 750,000 people perished in the conflict. As a result, coffins like the ones we know today started to be mass-produced. You see, they were seen as a safe and secure way to transport the bodies of the soldiers killed in battle.
The word “coffin” is now widely used for any receptacle in which the dead are buried. Indeed, the many casualties of the Civil War triggered the use of old furniture being repurposed into makeshift coffins. However, while the bloody conflict initiated their common use in the U.S., known examples of burial chests date as far back as 5000 B.C.
For instance, archaeological sites in China have unearthed ancient tombs with what appear to be wooden boxes, thought to be used for human burial. And, if coffins were once used to perform a simple function, today they may also be used as an opportunity to celebrate the deceased’s life. In fact, everyday funerals started to become increasingly elaborate as far back as Victorian Britain.
Death was big business in Victorian Britain. Newman Brothers’ Coffin Furniture Factory, first opened its doors in Birmingham, England in 1894. And, although the company ceased trading in 1998, the building now stands as a coffin factory museum in tribute to the family who founded it.
However, the Newman Brothers weren’t actually in the business of manufacturing coffins. Instead, they specialized in making the brass fittings that decorated them. You see, their company actually started off producing general brass fittings. But they seized a money-making opportunity when they noticed the growing market for funerals.
Indeed, the Victorians turned funerals into an event, and would go to great expense to honor their loved ones. Coffins would have ornate embellishments, with the casket swaddled in ostentatious burial shrouds. The British became particularly fond of burial vaults during that era, too, a structure that necessitated some incredibly heavy lifting.
You see, Victorian coffins destined for vaults could be incredibly elaborate. They were often made up of three layers, with one of those made entirely of lead. Then, taking into account it was topped with a breastplate engraved with the deceased’s personal details, it was not unusual for the whole thing to weigh up to around a quarter of a tonne.
Victorian coffins were a reflection of a person’s social status. While the poor had to make do with plain, cheap, unadorned wooden caskets, the more decorative the receptacle indicated that the deceased was wealthier. While our modern take on funerals can be more personalized, so, too, can the caskets.
Indeed, some companies specialize in making coffins of a … rather more personal nature, shall we say. For instance, Britain’s Crazy Coffins are a team of craftsman who, according to their website, “have been hand-producing coffins which no one else has been willing to make.” That includes caskets shaped as guitars, ballet shoes, vehicles and even luggage.
Crazy Coffins, who have been in business for 20 years, also make novelty urns. If the deceased was an avid Trekkie, then a fitting tribute might be to keep their ashes in a replica of the Starship Enterprise. Or maybe the receptacle could resemble a favorite piece of jewelry, as one woman specified, with an urn modeled after her mother’s silver owl pendant.
Indeed, with more than three quarters of people opting for cremation today, urns are simply one further detail to consider. However, the coffin still remains part of the funeral process, with the deceased laid in one for cremation. And there’s another aspect to what happens after we die that is now becoming an important consideration.
Namely, what is the environmental impact on burial versus cremation? Some of our more densely populated areas are fast running out of space for traditional burials. In fact, results of a survey conducted in England in 2013 suggested its cemeteries might fill up at some point in the 2030s. And there are other factors to consider, too.
Consideration is being given to recycling graves. What happens in this instance, is that current occupants are removed while a deeper grave is dug. With the previously deceased then buried further underground, space is freed up for someone else to rest closer to the surface. And there are other different solutions throughout the world.
Germany, for example, reuses grave space every few years. Spain and Greece utilize communal burial grounds after a period of rest in an overground crypt. Israel plans to create multi-level subterranean burial tunnels. However, have you ever considered the impact that burials have on the environment? Even cremation has its own carbon footprint.
Wicker coffins are one option to reduce environmental impact. You see, it’s not just the materials that cause less harm to the planet, but the process of making them, too, is more eco-friendly. And, while it’s also a far cheaper option, the caskets are free of toxins and non-perishable materials.
However, a couple of Italian innovators, Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, might have another answer to the global burial problem. They have designed what they call the “Capsula Mundi” – Latin for “world’s capsule.” It’s an oval shaped container, made of organic material and it can be used to encase ashes as well as bodies.
You see, even after we die, we still continue to leave a carbon footprint. For starters, all the materials typically used to make traditional coffins act as landfill. And that’s not to mention graves that are reinforced with concrete. But there’s an added component to the Capsula Mundi that makes it even kinder to the environment.
The Capsula Mundi works as a replacement to a traditional coffin and, once the shell is buried, it will completely decompose. Not only is its plastic 100 percent biodegradable, but the nutrients it contains will be put to good use – to feed a sapling planted directly above it.
Bretzel and Citelli think that there’s as much consumerism attached to funerals as anything else in life. But they have a vision. It’s their ambition to see cemeteries filled with trees instead of concrete or marble gravestones. They want people to give life back to the earth when they’re gone.
The concept came to Bretzel and Citelli after a design fair in Milan in 2003. They were shocked to see how much waste the exhibition had produced simply from all the furniture it was tossing away. The sight was enough to inspire the designers to be more conscious about the impact we have on the planet.
As Bretzel told CNN in January 2018, “It was a big competition to design new things, but almost nobody cared about future impact or whether anyone would actually use these things. We started thinking about projects that could have an environmental aspect.” And so Bretzel and Citelli decided on a novel approach.
“Death is part of our life,” Bretzel explained. “But at design fairs nobody cares about that because it’s one side of our life that we don’t want to look at. We don’t like to think of death as part of life.” However, the subject didn’t faze the duo, and so they went in search of a solution.
The idea is for bodies to be placed in the capsule in the fetal position. Once buried, the soil’s bacteria will decompose the bio-plastic shell. As the body follows suit, its nutrients will be released directly into the soil. In turn, the earth will become a fertile environment for growing trees.
Bretzel and Citelli see cultivating saplings in this way as old life nurturing a new one. However, one scientist believes that planting more mature trees with the capsule could be even more beneficial to the environment. Jacqueline Aitkenhead-Peterson, who works at Texas A&M University as a professor in soils and crops, shared some thoughts on the design.
As Aitkenhead-Peterson explained, “Because the body will purge within a year in a buried environment, the nutrients are released into the soil quite quickly, so a decently-sized tree planted on top would be key.” Indeed, with the concept yet to become widespread, can scientists predict the effect many decomposing bodies might have on the surrounding area?
Jennifer DeBruyen, a scientist specializing in soil and biosystems at the University of Tennessee, thinks the environment could benefit from these eco burial pods. She said, “The problem with traditional burials is that they’re completely anaerobic. The remains are buried deep and sealed in a coffin. There’s a lot of incomplete degradation.”
However, as DeBruyen explained, “These pods may help maintain some oxygen flow into the system.” Furthermore, the materials the compostable plastic is made from add some much-needed carbon to the soil. You see, when bodies decompose, they produce nitrogen. The extra carbon will restore balance to the process.
According to Kate Kalanick from the Green Burial Council, who certify eco-friendly burial practices in North America, awareness of the sustainability involved in burials is on the rise. “We’ve noticed an uptick in the public interest in green burials in the last 24 months,” she told CNN in 2017. “Although our providers continued to grow steadily, the public has become much more aware and there is a lot more interest in the practice.”
Although the rest of the world might not yet support their method, the Capsula Mundi is completely legal throughout the U.S. And, if people catch on to Bretzel and Citelli’s vision, cemeteries will start to resemble forests. DeBruyen agrees, saying, “I think there’s enough science and agreement that these [options] represent a really viable option for afterlife.”
As the Capsula Mundi website describes, “[The tree will] serve as a memorial for the departed and as a legacy for posterity and the future of our planet. Family and friends will continue to care for the tree as it grows. Cemeteries will acquire a new look and, instead of the cold grey landscape we see today, they will grow into vibrant woodlands.”