This is the full transcript for season 4, episode 3 of the Quartz Obsession podcast on green burials.
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Nalis: Last summer I visited the Sistine Chapel. I had been there a few times before, so I was a little less spellbound by its magnificence and a little more aware of just how crowded it is!
Not the chapel. I mean, yes, the chapel too, but there are just so many people in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. It’s packed! There’s no space on the boats rescuing the souls. No space on the cloud. No space in Heaven! This justifies a fear I have as someone raised Catholic. Their religion teaches that the good among us will resurrect in their own bodies… but that’s a lot of bodies!
In our whole history, 120 billion people have lived and died. Even without the bad apples who don’t make the heavenly cut, you still have a crowd. A version of this problem is actually already reflected on Earth. Cemeteries are full, particularly in the West, where burials have traditionally been the most common way of dealing with the dead.
Cremation helps, but it just makes another issue worse. The way we dispose of our dead is literally toxic. But there’s an industry trying to tackle this problem, green burials. From mushroom burials to coral reef memorials to sky burials, there are many ways to celebrate the dead without polluting nature.
But are we ready to change so drastically the way we treat our deaths? Do we even need to? And how did we get our current practices, anyway? I’m Annalisa Merelli, Nalis for short, and I’m the host of this season of the Quartz Obsession. Today, green burials.
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I’m with Amanda Shendruk, a data journalist at Quartz, who has a keen interest in practices around death and likes to visit cemeteries around the world.
Hi, Amanda. Thanks for obsessing with us today.
Amanda: Hi Nalis. Thanks for having me.
Nalis: How long have we had the practice of burying our dead?
The history of burials
Amanda: Well, we started burying the dead a long time ago. We’ve been putting bodies in the ground for nearly as long as people have been around. In fact there’s some evidence that even the Neanderthals were burying their dead. As far as the polluting aspect, that is fairly modern.
So the concerning aspects of burying the dead are the embalming fluid. Now we’ve been embalming people for a long time, I mean, think of the ancient Egyptians, but embalming people with chemicals like formaldehyde or arsenic—this is relatively new. So that kicked off in about the 18th century. Victorians were really obsessed with death, and keeping the dead alive in their memory was really important to them. They did this with death photography, which was, you know, hot at the time. They had something called the death photo. And they also, uh, did embalming. And this is the first time we have embalming with chemicals that are potentially harmful, both to humans who are putting the chemicals in the bodies, and to, you know, it can seep into the groundwater around the cemeteries and there’s some evidence for that.
So embalming, we’ve been doing a very long time. The chemicals are fairly new, a few hundred years. Putting bodies in the earth, you know, we’ve been doing forever.
Nalis: Does burying people take a toll on the environment?
Amanda: Well, humans take a much greater toll on the environment when we’re alive. Uh, but there are, there are aspects that are, you know, environmental concerns. So, there have been a bunch of studies actually that show that modern cemeteries have heavy metals like lead and chemicals that leach into the groundwater around the cemeteries. In fact, arsenic—it used to be used for embalming, and around the old, Civil War cemeteries in the US. There’s traces of arsenic in the groundwater because the first time that embalming was used in the US with chemicals was for Civil War soldiers. The soldiers, you know, they would die far from home, and they wanted a way to preserve them in order to send their bodies back home. So, that’s the first time embalming really kicked off in the US, but they were using arsenic. And now we see that in the ground around those old cemeteries. A greater concern really is that it’s bad for the embalmers and funeral directors. There’s all kinds of studies that they have higher risk of different diseases because of the, uh, embalming fluid.
Nalis: So in response to this mainstream polluting form of burial, we have the alternative green burial. Can you tell us a little bit more about what they are?
What is a green burial?
Amanda: So a green burial, specifically, is simply a burial that doesn’t use chemical embalming, doesn’t use metal coffins or concrete, and doesn’t use headstones. So basically a burial that has extremely minimal environmental impact.
Nalis: And, can you give us some examples of what kind of a green burial service may someone be offered as an option today?
Amanda: Sure. There’s kind of variations on the core green burial. So one of the variations is “where.” There’s different types of cemetery offerings. So, there’s conservation burials. Those are locations that are, locations that are quite, you know, wild in nature, and the fees go to preserving the landscape or the ecosystem, usually as a wild preserve or something in perpetuity. So that’s the conservation burials.
There’s natural burials which are, or natural burial grounds, which are more… sometimes a little more manicured, sort of wild. And they’re not necessarily preserved in perpetuity.
And then there’s hybrid cemeteries. That’s where you have plots in a sort of traditional cemetery that are for green burials.
So you have a variation on where you are put. And actually, to be clear, there are some really interesting locations. Like in Germany, there’s all kinds of places in the forest—there’s forest, locations. In Australia, there’s one. Actually one of Australia’s first green burial sites is also a koala habitat. So that’s interesting.
So the location, that can change. There’s variations on sort of the “how” you get buried, sort of the vessel within which you are put in the ground. So you can be wrapped in a biodegradable shroud. You can be put in sort of an eco pod, which is kind of something that’s shaped like a coffin, but, you know, maybe it’s made out of recycled paper. Some people are wrapped in banana leaves. There’s wicker baskets, things like that. And there’s also mushroom burials, which is sort of a variation of that, where you can get a suit put on where there are mushroom spores sewn into the suit. So once the body decomposes, the idea is that it feeds the mushrooms.
So there’s that, there’s the variation on where you are put, the variation on how you are put in the ground. And the final variation is really, “What marker is there?” So green burials do not use stones or mausoleums or crypts or anything like that. And often they’re not marked, but some people will plant a tree. So there’s a tree as a marker or a shrub. Some will have no marker. Some will simply be a GPS coordinate that you keep in the family.
Nalis: Are there any traditional burial practices that are also sustainable, but they don’t fall under the label of, you know, quote unquote green burials?
Are natural burials more sustainable?
Amanda: Yeah, sure. So what we’re talking about here with green burials and natural burials is not a new thing. It’s sort of new conceptually for where we are in history, coming out of the Victorian era, where, you know, we really want to preserve these things, but for most of human history, this has not been a concern.
You know, bodies have been put in the ground and they decompose or they’ve been burned. So this isn’t new. And it’s also not something that groups aren’t already doing in various ways, like quite traditional Jewish and Muslim burials, you know, they forgo embalming. They also require that the caskets are biodegradable, things like that. So this is new only to a specific group. We should make that clear. But yeah, there’s other types of natural ways of disposing of a body. There are Tibetan sky burials, which is a really beautiful and interesting concept where they take the body and put it up on a mountain somewhere or in someplace in nature for birds and other animals to take it. You know, there’s a number of reasons for why that developed, but one of the reasons is the permafrost is thick, and so you can’t dig in very well. There’s also a lack of trees around, so, harder to make coffins, historically, that kind of thing.
There’s also kind of the traditional burial at sea, putting a body in, in the ocean to decompose, you know, that fits the bill. Another one that’s sort of, kind of interesting and sort of a unique modern iteration of this is body composting. Have you heard of this?
Nalis: I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know exactly what it entails.
Amanda: So body composting is where the body is put in a container along with other natural materials that would aid in composting. And then, it’s placed in a controlled environment where the microbes that, you know, decompose the body are really happy. And so it actually speeds up the decomposition process. So decomposition takes only four to six weeks in this, you know, reusable container. And then you have a couple wheelbarrows full of soil. And they’ve done testing on it and it’s completely, you know, non-toxic. It’s fine to put in your garden. But to be clear, this is pretty new and I think it’s only legal in about six states in the US, and it’s certainly not legal in the UK.
But you know that may fit. It may fit the bill in, in some versions of the definition of “natural.”
Nalis: Would you say that, like, green burials are truly an innovation, or is it actually just rehashing something that we already had and packaging it as a new product?
Amanda: I think it’s really interesting because it feels new. Because talking about putting a body in the ground without a casket and all the accouterments, because it’s not what we’re doing right now. It’s not what we’ve been used to, for, you know, burial practices, for a while in the West. However, this is so not new. This is—I really see this as kind of an interesting rebranding of what really has been one of the primary modes of parting with the deceased for all of humanity. I mean, we’ve been burying people forever and we’ve only started using toxic chemicals in burial in the last few hundred years. So this is really… it’s not new at all. It’s just kind of a new framing in this time.
We’re kind of in this place where we’re really concerned about the unnatural process of the preservation of bodies and kind of creating spaces where they can be immortalized forever. And that’s kind of unique in history. Now, it’s not unique to immortalize the dead. I mean, think of the Egyptians and the pyramids and stuff like that. But it is unique on this scale, because of how many people are on Earth, and in a way that can cause some harm to the Earth. So I think it’s just a really interesting and clever rebranding of old burials.
Nalis: So it sounds like green burials have been around for a long time. So when did it start becoming an industry?
The green burial industry is gaining traction
Amanda: I think it’s really kicked off in the last, you know, few years. It’s not unique to exactly this moment, but one of the driving factors is these environmental concerns. And that’s something that’s been gaining more and more traction in society, and as people get more and more interested in our preservation of the planet, you know, we start thinking more about how we impact it after our death as well.
Nalis: So do we have any numbers to get a sense of how big the green burial industry impacted in the overall, you know, death and funeral industry?
Amanda: Well, I think it’s, it’s a trend in a well-established industry already. It’s another offering in the funeral industry. So in 2021, uh, there are estimates that globally the green burial industry was worth about half a billion dollars. And they’re expecting it to increase to a full billion by 2030. So it’s growing, and people are interested, but when we talk about it as an industry, it’s kind of interesting because when I think of industries, I think about innovation and creating new things and, you know, progress and moving forward and, you know, companies and manufacturing and that kind of thing. This is sort of returning to an old way and there’s, you know, perhaps even less innovation necessary for green burials than for, you know, what we often do currently.
Nalis: So, so what about the cost of it? Like, is it more expensive to have a green burial compared to a traditional one?
Natural vs. traditional burial costs
Amanda: Well, some people are interested in natural burials because they could be cheaper. Now that needs to be taken with a little bit of a grain of salt because… a funeral is sort of like a wedding. It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. However, if you just look at the basics of what you need for a green burial versus, you know, a non-green burial, you still need a plot for a green burial. But you don’t need to buy an expensive casket. And, so that’s a cost. Potentially the plots are cheaper, but you know, that varies so much on the location.
So overall, probably slightly cheaper, but really based on, you know, how individuals approach kind of everything else around the funeral.
Nalis: What are the regulations about green burials? Are there limitations about what can be done or where?
Amanda: There’s all kinds of thoughtful and arcane and useful and unuseful regulations and laws in places around cemeteries and burial. You know, in the UK, which is where I am, they’re really moving forward with this. They’ve got 300-ish locations already where you can, you know, have a green burial. So there’s certainly no problem with it here, like this traditional green burial where you put a body in the ground and, you know, that kind of thing, there aren’t too many, at least from what I understand in North America and Europe, there’s not too many regulations getting in the way directly of that.
The regulations that kind of get in the way, and I was reading about this in the US a little bit, is sort of these arcane things that are still on the book and nobody quite knows why. And, you know, for places that are trying to open up a natural reserve for these natural deaths, they run into some of these, like one of the examples was you have to have a paved road access to every single burial plot or something like that. And this is kind of a, just a… not clear where this law came from in, in one of the states, but it’s getting in the way of creating some of these green burials because you don’t want, you know, a bunch of roads through the forest that you’re trying to create, you know? But at least in North America and Europe, it seems there’s not too much legally getting in the way of this. It’s more about whether people want it and whether the cemeteries and the funeral industry will respond to people’s, you know, greater desire for that.
Nalis: A lot of incredible headstones and monuments come out of traditional burials, though, does the rise of green burials mean that this kind of work is going to become a dying art, no pun intended?
Amanda: I mean, I can’t predict the future, but currently nobody’s being forced to have a natural burial. It’s really just an option. And so I have a hard time imagining that plots with beautiful headstones and that kind of thing completely go away. That being said, the National Funeral Directors Association in the US did a study, and they think that about 60% of people have an interest in green burials. So I think that we are going to see more and more of it, but I wonder if you would think of this.
So, yeah, walking through the Père… oh my goodness. My French is so bad! I’m Canadian. My French should be so much better. The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is gorgeous. It’s an architectural wonder. It’s beautiful, it’s powerful. But imagine walking through a forest. 150 years from now, you’re in a memorial forest. There’s nothing in there but trees. But we’ve planted a tree over every dead body. Sometimes when I say dead body, it feels so cold, but we’ve planted a tree over every body. So you have trees in there that, you know, are 150 years old. You have saplings, you have small trees, you have everything in between, and you can kind of see the life that’s grown. And that to me also sounds like it would be super powerful and super beautiful just in a different way.
Nalis: I agree. I actually read this book when I was in my early teens, but there was a plot point, which was that when people died, they turned into trees. Like, it was a forest where, like, everyone who had died existed in the shape of a tree. And I remember, like even, you know, as a very young person being so moved by this image, and also finding it so comforting, like he really kind of gives you the idea of life continuing or like, you know, the presence still being alive versus what we have now, which is just like slowly waiting for a body to disappear, and you know…
Amanda: It sort of gives this idea that death isn’t an end, that it’s kind of like a process that keeps happening and moving, and death and life and... And, you know, I think that the idea of a memorial forest or something would just be stunning.
You know, on the topic of trees though, something that’s kind of interesting is there’s an Italian company right now called Capsula Mundi and they’re trying to kick off something called “tree pod burials.” So basically they have conceptualized this sort of egg-shaped biodegradable pod that the body is put in, in a fetal position and in the ground, and then a tree is planted on top of it. So a tree pod burial. Right now, it’s not legal anywhere. And I think that they actually haven’t even produced them yet, but they do have tree pod urns. So you can put the ashes, you know, from a cremation into this kind of pod-shaped thing and plant it in the ground and then put a tree over top of it. Um, but the tree idea is interesting.
Nalis: Thank you so much, you know, Amanda, this has been really interesting and informative.
Amanda: Yes. I enjoyed it as well. Thank you!
Nalis: And that’s our Obsession. The Quartz Obsession is a podcast hosted by me, Annalisa Merelli. Katie Jane Fernelius is our producer, and George Drake Mixes and does sound design. Music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Additional production support provided by multiplatform editor extraordinaire Susan Howson, research wizard Julia Malleck, and audience insight genius Ashley Webster. Shivank Taksali and Diego Lasarte are our natural born sound engineers.
Special thanks to our wonderful guest, multimedia reporter Amanda Shendruk, who is actually a very warm person.
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