Increasing numbers of people are looking for alternatives to conventional burials, embalming, and flame cremation with a smaller environmental footprint.
In most conventional burials, the body is injected with toxic embalming fluid, placed in a steel or wood casket, and buried within a cement or metal vault six feet underground. As a result, significant quantities of high-quality wood, steel, and concrete are buried and wasted every year in cemeteries, and mortuary workers are exposed to toxic and carcinogenic embalming fluid.
Flame cremation also poses environmental burdens. Flame cremating a single body uses about the same amount of gas as a 500-mile road trip.
There are three ways of minimizing such environmental impacts. The oldest one is green burial. Two recently developed ones are alkaline hydrolysis and natural organic reduction (NOR).
Green Burial: For most of human history, all burials were what we now call green or natural earth burial. Green burial is the burial of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable container without any concrete burial vault.
We will have two green nonreligious burial cemeteries in Maryland as of late 2023. Serenity Ridge near Baltimore opened last year, and Reflection Park in Silver Spring will open in spring 2024. Some traditional cemeteries allow green burials in certain sections or, rarely, in any of the available sites. Congressional Cemetery in the District of Columbia is an example of the latter. Traditional Jewish and Muslim funerals are typically green burials.
Alkaline Hydrolysis (AH): Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, anti-apartheid leader, and advocate for climate change, asked that his body be disposed of by AH because he viewed it as environmentally responsible. This process is also called aquamation, water cremation, resomation, or bio-cremation.
During AH, the body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali passes around it. In hours, all that’s left are a brittle skeleton and a sterile liquid (a combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars, and soaps) safe enough to be discharged into a municipal waste system. The bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the loved one’s family. AH typically costs $1,500 to $4,000.
One of the appeals of AH is that it accelerates the way a corpse naturally disintegrates in the earth. It mimics the natural decomposition process. Maryland has no AH facilities as of 2023. In fact, there is some debate at present about whether it is currently legal in the state. So FCAME is part of an effort to make certain it is, including introducing legislation if necessary to clarify the issue.
Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) or Human Composting: NOR was first legalized in Washington State in 2019. The body is surrounded with alfalfa, wood chips, and straw in a long cylindrical container and moisture is introduced along with carefully controlled gas exchange.
The container is periodically rotated at temperatures that will naturally rise to 160°F without requiring external energy sources. As with alkaline hydrolysis, the process accelerates the natural decomposition process but is more carefully controlled. After a few weeks, the result is a cubic yard of nutrient-rich mulch-like soil that can be used to nourish plants and trees. NOR typically costs about $7,000.
As of fall 2023, seven states — Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, California, Nevada, and New York—have either legalized or set a date for legalizing NOR as a means of disposition after death. FCAME is working to make NOR legal in Maryland. Those efforts failed in Annapolis last year, but we are optimistic NOR will become legal in Maryland next year.
As with alkaline hydrolysis, Maryland has no NOR facilities as of 2023. But FCAME is aware of a business that plans to build a facility offering both of them as soon as they are both legal and the appropriate regulations have been developed. We support this expansion of options for after-death care in our area.
FCAME essay on new body disposal methods June 2023