Cooking With Lye, Creative Cremation, and Things That Need Work: Green Burial Innovations, Part 2
Apologies Ahead of Time
I had promised a two part series on green dispositions of questionable value. It looks like it will be in at least 3 parts, owing mostly to my excursions into (among other things) the energetics and process of industrial alkali production, mycorrhizal symbiosis and the science of forensic taphonomy particularly as it applies to adipocere formation. Riveting stuff. Perfect fodder for a lighthearted, relatively nontechnical and breezy exposition of degrading human remains. I promise.
Cooking with Lye and Creative Cremation
General Comments about Cremation
While we accept cremated remains, and understand why some people will prefer it, I want to address several common (and bogus) arguments/rationalizations for cremation that we hear pretty often:
Saves space. Well, not really. It does not waste space unless you do an inurnment in a contemporary cemetery. To actively save space or habitat requires disposition in a conservation burial project, reef restoration (see below) or other creative arrangement.
Not that Much Fossil Fuel. The amount of fossil fuel used is only about as much as that used to fill the tank of an SUV. The fact that we have collectively burned a lot of fossil fuels is not an ethical argument to burn “just a little bit more”. In fact it is derivative of the Golden Rationalization: “Everyone is doing it or has done it”.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll be dead. Burn me up, put my ashes in a paper bag and throw them out the window. To me, this is as much a denial of death as elaborately elaborate restoration of bodies to make them appear alive.
Half of our dispositions at Ramsey Creek are cremations. Some people ask us why we take cremated remains at all. In addition to relying on a dirty industry and releasing CO2, it releases mercury from amalgams and converts the body’s life sustaining nutrients into air pollution.
However, it remains the least expensive option, and if someone has not made plans in advance, it buys time (although most people forget that refrigeration works perfectly well for a week or more). In many other situations, cremation works better for families and individuals.
For example, John Macrae-Hall, my father in law, ground manager at Ramsey Creek and inventor of the E-Z Plot (1), told me that while he loved the idea of natural burial, he wanted for half his remains to go to the coast of Wales where he proposed to Babs (my mother in law) and half to be here. In his English-gent-from-central-casting accent, he said “And I suspect that it would be quite a bit tidier if I was cremated first. Not only that, we wouldn’t have to decide who gets the bottom half.”
Even given the downside of the cremation process, disposition of ashes in a way that protects or creates wildlife habitat it still a net good for the environment. Certainly, purchasing carbon credits is an affordable way to make the choice even greener. At this point, those of us who want to see some of the money being spent on cremation dispositions go to protect habitat are competing with the funeral industry.
And God knows what new ideas THEY will come up with. Diamonds made from the ashes, all sorts of elaborate and expensive boxes, cremation art (ashes mixed in with the oil paint), bracelets and pendants to hold ashes, cremation paper weights, and my favorite: Urn Heads. Just send in at least a couple of high quality photos of your loved one (and $2,600) and through “state of the art 3D imaging”, Creative Solutions (“Tomorrow’s Traditions”) will send you a hollow reproduction of your loved one’s head large enough to contain all the ashes.
I am pretty sure Michelle did not order this one, and it is just an example of the great work they do. Not creepy at all. The top of the head comes off. I am thinking that this way, the dearly departed can participate in various holidays and celebrations. Bunny ears at Easter. Cowboy hat for the John Wayne marathon or Clown hair and a red nose for the grandchild’s birthday party. Santa hat. An Afro, love beads and sunglasses at a 60’s party.
A friend of mine saw the photos and said she thought it would be pretty easy to green-up the idea. “How could you possibly green up a plastic head full of ashes?” I asked. She said “One word…Chia.”
Unfortunately the result you get might not be as good as the Obama head...
Four Creative Cremations That I Like
Full disclosure, the CEO of Eternal Reefs, George Frankel, is a personal friend. We both worked on the Chattooga River as raft guides. He invested in reef-ball technology, which was developed in Athens, Georgia. We all know reefs are in trouble, and the Reef Ball Foundation (www.reefball.org) is doing work around the world-not just with reefs but also with mangroves. This is serious science-based ecological restoration, and the idea of sponsoring a reef ball that contains your ashes is compelling for some people. Yes, concrete production is an energy expensive process, but again, I think the benefits far outweigh the costs. We have even talked with George about a “surf and turf” option with a linked coastal terrestrial habitat and an artificial reef off shore.
Let Your Love Grow
Bob Jenkins and his team at Let Your Love Grow changed the way we do cremation dispositions even before I realized his company existed. Knowing that ashes in their concentrated natural form are toxic to plants, I began to wonder how long it would take buried ashes to disappear. Searching the internet, I found an image of older ashes-the box had deteriorated but the ashes were still there. Not surprising given the high pH and sodium content of human ashes. Taking the lesson to heart we have discouraged conventional ashes burials and have gone to a modified scattering: we take around a square meter of duff up and try to spread the ashes more or less evenly. Our soils are pretty acidic, but I figured an easier way would be to put the ashes in a large flat “envelope” with amendments to dilute and possibly buffer the remains mixed in. Doing some research for this post, I looked for the image again, and found Let Your Love Grow
(http://www.letyourlovegrow.com) , the company that had done the research and already had a ashes burial system available . We are not terribly interested in selling product, so we are glad someone has already done the hard work of creating an off the shelf system.
I contacted Bob and he sent other photos that explained the test better. They started out with two biodegradable boxes of ashes-one with the amendment and one without.
16 months later and the amended ashes were promoting root growth and were well on the way to the living layer, but the plain ashes were still intact (and inhibiting root growth). The white jar is a plastic “control” urn.
We plan to use LYLG’s system and hope to work with them to tailor it for our needs. Bob’s team is also working on a system to ensure whole bodies degrade with green burial, something we have also been working on and thinking about for a couple of decades (this will be a major part of the mushroom suit discussion). LYLG’s techniques here are probably relatively easy to back-engineer, but they have involved real soil scientists and a star forensic taphonomist (more on this topic later) helping to ensure their product is top-drawer.Other similar products include Eternitrees (get it?), and Biourns (see below in the ideas I don’t like as much section).
The Dawn of In-Ground Cremation Tree planters : Spritree Forest Company
I should give a special shout-out to José Fernando Vázquez Pérez of for being the first person I know to conceptualize cremation tree propagators. In 2001, he was at the Rhode Island School of Design and developed the idea that would become Puerto Rico based Spritree Forest Company. He sent us a copy of his design, but we were only 3 years into Ramsey Creek, and were not able to help him a lot (we were burying very few people at that point). We had a few concerns (at one point the tree would have an ID ring that would grow into the tree ) and I don’t think he had tackled the whole toxic ashes thing at that point. The hand made ceramics would be the “archeology of the future”. He has really worked on the design, but I am still not entirely sure about the ceramic. It IS interesting, and he was almost certainly the first, a real pioneer.
Crestone End of Life Project
Another project that I am fond of is the outdoor, firewood-fueled cremation facility at Crestone, Colorado, associated with the Crestone End of Life Project. I spoke to some of the people involved after seeing a presentation in Boulder. I suggested that if they created a memorial forest that could provide the wood they use-sort of closing the loop. They use about a half a cord of wood per cremation. I am not sure how scalable this is. You would need a lot of land (to avoid complaining neighbors), and considering how many people die each year, a pretty large forested area to serve only a small percentage of the population. I read that depending on the local climate, half a cord would take 1/3-1 acre. But it is still interesting to think about.
And a Couple of Cremation Ideas that Need Work
Or You Could Just Water it Like You Water Other House-Plants
The developers of the Bios Urn and Bios Incube had this INCREDIBLE idea: they would do away with cemeteries and create forests. The promotional video shows what appears to be a military cemetery with rows of white tombstones, then a flight over a diverse forest. They say they are ” the world´s first system designed to help grow the remains of your loved ones into trees”. Well not exactly.
It is another cremated remains/planter but this one comes with an app for your smart phone! No kidding!! The Incube (tree incubator) has an electronic device that monitors soil moisture and automatically waters the tree. How these individual trees restore forests is not a major selling point.
More worrisome, the designers obviously spent more time making it look sleek and developing cool electronics than they did on biological sciences. They apparently don’t know that roots will not grow into raw ashes. But what they lack in science, they make up for it with media savvy.
Biourns and the Incube have been in/on Forbes, Time, Discovery, CBC, The Daily Mail, Treehugger.com, numerous other online mags, and The Huffington Post
(March 21, 2016, article on greener funeral options. The Biourns and the Urban Death Care Composters received more than three times the ink (and a links) than woodland burial, and the article did not even mention conservation burial).
Ecoeternity offers Individual and family interments around a dedicated tree (that is already maturing). A family tree is $4,500 and can accommodate up to 15 family members. The ashes interment areas are generally small (2.5 acres) and in church camps belonging mostly to Lutherans and Methodists. While this no doubt helps the camp and many would see it as a great cause, it does not actually protect or restore new land, and interestingly, is not forever: the purchaser gets a 99 year lease on the tree. Maybe the company should be Ecocentury to more accurately reflect this.
Cooking with Lye, “Water Cremation”
I am not a big fan of Resomation, what has been billed as “water cremation” and “green cremation”. The body is put in a giant pressure cooker with 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide-very strong alkalis more commonly known as lye. It is heated under great pressure to 350F for several hours. What is left is a brownish green liquid containing remnants of the body’s soft tissues (amino acids, various peptides, sugars, salts, etc.) that is sometimes flushed to the sewers. The remaining bone is soft and can be crushed into a powder that the families can dispose of.
The promotors of this technology make a few over-the-top claims. My favorite is:
“With natural body decomposition you eventually after many months or years end up with ash (bones) and a liquid which is exactly what you get with Alkaline Hydrolysis after three to four hours. This is a natural process found in body decomposition after death. Looking at two similar areas in life where Alkaline Hydrolysis is found:
So you see, dissolving a human body in a pressure cooker filled with lye and flushing the liquified remains down a toilet is exactly like natural decomposition or eating a sandwich. Just like radiation therapy is exactly like lying in the sun.
I guess you can make the case that at least some of the nutrients make it back to the biosphere, since the sewage treatment plant eventually discharges what remains. To be fair, the effluent could be spread in a natural area, but I would want to see a chemical analysis before we did that at Ramsey Creek.
The other claim is that the process has a lower carbon footprint than cremation and does not release dental mercury into the environment.
OK, no fossil fuels are used in the actual “resommation” (other than that used to make the electricity to run the cooker-maybe 90 Kwh), but alkali production is one of the most energy intensive industries out there. Billions of kilowatt-hours world-wide, with the average chloralkali plant consuming as much electricity as 30,000 American households. Some of that electricity is made from coal, releasing many tonnes of CO2 and a fair amount of mercury (from the coal). In fact, European chloralkali industry worries that CO2 taxes passed on through electricity costs could put them out of business: http://www.eurochlor.org/media/9385/3-2-the_european_chlor-alkali_industry_-_an_electricity_intensive_sector_exposed_to_carbon_leakage.pdf.
It is like hauling an RV to the top of a mountain then letting it glide down and claim it is an incredibly energy efficient vehicle. It is the whole process that counts.
And no, the process does not mobilize mercury in amalgams, but in addition to the mercury released creating burning coal for electricity, over one hundred alkali production plants world-wide still used a mercury-based process in 2012:
http://unep.org/chemicalsandwaste/Portals/9/Mercury/Documents/chloralkali/Partnership%20Document%20on%20the%20Conversion%20from%20Mercury%20to%20Alternative%20Technology%20in%20the%20Chlor-Alkali%20Industry.pdf . While the industry is responsibly moving away from the old technology, it remains a source of mercury pollution.
Perhaps the developers of the process can tweak it a bit, figuring out a better process for the brown liquid that contains all of the amino acids, etc., but right now it does not seem like a great leap forward vs regular cremation. I am not sure how much carbon is released making the alkali in addition to cooking the body vs cremation, but we need better accounting.
As I will talk about in the next post, I am not disparaging the creative energy of the Urban Death Care Project, or Bios. I wish we were on the same team.
Next up: Mushroom Suits and The New Green Grave Technology
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10/25/2022 12:26:39 am
Thank you for letting me know that ashes must be scattered in a way that defends or produces wildlife habitat. My friend wants to scatter their loved one's ashes in the ocean. I should advise her to look for a funeral service provider that offers ocean ash scattering.
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Dr. Billy Campbell is the co-founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, with his wife, Kimberley. His informed perspective is deeply valued in the conservation burial community.