Mushroom Suits, Burial Pods and Other Thoughtful but Ultimately Useless Green Burial Innovations, Part 1
A few years ago, when Ecopod caskets—made with feathers and recycled paper—were making news, I had a call from a writer for National Geographic wanting to know if we using any innovations her readers might find interesting. I said we were using caskets made with locally sourced recycled wood, shrouds out of organic cotton, and were hand digging graves. We used locally sourced native plants to re-vegetate the grave, including rare plants, one Federally Endangered. She said “Well, actually, I was looking for something more exciting like those Ecopods.” The fact that Ecopods were manufactured in the UK , shipped here (presumably by specially trained flocks of butterflies to avoid the carbon footprint) and cost $3,000 did not seem to register.
Over the years we have seen lots of processes and products that seem to distract from what we see as the core missions of saving and restoring wild-lands and connecting natural and human communities. In this and the next post, I will describe a few of the more interesting ideas.
Patents: The Elvis Planter, a Casket Made of Fertilizer
Early on, we had a couple of challenges from people who had what they thought was a patent on natural burial: one even threatened to sue us.
One entrepreneur had the idea for large burial containers that would hold the body and a full sized tree. A grouping of them would form a sort of containerized forest. The offerings would be from smallish to the top of the line: the “Elvis”. He figured they could be developed in old parking lots and other urban spaces. He had a mention in the NY Times, and thought it was head and shoulders above conservation burial. He invited himself to our house for Christmas, but Kimberley (rightfully) convinced me to tell him that our house had burned down and we were moving to Haiti.
A few years after we opened Ramsey Creek (and over a decade since I first published the idea) I received a certified letter from a lawyer representing a person that claimed to have a patent on using burials to restore forests (that dated to well after we formed Memorial Ecosystems in 1996). His key technology was a casket made with paper and fertilizer. As the patent described, trees would be planted on top of the grave to ultimately create a forest. The lawyer told me to continue at Ramsey Creek, I would need to pay his client for a license.
It is not possible to patent a general idea like “green burial”, “forest burial”, or “green buildings”, but it is possible to patent specific technologies or even business systems (the latter is a bit murky). To get a patent, the technology must be non-obvious, useful and novel.
I began my response by noting that nutrient loading is a potential issue with the burial of human bodies; consequently, the “fertilizer casket” was not in any way “useful”, and was in fact potentially harmful.
And it was not in any respect a novel idea. To be considered “novel” under patent law, it cannot have any of the following characteristics:
“The invention was known or used by others in the United States before the patent applicant invented it;
The invention was patented or described in any printed publication, before the patent applicant invented it;
The invention was patented or described in a printed publication in any country more than one year prior to the inventor’s U.S. patent application;
The invention was in public use or on sale in the United States more than one year prior to the inventor’s U.S. patent application.”
I pointed out to the lawyer that 1) the idea of planting vegetation on graves and sacred groves goes back millennia (will blog on that in the near future) 2) early 19thcentury “rural” cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Boston specifically called for burial in nature-in a way that created a park, 3) the default for doing nothing to a cemetery in our part of the world is for it to return to forest, 4) I published the idea in the summer of 1988, and 5) the first forest cemetery opened in the UK almost a decade before his patent (but after I published the idea for conservation burial).
And of course, we are not always trying to recreate forest habitat. At Ramsey Creek, we are also restoring southeastern meadow habitats and we include in our plantings the rare (Federally Endangered) Echinacea laevigata , a member of the daisy family (asteracea). I closed my response by noting that unless his client thought he had a patent on pushing up daises, he should back off. He did.
Worm Castings, Freeze-Dried Corpse Powder, Burial Eggs, A Composting Building and Mistreatment of Animal Carcasses
Not long after the patent issues, a farmer called us with his idea of putting bodies through a high powered fan/chipper, reducing them to small pieces that would then be mixed with wood shavings or other material and then composted. He was very sweet and earnest, although his plan seemed a bit far-fetched (not to mention messy). He had been conducting experiments on cows, and cautioned us that he had been arrested for mistreatment of animal carcasses (I was not aware that such a crime existed).
Around the same time, I had an email from a leader in alternative death care in the Bay Area. I met her at an event where we were hoping to create a memorial nature preserve and alternative cremation facility in memory of Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death. Karen had recently assisted Ms. Mitford in revising and updating the book-shortly before the author died. She informed me that conservation burial was no longer “cutting edge”. A group of green scientists and eco-artists were working on a system that would turn bodies into worm castings. This would occur in a series of vermiculture huts, where the bodies would be placed in specially designed baskets, and then the worms would do all the work. “Worm castings are huge here”, she noted. I thought then might have something of a marketing issue, and as far as I know, it never got off the ground.
Susanna Wiigh-Masak, a Swedish entrepreneur developed the idea of freeze drying the body with liquid nitrogen, then shattering it into a powder that would be buried in a shallow grave, where, she says, it will turn into compost in 6-12 months (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-10/14/promessa). Her company, Promessa has been valued at close to 3 million dollars.
Liquid nitrogen does have an energy cost to produce, but I am not sure how many bodies could use the same LN bath. It would certainly avoid turning the body’s nutrients into air pollution. But it seems a decidedly high tech solution. Whether the procedure would eliminate prions is not clear to me. Prions are mis-folded proteins that induce other misfolded proteins and eventually causes the brain to deteriorate: the spongiform encephalopathies like Kuru and Kreutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Prion laden dust would be more of a problem for the workers than those at a disposition.
The Urban Death Project imagines composting facilities inside buildings where families and friends would launch the departed through a system that in a number of days or weeks would yield compost. This still seems a bit complicated, but certainly better than using a giant chipper/shredder.
In some environments (extremely hot and dry, extremely cold) in ground burial is not likely to degrade the body very rapidly and it might make sense to compost the body in some way (I will cover the issue of the decomposition of naturally buried bodies in the next post). In most cases, low-tech burial in a conservation burial ground does a good job returning the body’s life sustaining nutrients to other life. The composters have a lot in common with cremation advocates in thinking that all burials-even those that protect and ecologically restore viable parks-are a complete waste of space.
The another very trendy offering is the tree-pod conceived by Italian artists http://www.capsulamundi.it/en/project/. The body would be naked and in the fetal position in an ovoid pod. A tree would be planted over the body.
The problems with this idea include 1) expense, 2) the need to dig a much deeper grave than if the body is laid out flat 3) the body’s nutrients would consequently be more concentrated and not as within reach of the living layer (because of the depth) 4) deployment would almost certainly require a technical fix. Burying a shroud wrapped body 3-3.5 feet and then planting tree would be much less expensive, simpler and more effective in getting the nutrients to the tree. But again, simple burial is just not nearly as interesting.
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.