Everything You Never Knew about Disposing of Your Remains: Pt 3. – Keeping it Green From Austin Estate Planning Attorney Elizabeth Ziegler

Disposition of Remains - Mushroom

The impact of our lives, and even our deaths, is becoming a growing concern for many people.  Cemeteries have been described as “landfills for bodies,” which year after year are filled with wood, metal, concrete, and embalming chemicals.  Moreover, the graves are then covered with grass, which must be watered, fertilized and cared for to preserve proper curbside appeal.  This use of land and non-biodegradable substances has many people questioning the environmental impact of modern burial techniques and has led to more and more people choosing cremation as an option.

Unfortunately for these green-minded folks, cremation is actually just as damaging to the environment as an embalmed corpse buried in a cemetery.  While it may seem the more environmentally friendly, due to the sheer amount of gasoline needed to cremate a body (about two SUV gas tank’s worth) and the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere, there really is no environmental difference between embalming and cremation.

The reality that both burial and cremation are equally harmful to the environment has led some people to choosing newer green-death disposal options.

Getting Back to Our Roots with Natural Burial

Long before “traditional” burial came to mean embalming and heavy caskets with concrete caps, laying a loved one to rest involved simply washing the body and burial in either a shroud or simple wooden or wicker casket.  With so much information on the impact of a modern-traditional burial and its negative environmental impacts, some people are choosing instead to return to a much more traditional burial, and cemeteries are becoming more open to the option than in previous decades.

As mentioned, natural burials usually only involve a very simple washing of the body and no draining of the internal fluids or embalming of the body.  Burial can be either in a simple shroud or a casket made entirely of wood or other easily biodegradable material (such as seagrass or wicker).  Here in Austin, Austin Natural Funerals can help coordinate a natural burial.

Though a more eco-friendly version, natural burial is not without a price tag.  When compared to the eye-watering $7,000 + price tag of a “traditional” funeral and burial, natural burial starts at a much more affordable $2,295 for a custom shroud and bodyboard.   This figure includes costs for services such as preparation, transportation, and graveside personnel. While certainly more affordable, this price will jump if buying a sturdier casket and adding on extras, such as a viewing or refrigeration.  Also, remember that cemetery costs are not included with this figure and will add to the final tally.

Plant Food – Where the Mushrooms Grow

At present, some claim the most eco-friendly option is mushroom suit burial.  As part of a mushroom suit burial, your body is not embalmed.  Instead, you are buried in a cotton suit which has mushroom spores sewn into the fabric.  Once buried, the mushroom spores will begin to germinate and grow, and are purported to help speed decomposition of your body.   If you want a funeral with a coffin, you can still use the mushroom suit along with an all-wooden casket, as the mushrooms will also speed up the coffin’s decomposition as well.

Since mushroom suit burial is still new, its claims of environmental positive outcomes have been called into question.  At present, the most that can be said is that mushroom suit burial has (at most) no more of a positive environmental impact than regular un-embalmed natural burials do. Those Austinites wishing to be buried in a mushroom suit can work with a funeral company, such as Austin Natural Funerals, to carry out a mushroom suit burial.

While not everyone is keen for their remains to feed a colony of fungi, those who are interested in the option can expect to pay approximately $1,500 for the suit itself.  Currently only one company, Coeio, makes mushroom burial suits. Coeio recommends purchasing the suit before death. However, these suits are highly biodegradable, so natural funeral homes do not keep them on hand.

Please note, this price is for the burial suit alone and does not include funerary or cemetery costs.

Plant Food – Body Composting

By far the most recent addition to the eco-friendly disposition market is known as “body composting” which became legal in Washington state in May 2020. Much like the options described above, the body decomposes naturally, without use of embalming chemicals.  However, unlike green burial, body composting is done in a closed and reusable chamber and does not take place underground.  Recompose, the first legal body composting operation in the U.S., set out to create a green-burial option for urban dwellers who may not have access to enough land for natural burial.

The body composting process uses wood chips, straw, and soil.  The microbes these materials naturally contain breakdown and safely express CO2, allowing your remains to become soil once more.  At the end of the process, which can take around 30 days, the your remains-turned-soil may either be reclaimed by your loved ones or donated to a local forest.

Before rushing out to update your paperwork just yet, a few things to bear in mind.  First, the only state to approve this method is Washington State.  Those wishing to participate in body composting must make transportation arrangements with a local funeral home to Recomposes’ location, outside Seattle.  Second, the cost of body composting (not include out-of-state transportation) is around $5,500. Lastly, there are certain diseases which will disqualify you from using this method. The state prohibits persons with tuberculosis or Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease from signing up. But for those committed to environmentally friendly options, body composting may be for you.

It’s Like a Warm Bath!

If all this talk of shrouds, caskets and decay is too morbid, one new alternative option for disposal of your mortal remains may be aquamtion.  Similar to cremation, this process uses water and lye to dissolve the body, instead of fire.  At the end of the process, your remains are turned into a powdery form, similar to what’s left over after a cremation.  This powder can be stored or scattered in the same way cremains can be.

For those considering aquamation, please note the state of Texas has not yet legalized the process. Meaning that while you may elect to undergo aquamation, this process will have to be done out of state.  Here in Austin, the Green Cremation Texas funeral home will work with families to have your remains transported to a nearby state which has legalized the option, and to have your remains returned to your loved ones at the end of the process.

Like with all options, there is both a monetary and an environmental price.  Aquamation currently costs roughly the same as cremation, starting around $2,000 for an adult. Please note this price does not cover the cost of transporting your remains to the aquamation site. Additionally, be aware that while aquamation may seem an eco-friendly method, the process requires approximately 250 gallons of water and all those gallons must be cleaned afterwards before they can be disposed of or reused.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

No matter whether it’s natural or mushroom suit burial, or even choosing aquamation, dying has an environmental impact.  If choosing aquamation, there are hundreds of gallons of water used.  And if choosing burial, the land cannot be used for anything else, like all other cemeteries.  For those concerned about the environment, it may come down to a choice of preference.

Part of choosing these newer and less conventional options is ensuring that your estate plan clearly lays out your wishes for your remains, and that your named helpers are aware of your choices.  If you have already an estate plan which need updating, or if you have never made an estate plan, our firm can help you ensure your wishes are carried out.

Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area.  For more information, and to learn about our firm, please contact us. We look forward to working with you.