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SocietyAugust 8, 2023

Inside the rise of eco-friendly deaths


From water cremation to human composting, cave burials to mushroom suits, Alex Casey digs through the past, present and future of sustainable death practices.

All week long The Spinoff will be opening up about the end. Click here to read more of our Death Week content.

Many of us are trying our best to live our lives more sustainably. We’re buying metal straws, hoarding soft plastics, composting our food waste and risking bloody humiliation with our menstrual cups every month. We’re eating plant-based diets, taking public transport, adding that mystery $1 to alleviate our guilt with every flight. But there remains one big hunk of junk that we’re only just starting to grapple with the true environmental impact of: our own corpses. 

Of the 35,000 people who die in New Zealand each year, roughly 70% of those people choose to be cremated rather than buried. While cremation avoids taking up huge amounts of land, and the leaching of toxic embalming chemicals into the soil, it still has a significant impact on the environment. Cremation currently accounts for 6.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted annually, or 0.02% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. 

Waikumete Cemetery offers natural burials. Image: Auckland Council

For those who want a greener goodbye, options are still relatively limited. The Burial and Cremation Act 1964 restricts body disposal to those two named methods, although a current review could see newer and more environmentally-friendly options being included. “It’s not that those old methods are wrong, it’s just that they’ve got a higher environmental cost than many of us can justify now,” says professor Ruth McManus from the University of Canterbury. 

As McManus found local study ‘The Greening of Death: Co-designing Sustainability adaptations in body disposal’, New Zealanders’ attitudes are shifting and we are becoming more curious about eco-friendly options when we kick the bucket. “The climate and the world is changing a lot and we’re having to be a little bit more sensible about what we’re doing,” she says. “Those who are living sustainably want a more sustainable death.” 

So what kind of sustainable death choices are out there, and how have they changed over time? And what biodegradable body horror might await us in the not-too-distant future? 

The past: ‘Almost all of our old methods were environmentally responsible’

Pre-colonial Aotearoa saw a varied range of practices used to dispose of the dead that didn’t harm the planet. Auckland University of Technology professor Hinematau McNeill (Tapuika, Ngāti Moko) led a research project last year that examined Māori death practices pre-European contact, and how these environmentally sustainable methods could be potentially revitalised and adapted for the modern day.

Drawing from interviews with various iwi, as well as looking at early observations from settlers and missionaries, McNeill found “a huge range of really interesting ways that we’ve disposed of our dead.” One of the most common practices was to suspend the dead from trees, followed by a ceremony called hāhunga. “After the bodies were hung, the remaining flesh was scraped off the bones, and then the kōiwi were secreted into caves,” McNeill explains.

In another method, bodies would be left suspended in certain parts of the sea for the flesh to be stripped off by eels. Some iwi would place remains in the large cavity of a sacred pūriri tree, and others would mummify their dead in an embryonic position, and then hide them in tapū caves. On the tiny Mokoia Island in Rotorua, people were buried standing up to preserve space (this practice is encouraged in high density populations to this day). 

Mokoia Island residents were buried standing up. Image: Facebook

Although the majority of pre-colonial burial practices were found to be sustainable, McNeill was surprised to find that cremation occurred pre European contact, particularly in times of warfare. “In Karapiro in the North Island, they found the stones used during warfare that the warriors were cremated on,” she explains. “The reason for that was so they wouldn’t get desecrated, because if the enemy got a hold of you they wouldn’t do very nice things to your remains.”

With the arrival of Europeans came lacquered coffins, chemical embalming and “all of the stuff that poisons Papatūānuku”, says McNeill. “They brought all their Victorian sensibilities about sanitation too. Decay was just part of life for us but, for Europeans, death had become something that had to be hidden away. For our people, it just went with the territory. They brought their customs, their laws and their practices here, and we adopted them.” 

The present: ‘I just want people to have more choices’

Although most people still opt for cremation in present-day Aotearoa, more sustainable methods have been emerging within the funeral industry over the last few decades. Chris Foote began the Natural Funeral Company in 2001 after years of hearing the same request when she was funeral directing elsewhere: “Please just throw me in a cardboard box and don’t embalm me.” Two decades later, she says that natural burials have become much more mainstream. 

So what is a natural burial? “It means no embalming, the person is usually clothed in natural fibres, and the coffin doesn’t have anything that’s toxic or plastic,” Foote explains. Planting trees or shrubs over the burial site is common practice at 12 certified burial sites around the country, which you can read more about here. “A native tree is planted for everyone so it will eventually turn into a forest,” Foote says of Waikumete cemetery. “It’s very beautiful.”

Instead of chemical embalming, natural practices use flower essences and essential oils for body care and bacteria control, and ice to cool the body down. “We wash, cleanse and keep, but we don’t ever put anything into somebody’s body. There’s a natural decomposition that happens at the time of death, and we’re not interested in preserving that, or making it go away or pretend it’s not there,” Foote explains. “Let’s let death do what death does.”

An Akeake shroud provides a natural vessel for the body

A natural burial also requires the body to be buried in a vessel that has been chemically untreated. This could include the use of harakeke, natural timbers or natural fibres such as wool, cotton and silk. Karen Williamson worked for years as a palliative care nurse, and started AkeAke shrouds after hearing more and more requests for shrouding from patients. “A shroud is essentially a very large piece of fabric that will envelop the person completely,” she explains.

Williamson’s shrouds are hand dyed with natural plant-based dyes and can be made of cotton, silk or linen. Most fabrics, depending on the soil conditions and the density of the weave, will be fully decomposed within months. “If you compare that to polyester, that can be anywhere between 20 to 200 years before it’s gone,” she says. “And it’s not ever truly gone because it’s a petrochemical, so the polyester fibres might break down, but it will still stay in the soil.”

For those who would prefer to be fully enclosed when they go six feet under, Outside the Box cardboard coffins provide a cheaper and more eco-friendly option to a lacquered coffin. The idea came to founder Becs Bartell after her Nana’s funeral. “I just remember looking at her casket and being a bit scared of it. It looked like something out of Dracula. They all just looked the same and there was nothing fun or eco-friendly.”

Becs Bartells from Outside the Box coffins

Her cardboard coffins have been weight tested up to 320kg, and can be assembled without any glue, plastic or metal. “Cardboard has this association with being cheap, even though these coffins are all handmade and there’s actually a lot of work that goes into them. It’s not just your average refrigerator box,” says Bartell. The blank cardboard canvas also provides the opportunity for personalisation, from handprints and drawings to handwritten messages. 

Williamson from AkeAke Shrouds says that the last two years have seen a huge increase in interest for her product, but wants to stress that everyone needs to do what’s right for them. “If it’s right for you to have a walnut coffin lined with polyester, then that’s obviously fine. But I just want to see people having more choices, fully understanding what all their available options are, and being able to make that choice with agency.”

And, with the Burial and Cremation Act under review, Bartells says there remains a lot more room for improvement when it comes to death practices in Aotearoa. “I think there’s actually a lot of space for innovation when it comes to sustainability in death,” she says. “A lot of funeral homes are still really traditional and really old school, when overseas there’s some really interesting stuff going on. The industry is really in need of some disruption.” 

The future: ‘People are being really creative and inventive’

In her work studying sustainable death practices in Aotearoa and around the world, Ruth McManus sees a rapidly evolving industry. “As social values shift, death practices shift,” she explains. “People are being really creative and inventive. Over the next 10-20 years, there’ll be lots of new and random ideas. We don’t quite know how we’re going to change, but I think it’s really cool that people are trying to figure out different ways.” 

One local who is leading the charge for new death technology is Debbie Richards, founder of Water Cremations NZ. With a background in nursing and midwifery, Richards became interested in alternative burial methods after staying next to a crematorium on a trip to Bali. She came home, started doing her research, and quickly found that an emerging practice in the United States of alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, provided a much greener way to go. 

During water cremation, the body is placed inside a sealed stainless steel unit, and over three to four hours is dissolved in a solution of 95% water 5% alkaline solution (potassium hydroxide). The body becomes a sterile liquid that contains no DNA, that can be treated like wastewater and travel to the local treatment facility. “Other than that, the bones are left behind with anything that’s not of the body, like hip implants or dental implants,” Richard explains. 

Debbie Richards and Sandy Sullivan founder of Resomation. Image: Supplied

A 2018 report done in the Netherlands found that water cremation is less taxing on the environment than other forms of burial or cremation. “If a flame-cremated body emits around 180kg of carbon, a water-cremated body emits around 28kg,” says Richards. “And that’s including the full lifecycle analysis of the production of the machine as well, so it’s just much, much, cleaner.” The family are also left with a third more ashes than from a flame cremation. 

Water cremation is now legal in 33 states in the USA, is already used locally for pet disposal, and most notably was requested by Desmond Tutu last year. Although not yet legal in Aotearoa, Richards has been working closely with the government to have it included in the legislation review, as well as with local authorities to ensure it is fully regulated under the Resource Management Act, and with local iwi to ensure the practice remains culturally respectful. 

All going to plan, Richards will import the first Resomator machine by the end of the year, and will be able to offer the service in Ōtautahi from 2024. “Not necessarily everybody has to choose it, but this is just another option for those who want to leave as small a footprint as they can,” she says. “I see it taking over like electric cars – we want to be a facility that people can see, visit, learn from, so that the whole country will have access to it.”

Along with water cremation, there’s no shortage of other creative options creating murmurs in the local death industry. Human composting, or Terramation, puts you into a vessel with a mixture of organic materials and microbes and left for several weeks to turn into a rich soil that your family can then chuck on the garden – there’s currently a petition to bring it to New Zealand here. Promession freeze dries your body with liquid nitrogen, shakes it, and turns it to dust. 

In 2021, artist Jae Rhim Lee from the Infinity Burial Project made headlines with her Infinity Burial Suit, a pair of “ninja pyjamas” covered in mushroom spores to help quickly decompose the body of the wearer. Fungi author Liv Sisson is enthused by the concept, but has some questions. “If they got out-competed by a fungi species that wasn’t as good at decomposition, you might have kind of a weird situation,” she says.

Although some options might be more outlandish than others, McManus also uses a car analogy, saying the evolution can be likened to the shift from petrol to hybrid cars. “Everything has its cost, there’s no absolutely neutral way of getting rid of us,” she says. “Humans are wasteful creatures.” Chris Foote from Natural Burials adds that not only can alternative options alleviate the strain on the planet, they can also alleviate the stress on your family when the moment comes. 

“Death is still scary for a lot of people,” she says. “But this is the beauty of planning ahead. The more you research your options and plan, the less you fear, because you have a better sense of what you want to do, and what your loved ones want to do, and I think it makes the whole journey much easier.” 

Debbie Richards from Water Cremation NZ puts it even more simply: “Obviously talking about our bodies’ disposal is a difficult topic for people. But look, we have to go somewhere.” 

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