Cemeteries, Ecological Restoration, Deep Time, and Net Present Value

I guess I have always seen cemeteries as having very long lifespans. “Lifespan” might seem an odd attribute for a place so closely related to the dead, but it is apt. By “lifespan” I mean how long it can accommodate new burials before it reaches capacity, or in the terminology of cemeterians, uses up its “inventory”. In parts of the world, this is not an issue, as graves are re-used after a few years (when Hamlet is present as a skull is dug up in a graveyard he says: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”, not “Holy crap, we must be in the wrong place, we dug up Yorick!”).

Certainly, some “inactive” cemeteries continue to provide green space and a sense of history. Abandoned pioneer cemeteries in the prairies serve real conservation interests.

But old cemeteries that continue to engage actively with a community, that are spaces sacred to the living whom remember the people buried there, these are truly special.

As I grew up, we would marvel at the oldest graves at the Hopewell Methodist Church’s graveyard, where my mother’s family has been buried for generations. The oldest graves there are for people born 200 years ago; many are marked not by polished granite, but by upright stones of dark black hornblendic amphibolite found in the vicinity, the inscriptions no longer legible. My beloved Aunt Marie was buried there only a few weeks ago, and my father’s grave is there among the Pickens family that he married into.

Boston’s 174-acre Mount Auburn , the nation’s first “Rural Cemetery” is some 185 years old. In the 1830’s, it was a tourist attraction almost as popular as Niagara Falls, and remains popular for birdwatchers, runners, and those who are interested in its history and great horticultural collection.
Mt. Auburn was part of the inspiration for Memorial Ecosystems and Ramsey Creek. Rural Cemeteries, created in the undeveloped borders of cities, were a radical departure from church-yard burials, and were thought to be a boon to both mental and physical health.

Mt. Auburn was different from the rural cemeteries in Europe: much wilder, and more forested. Aaron Sachs in his delightful book Arcadian America notes that European Rural Cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise outside of Paris were too formal for the designers and developers of Mount Auburn, the Parisian cemetery having “dense classical grandeur” and was all-together too approving of human progress and dominance over nature.

Dr. Jacob Bigelow, who procured Mt. Auburn’s first 72 acres put it this way in an 1831 speech , “A Discourse on Burying the Dead”, that he gave to the Boston Society for The Promotion of Useful Knowledge (love the name; this is quoted from Sachs, p.31,32):

“The plant which springs from the earth, after attaining its growth and perpetuating its species, falls to the ground, undergoes decomposition, and contributes its remains to the nourishment of plants around it. The myriads of animals which range the woods or inhabit the air, at length die upon the surface of the earth, and if not devoured by other animals, prepare for vegetation the place which receives their remains. Were it not for this law of nature, the soil would soon be exhausted, the earth’s surface would become a barren waste, and the whole race of organized beings, for want of sustenance, would become extinct…..When nature is permitted to take her course, when the dead are committed to the earth under the open sky, to become early and peacefully bended with their original dust [then mourners, too, might become enfolded] in the surrounding harmonies of the creation.”

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My one criticism of these Rural Cemeteries is that they did not plan far enough into the future. The founders and designers of Mount Auburn, Bonaventure in Savannah, and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (among others) intended for the projects to be “not for the poor purpose of gratifying our vanity or pride….but for the teaching of nature’s lessons, which would spur thoughts full of admonition, of instruction, and slowly but surely , of consolation also’” (Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, quoted by Sachs, p.33). Unfortunately, within 50 years, the Victorians were proudly erecting grandiose monuments, and in some cases (Bonaventure for example) did away with the curvy paths and installed a grid. After 150 years, some were dominated by stone monuments (Laurel Hill has 33,000 monuments on 74 acres). So much for nature teaching lessons.

Ecological restoration can take many decades (even centuries) and can require ongoing interactions with the human community-including significant investments of money: high quality restoration is not cheap. Prairies and savannahs (including very rare piedmont prairies) must be burned indefinitely on a regular basis, or the prairie is lost. How to ensure that a community will support decades or centuries of ecological restoration is a serious question for restorationists.

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Linking the project with a durable social institution would seem to be one possibility. 22 American churches are over 300 years old (and most states in the east have half a dozen or more churches over 200). Church-forests in Ethiopia have been protecting natural areas for 1500 years, so this is not a crazy proposition (http://blogs.plos.org/yoursay/2011/02/25/church-forest/ ). The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta created The Honey Creek Woodlands: http://www.honeycreekwoodlands.com , and another associated monastery –Our Lady of the Holy Cross in Berryville Virginia- has followed suit with Cool Spring Natural Cemetery :(https://www.virginiatrappists.org/cemetery/ .

Around 40 colleges in the USA are over 200 years old; the University of Wisconsin is almost 170 years old. UW is the birth-place of scientific ecological restoration; it was here in the mid-1930s that Norman Fassett, John Thomson, John Curtis, Aldo Leopold and others began work on an old field to re-create a native prairie, now known as Curtis Prairie (this is a 2008 article celebrating the prairie’s 75th year) : http://www.botany.wisc.edu/zedler/images/Leaflet_16.pdf .

Very few businesses last 150 years (Germany and especially Japan seem to be the exceptions); only 10 businesses in the USA are over 300 years old, and six of those are family farms.

But cemeteries, even those run as a business and not attached to another institution, have traditionally been long-term proposals, and to me seem to be almost ideal cultural institutions for long-term ecological restoration projects. Part of this has to do with how they can change the way people think about nature (the above quote from Sachs shows that this has been a motivation for creating more natural burial grounds for upwards of 200 years). As much as anything, Conservation Burial is taking the ethos from the rural cemetery movement of 200 years ago, and applying modern conservation science, along with lessons learned from the fate of most rural cemeteries. We are also more attuned to the need for these spaces to be more than graveyards: we want as many weddings and baby blessings as funerals.

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A major selling point for Ramsey Creek is that an outside organization holds a conservation easement, and no matter what happens to us, it will always be managed as a natural area. I worry about the project not being big enough to accommodate burials for hundreds of years-especially since we are limiting density, and have a fair amount of acreage unsuitable for burial, including steep slopes and wetlands. We recently paid off a tract of land that more than doubled the size of the project, but the Ramsey Creek Preserve is still small at just less than 80 acres.

To keep a project meaningful for the local community, it is important that 150 years from now, people are still making connections to the natural space, forged by burials being done at that time. We hope to further expand the acreage, despite having plenty for the next few decades. We and our client families are interested in leaving a legacy.

Apparently, not everyone shares this goal.

In the October 2016 issue of ICCFA Magazine (International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association), Daniel Isard, MSFS gave a tutorial on the valuation of cemeteries (for those who might want to sell). Isard is President of The Foresight Companies, LLC, a Phoenix-based consulting company specializing in mergers, acquisitions and valuations.

In the article, he answers a query from a cemetery owner nearing retirement age who is considering selling the property. It is 100 acres, and was started 60 years ago by his parents. The cemetery has 200 sales per year and does 150 interments. Of the 100 acres, 10 are sold out, 6 acres are plotted, and the remaining 84 acres are undeveloped.

Isard’s calculations, observations and recommendations? He figures the real annual income of the cemetery is around $17,778, and calculates that the Net Present Value of that future income is only $71,000, given a discount rate of 25%. He notes that “anything more than 40-100 years of inventory is a wasting asset”, and recommends the owner (if possible with zoning, other restrictions) keep 14 of the undeveloped acreage and sell the rest.

Solid, seemingly math-based business advice. But I have more than one problem with his analysis, the chief of which is the idea that it is stupid and wasteful to create or sell a cemetery with more than 40-100 years of inventory. This is a radical departure from the idea of cemeteries being trans-generational, and semi-permanent. In an industry that markets the idea of “perpetual care”, and the façade of permanence, the proposal that cemeteries are or should be relatively short-term investments might present marketing issues.

Net Present Value (NPV) calculations are a great way to figure out when and whether to purchase equipment, build a new warehouse or invest in more advertising: generally near future decisions.

Basically, NPV includes a “discount rate”. If a course of action meets an alternative action’s or non-action’s return on investment (in this case, Isard set the bar at 25%), it is as-good or better than alternatives . If the NPV is zero-that is the return-on-investment is exactly 25%-it is a wash. If it is a positive number, then it is a good investment given the employed discount rate, because it does better than the alternative.

The problem is when such calculations extend decades, given the power of exponential growth. In 100 years, even a million dollars worth of income that year is worth less than a penny of investment at a discount rate of 25% (http://www.aqua-calc.com/page/discounted-present-value-calculator ). At 10% 1 million dollars 100 years from now is worth around $73.

I am not sure that the NPV calculation Isard provided is correct, or that is the term he wanted. The NPV of $17,778 ten years from now is less than $2000 at a 25% discount rate. If you add each year (beginning with $17778 this year) the total for 10 years is $81,249. Still, a pretty small number whether $71,000 or $90,000 considering the size and sales of the operation.

NPV calculations are notoriously flawed when considering natural resources, investment in pollution control and projects with high, trans-generational social benefits, especially those likely to be more valuable in 50 years than now. An excellent article on the issue, originally in the Vanderbilt Law Review can be found here: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2052&context=facpubs ).

A notorious misuse of NPV was in 1985, when then Office of Management and Budget chief (and future failed Supreme Court nominee) Douglas Ginsberg forced the EPA to throw out a proposed ban on asbestos because of a negative NPV economic analysis. Yes, asbestos would cause a lot of cancers, but the long latency period meant that most of the deaths would be decades hence. So while a life saved now might be worth 1 million dollars, by the time the cancers would happen, given the standard discount rate, a life that many years later should be counted as only worth $22,000 at the time the regulations would come into effect.

It seems what Isard is really saying is that investors want their money back in 4 years or so, and a 25% return per year is ballpark. The higher rate is because cemeteries are going out of style, and thus risky. All of the NPV stuff is fancy sounding window dressing. Given the performance of top rated investment funds over the past few years, such a return still seems exorbitant.

I am not sure how the cemetery owner is making it on 18 grand a year, and doubt this is the case. It is an established cemetery (60 years!) and I am sure all of the up front costs have depreciated decades ago-and contemporary cemetery expenses are “front loaded”. Since most NEW cemeteries can take a decade to become profitable (if ever), all of that risk is gone. What are the demographics in a 50 mile radius of his operation? What is the competition like? Does he take cremated remains? Is his income increasing or decreasing? All of these factors should be considered. Has he considered selling or donating a conservation easement on the undeveloped acreage and creating a conservation burial ground? It could be that his commitment to nature and future generations would considerably boost his existing sales, broadening his demographic appeal.

My advice to that owner is to hold onto the land until he has examined all of his options. Legacy is something a quick buck can never buy, and he could be eating the seed corn of his operation.

But what bothers me the most about the article is the sage advice that cemeteries should not have more than 40-100 years of inventory; this pearl of wisdom seems to be a product of short-term thinking (and a NPV mindset). Cemeteries are not mere “income generating machines” that must meet or exceed income from the latest fad in real-estate development; they have a sacred and social dimension that most cemeterians recognize.

The main rationale for Conservation Burial is that the projects can be trans-generational and personally transformational-and exist long enough (centuries) to restore damaged landscapes: it is impossible to grow an old growth forest in 40 years . Families and communities are connected to these spaces, and to marginalize their value to future generations is a big step in the wrong direction.

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Part 2 of Green Graves as Composting Machines and Brief Rant About the Practicality of Conservation Burial

Part 2: Graves as Composting Machines
Are Individual Graves and Conservation Burial Projects Even Practical?
In recent weeks I have heard back from a couple of readers who had the same concern: individual graves might be ideal, but physically and economically impractical, so first a quick word about land use and the economics of conservation burials compared to free-standing composting facilities, crematories, resommation, and freeze-drying/ pulverizing bodies . One widespread criticism of conservation burial is that conservation burial “wastes land”, and that even if it doesn’t , land near major metro areas is in short supply and will be prohibitively expensive. Consequently, we should look to hybrid cemeteries (existing cemeteries with a small green section), or go with ideas like the Urban Death Care Project and create body-composting facilities, or other methods not so land dependent.
Wasting precious land:
I get a little tired reminding people that the whole point of conservation burial is to SAVE and ecologically restore land, while helping to create durable bonds between people and wild landscapes. No, we do not think that burying people standing up would be a better idea, nor would reusing graves, stacking people 3 deep, etc. Please do not suggest it. And yes, there is still a lot of land that needs saving. If anyone is unfamiliar with this point, please see my 14 minute TEDx Greenville talk from a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyA0VLzOPPA .

Economics
First of all, composting facilities are likely to very expensive in and of themselves; a project that could handle a couple of hundred bodies per year is going to be a multi-million dollar proposition. For this idea to make a dent in death care, it will take quite a few of them in every metro area in the country. Metro Atlanta, for example, has around 6.1 million people, and given a death rate of 8.15/1000/year, almost 50,000 people will die there next year. How much would it cost to develop and operate the facilities to take care of 10% of Atlanta’s dead?
Secondly, having spent a lot of time looking into possible conservation burial properties near Nashville, Charleston, Tampa/Orlando, Austin, Chicago and other metro areas, I found that all of these areas have active landscape-level land protection initiatives, either public, private or both.
As far as cost, we found many very attractive and ecologically valuable properties within a 45-60 minute drive time from downtowns that were less than 1 million dollars (without any participation from other entities), and no shortage at all if we moved to 2-3 million dollars for land acquisition.
As far as startup, conservation burial has a few advantages vs. an architecturally attractive, client-friendly composting facility.
With conservation burial, the land is the main “infrastructure” cost, although we recommend getting guest facilities up and running as soon as possible. Long term operations and maintenance costs are a fraction of contemporary cemeteries and would probably cost less to operate than high end composting facility (it should be noted that at least one other entrepreneur is working on lower cost composting venues).
And because conservation burial is about creating a living nature preserve, people are much more likely to do pre-need purchases, improving cash flow.
Conservation burial can also take advantage of buy in by state and regional government programs to protect land (this is not theoretical and helped launch projects in Atlanta and Gainesville, Fla.), or help deflect some of the costs of land that local conservancies wanted to protect anyway (as happened in Ohio). The Atlanta project was also able to use part of the project area for mitigation banking, and was able to harvest a loblolly pine plantation for income and also as a  part of ecological restoration (we are doing the same at Ramsey Creek in our new section).
All things considered, an investment of $2 million to be paid off in 15 years at 5% would be around $16,000 per month, or about 5 sales per month (this could include some of the start-up capital, and actual sales could include both spaces for cremated remains and whole body; obviously long term sales would need to be significantly higher.).
As far as hybrids go, unless the green section of a contemporary cemetery is big enough to function as a nature preserve, I believe most people would prefer a conservation burial project: something we have seen in informal polls. Pushing for smaller green burial sections in existing cemeteries would also fragment the market, making start-up and messaging more difficult for projects doing the hard work of landscape level conservation. I will address the issue more thoroughly in a future post.
Now on the actual post.

Green Grave Management Technology-Is it a Thing?
A few years ago, I had a melt down when the Green Burial Council formed a committee to review and revise the standards for green burial. I had written most of the original ones that had to do with actual interments and grounds.
In the originals, I had spoken of techniques and technologies needed to ensure that our burial activities resulted in a net ecological good for the site.
The committee wanted to remove the language and made these comments:
“The committee was not sure how excavation and burial techniques would protect plant diversity. Protection of plants is covered in another standard……What is an example of burial technology? Excavation technology?…..Burial itself disturbs the soil profile and removes vegetation so there aren’t really any areas where burial would not degrade the land.”
Of course, restoration ecology is developing techniques and technologies to restore degraded land (one reason we advise against selecting properties that are sensitive or pristine); wind driven tree tip-ups regularly disturb soil horizons on a similar scale and more intensely than our excavations (which endeavor to leave the soil layers “in order”). Over the years, we have developed a number of techniques to ensure that our projects have a very positive effect on the local landscape. These techniques MUST be site specific, although many of the basic concepts are general. For example, as the dimensions of a grave increase linearly, the volume of dirt increases exponentially…the more dirt, the more disturbance …so graves should be relatively shallow, and the width and length no more than needed. We avoid areas within our sites that are too sensitive for excavation and graveside services; re-vegetation uses native plants and local genotypes to the extent possible-often regionally rare species (also see final recommendations below).
Graves as Composting Machines
In addition to using good restoration science and conservation biology in site selection, infrastructure development and visitor management, we also worried about returning the nutrients of the body to the living layer. We ultimately came up with two techniques that probably help in this regard: one regarding depth and another involving aeration, promoting roots and mycorrhizza.
I must admit that our efforts have been less than rigorous, and I should thank Lee and her mushroom suit for pushing me to think a little harder about what more we can do and what sort of research is possible and helpful.
Again, this sort of research should be done in various sites. I suspect that we do not have much of an adipocere issue at Ramsey Creek despite our heavy clay soils. Lakes in our part of the world inundated 10s of thousands of acres, and a large number of graves were moved-in many cases, what was actually moved was a layer of dark, organic earth.
What We Have Been Doing Until Now
In the late 90s, when we were contemplating how to make conservation burial as green as possible, we considered items like depth of the graves, maintaining soil horizons, placement in the landscape, and mycorhhiza.
If the idea is for the nutrients of the body to return to the living plant layer, I reasoned that mycorhrizza would play an important role. I saw an article in an ecological restoration journal that emphasized the importance of pioneer tree species in restoring mining sites. These trees, including locusts, would enrich the soil, but their roots would also create macropores for better water and nutrient flow, and would introduce mycorrhiza that are key players in nutrient and water transport for future generations of trees.
When we dug graves (deeper at that point than now), it seemed that it would take quite a while for roots to reach the level of the body, and were concerned that the longer it took the more nutrients might filter downwards. I came up with the idea of burial sticks. Not all that sexy, but free (maybe if I had called them Grave Stix, and sold them for 10 dollars each, it would have made headlines). The idea is to collect downed limbs from the forest floor-ideally those that had been down a couple of years and were beginning to rot. Presumably, these limbs were pretty heavily impregnated with spores from the fruiting bodies of mycorrhiza (mushrooms), and would be likely to decompose faster-providing rapid access to new roots.
Some of the fungi spores would presumably be the same fungi that were already working with the trees and bushes in the forest (although we honestly do not know whether viable spores are there-it could be mostly saprophytic fungi). The sticks are placed vertically at various angles as we cover the grave., in contact with the wooden casket, shroud, etc. We have never tested the proposition, but imagined it would be possible to devise an experiment to test the hypothesis using a test animal, but it made sense and we believe it does help the nutrient flow go in the right direction.
We also hypothesized that in projects that involved abandoned plowed land or mining sites, it would be wise to collect sticks from a variety of locations in the region (and inoculate the roots of grave plantings in a “tea” made with a small amount of duff from a healthy location).
As we started to hand dig more graves, I noticed that while some tree roots extended down very deep, they were rare below 4 feet in our woodland areas. I was aware that some prairie plant roots went considerably deeper. Later I found research showing depth of roots is both species and site specific.
And, as mentioned, a deep, wide and long grave means moving a lot of dirt, which costs more in labor and creates a crush problem (unless the dirt is raised on cement block piers, plywood and tarps). After my first excavation (6 feet deep, 8 feet long and 4 feet wide), I proudly showed Kimberley-who told me it looked “like Verdun in bloody WW1”.
Consequently, we began to dig shallower, narrower and shorter graves. We were also introducing organic material in the form of pine straw and flowers-more for decoration, but the pine straw also was likely to contain fungi spores, bacteria, etc.
As it turns out, macro-pores like the ones we were creating with Burial Stix do have a major ecological role in most forested environments. A US Forest Service white paper from 1971 notes that in Ohio forests, an acre of forest would have some 4,000 dead-root macropores, and that these channels play an important role in water and nutrient transport, new root and importantly for our concerns, aeration.
More recently, In Trees, Crops and Soil Fertility (2003) Grimaldi, et. al. wrote:
“The relatively large macropores resulting from root growth can play an important role in soil aeration and rapid macropore flow of water though the soil. In addition, old root channels are often used by new roots which thereby avoid the mechanical resistance of the soil matrix and may profit from the more favorable chemical environment provided by the root debris. “
So the bottom line is that Grave Stix probably work- by aerating the soil, and promoting new root growth and consequent mycorrhizzal associations to utilize the nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients in the body.
We know from forensic taphonomy research that depth also matters, as does the decorative vegetative matter we placed in the grave. The vegetative matter helps by providing some carbon to balance the high nitrogen during body decay, by providing some extra air-space, by insulating the body in colder conditions, by wicking some of the liquid away from the body and by providing additional organisms to assist in composting the body.
How Can We Improve and Verify Improvements for Green Burial: Recommendations and Some Crazy Ideas of My own.
Depth. At RCP, we go down only about 3-3.5 feet. Since we do not haul any dirt away, the mound provides additional depth at least in the center of the grave. Less depth than that, and we could run into odor issues and animal disturbance. We have never had an issue in the last 18 years, and have wild hogs, coyotes  and the occasional bear passing through the property.
One idea to avoid animal problems would be to include a biodegradable barrier of some sort (particularly for shroud burials) such as netting made from hemp rope, etc. Perhaps some sort of accelerant (see below) could narrow the window when odors could be an issue.

Preparing the grave. We recommend lining the bottom of the grave with pine-straw, old leaves, or other material. This not only softens the appearance, it provides air space under the body/casket. We also leave wooden “chocks” to keep the casket above the actual ground level.
We no longer cut all of the roots from the side of the grave (some guests seem to be freaked out by lots of dangly roots). Larger roots can be unsightly and could interfere with lowering, but medium and small roots can be pinned down with “U” shaped pins readily available from Forestry Suppliers and other on-line providers. During closing, these can be released.
Burial vessels: design, accelerants, oxygen enhancers
In general, caskets should be readily biodegradable, and should not have sealed joints. We now recommend that some sort of vegetative material be inside the casket as well (based on findings in German dis-interments).
Oxygen Enhancement
One idea (certainly not ready for prime time) would be to investigate if certain materials can retain oxygen to help accelerate decomposition, particularly for very obese individuals (prone to adiopocere) and in areas or at times of year when adiopocere is a concern. Carbonized chicken feathers form nanotubes that are being investigated for hydrogen and oxygen storage (https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2009/june/feather-fibers-fluff-up-hydrogen-storage-capacity.html). This process does require energy input, but might be created using green energy. If we could double or triple the amount of oxygen in a casket, it would probably be enough even in adipocere prone situations. Avoiding adipocere might require only a small amount of carbonized feathers, but it might be that other more pedestrian materials could suffice.
I contacted a professor of materials science at Clemson University to ask whether we might use recycled clothing, mulch or other materials to hold onto oxygen. He never got back to me, even though I admitted in my email that my question might seem bizarre. Maybe he thought someone was playing a prank, or that I was a mass murderer trying to dispose of bodies quickly.
Despite the lack of help from material scientists, medical literature supports the idea that the clothing fabric of those using supplemental oxygen accumulates the gas, and that consequently the risk of fire persists for a good while even after the oxygen is turned off (it is recommended that oxygen be used only in well ventilated areas). It would be interesting to see which materials (organic of course) are best: tightly woven or loose, fuzzy. Intuitively, loose fuzzy seems more likely, but maybe the tight weave has more cotton-fiber/oxygen interface. All would be cut into strips to create a fluffy effect. It might not be a good idea to cover the body in cloth, since this could actually impair gas exchange, but if the material is oxygen charged, who knows.
Dried pine-straw is also known to absorb gasses (and fluids), and as we mentioned above, could be a source for organisms to speed the reduction of the dead.
While not air-tight, the casket could have a port on the side, and near the bottom to “charge” the casket with oxygen from a portable tank (oxygen generators are not terribly expensive), after the lid is closed and immediately prior to burial.
Other Amendments
Apparently lime does not speed decay, and in some cases could slow it: http://archlab.uindy.edu/documents/theses/ThewHAAbstract.pdf .
The addition of some sort of organism mix could be helpful, but it would need a fair amount of research, and could also be site specific . I am pretty sure this will not include wood fungus, not to beat a dead mushroom suit.
Casket Modification
In addition to the “oxygen casket” above, another (and perhaps simpler) way to aerate the casket is to follow the example mentioned in the German paper on adipocere. In that example, caskets that were accidentally perforated by tombstone anchors did not have adipocere.
It would be easy enough to make a casket with several predrilled holes-perhaps 10 cm in diameter, the holes could be covered with decorative paper; burial sticks would perforate them during grave closing.
Shroud Burial
One of the more surprising things in the forensic taphonomy literature was the fact that bodies buried directly into the ground can actually decompose at a slower rate than bodies interred in a casket, probably related to oxygen availability.
We would suggest a couple of modifications including elevation of the shrouded body at least several inches off the bottom of the grave using chocks and a narrow back-board (this can be recycled wood, or even a recycled corrugated cardboard “plank” , with built in piers (this would be cheap to manufacture). Vegetation such as straw or other materials would be under and around this structure, which could also be used to facilitate lowering. We already use the recycled wood/chock method, having tried a disposable lowering sling earlier.
Bulky material such as green pine bows could cover the shrouded body (that is lying in a bed of vegetative material), providing some extra air-space, along with the burial sticks.
An inexpensive cardboard covering engineered to hold off the dirt for a very limited time (dome shaped, maybe providing 25 cm of air space) would also add very little to the cost .
Need for Experiments
I know at least one provider is experimenting with road kills and pigs to test his ideas. One problem for burials is that bodies (animal or human) that have been killed traumatically generally decompose quicker, as open wounds admit oxygen and allow fluid flux. Also, the longer a body has been exposed to the elements (especially in warmer months), the faster subsequent in-grave decomposition. Road killed animals are also generally very lean, and unlikely to get adipocere anyway. So road-kill experiments might not give translatable results.
I think we need more trials, perhaps in concert with universities, particularly in areas and in situations that we can expect adipocere (cold, wet climates, and heavy clay soils, and given obese subjects in particular). One size will not fit all, though. I do not think we can develop a magic potion that ensures prompt recycling everywhere.
Grave Closing Techniques.  Sorry if this is out of order-forgot it until last second. In our heavy clay, we have often “stomped down” the fill on the sides of a casket to avoid identifiable “sink-lines” (the soil over the casket does not sink as much as does soil on the sides). I now believe this to be a mistake, especially with adipocere prone heavy clay soils. The unpacked soil is very likely to host more oxygen, and serve as a sink for purging liquid.
Incorporating grave sticks is probably a good idea in most soils. It is something that client families should be aware of, since it looks a bit bizarre to the uninitiated. We also recommend that the sticks be held in some type of decorative/ceremonial carrier-perhaps a made out of woven rope, rather than creating a disorderly pile of old half-rotten limbs and sticks.While we have always kept layers strictly in order (sub-soil, top soil, “duff”/organic layer), including some organic material (leaves, straw, etc.) while closing the subsoil material to create a “17 layer cake” effect could help with oxygen and with beneficial organisms.
Selecting the right cover vegetation is also important. While some shallow rooted vegetation might be ecologically good, if we want to mobilize nutrients, be important to have some species that could be expected to develop roots down to the level of the body.
OK, Sorry if that was a bit technical. You can take out the toothpicks that are propping your eyes open.
Next up: Invasives and Novel Ecosystems; a Book Review of Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”.

Part 3 Why Mushroom Suits Won’t Work and How to Apply Forensic Taphonomy and Cemetery Studies to Make Green Graves One-Use Composting Machines (Part 1)

 

I trust that artist Rhim Lee is a visionary and all around great person, but I was a bit surprised when her TED talk had almost 1.5 million views. She is a talented speaker, funny and full of energy; her “Great Idea Worth Spreading” is a “mushroom suit” that would help nature extract our nutrients after we die. She has recently launched a company that would use her proprietary fungus that she selected for being the best at breaking down her hair, fingernail clippings, etc.

Lee should get credit for her original thinking in terms of accelerating nutrient recycling and detoxification, and for drawing attention to the process. It is an issue some of us in conservation burial have been thinking about for a couple of decades, but we have never had any where near the media coverage (My local TEDx talk on conservation burial had less than .2% of the views as Ms. Lee’s TED talk). I would love to be on a team with Lee.
So I hate to be a buzz-kill. The technology she proposes is not very well grounded in the science associated with decay of buried bodies in general nor the ecological role of soil fungi in particular.
This from an interview a few years ago for the New Scientist:
What kind of mushrooms are you using?
Right now I’m working with shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
Have you got a lab to do this in?
I have my own little DIY lab. I made a glovebox out of plastic storage boxes, and it all kind of works. You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of equipment to do this. My lab is a white tarp tent, it’s just a simple space, and it’s in my home.”

3

Sorry, but a plastic box containing keratin (hair and nails) in no way emulates the complex and changing environment of a buried body. A road-killed possum in a barrel would be a better experimental model, but maybe she rents and the landlord would not approve.
However, If Lee has coaxed shitake and oyster mushrooms into breaking down keratin, it would be quite an accomplishment. Keratin is extremely hard to degrade, requiring very specific proteases (keratinases) that until now have not been associated with basidiomycetes (which includes most mushrooms, stinkhorns, puffballs and earthstars-among other varieties). Keratin-eating toenail fungus, as we are all too often reminded about in disturbing TV ads (Ok, the talking mucus blobs are worse), are slow-growing and do not, thank God, have mushroom fruiting bodies.

 

mycosis
Healthorum.com

Breaking down keratin-in chicken feathers, hair and other animal parts-has serious applications. The US chicken industry alone produces 2-3 billion pounds of waste chicken feathers each year. GEEK ALERT!! The next part is technical and feel free to skip it. It is why Lee’s interpretation of her plastic box experiment is almost certainly wrong.
A recent review of fungal enzymes that break down keratin (“Microbial Decomposition of Keratin in Nature—a New Hypothesis of Industrial Relevance”, Lange, et. al., Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, March 2016, Volume 100, issue 5, pp 2083-2096 ) specifically notes that basidiomycetes (“mushrooms”) ,unlike some other very distant fungal relatives, are not known to produce the three enzymes required to break down keratin. Another review from 2002 in Letters in Applied Microbiology (“Screening Fungi for Keratinolytic Enzymes”, Freidrich, et. al. ) looked at some 300 species of fungi, and found no activity in basidiomycetes. Finally, a survey of proteases in wood rot fungi (which includes both oyster and shitake mushrooms) found no significant keratinase activity in these organisms (“Proteases of Wood Rot Fungi with Emphasis on the Genus Pleurotus”, Fabiola, ett. Al, p 65-66 in Biomed Research International, 2015).
Both the biology of subterranean decay and fungal/mycorrhiizal ecology are far more complex than Lee (or even we) imagined. To design a system that efficiently recycles the body’s nutrients, we must consider the major role of bacteria and nematodes, fungal utilization of organic (and later inorganic) nitrogen, including the succession of different fungal species adapted to various stages of decay, the issue of depth and soil aereation, and symbiotic relationships between different ectomycorrhzal species and vascular plants
A Couple of Definitions.
Mycorrhizal fungi are those fungi that have formed a symbiosis with the roots of vascular plants (ferns, grasses, wild flowers, shrubs, trees, etc.). A square meter of healthy forest soil contains several miles of mycorrhizaol filaments. These come in a number of varieties, including those that do NOT form mushrooms (most importantly arbuscular mycorrhiza-that actually penetrate and dwell partially in the root cells of the host plant) and those that do (most importantly etcomycorrhizal species that connect to plant rootlets). The mycorrhiza get carbon from the host plant(s) and provide the plant with greater access to water, nitrogen, trace minerals and (most importantly) phosphorous. Almost all of the mushrooms we eat are ectomycorrhizal, with the exception of the saprophytes.
Saprophytic fungi live on living, dead or waste material such as wood, toenails, feces or rarely, dead bodies, without a symbiotic relationship with living plants (and can be important disease pathogens). Notable saprophytic mushrooms include Ms. Lee’s magical keratin-eating oyster and shitake mushrooms, as well as psilocybin and the largest organism ever discovered, a 2400-8600 year old honey mushroom (Armillaria bulbosa) fungus in Oregon that weighs a at least a million pounds and covers 2,384 acres (most of it is underground, but it’s tasty fruiting bodies are all from the same organism). .

What Happens to Bodies Buried Underground?

The following is a sketch of the decay of the body underground. The squeamish might want to skip this section as well. Most of the information below is from Soil Analysis in Forensic Taphonomy, edited by Tibbett and Carter, CRC Press 2008, especially Chapter 4, p. 67-101, Sagara, Yamanaka and Tibbett “Soil Fungi Associated with Graves and Latrines: Toward a Forensic Mycology” (this is a real page turner); “Decomposition of Buried Corpses, with Special Reference to the Formation of Adipocere, Fiedler and Graw, Naturwissenschaften (2003) 90:291-300; and Mycorrhizal Symbiosis, Third Edition, Smith and Read, 2008, Academic Press .

In Europe, where cemeteries routinely disinter bodies and re-use graves after 15-25 years, researchers find that the entire process of decay takes about 3-12 years under favorable conditions.
After someone dies, cells soon begin to break down in a process called autolysis. Bacteria-mainly in the gut-begin to multiply given the available nutrients and loss of the protective immune system. This part of the process is anaerobic-meaning it goes on without oxygen, and is called putrification. Gasses produced in this phase eventually bloat the body; breaches in the cadaver allow what oxygen is around to come into the body, beginning active decay.
Early on, the body begins to lose much of the fluid is 60% of the mass of a cadaver; within 25 days the body weighs only 40% as much as it did at burial. The speed of this process is influenced by many factors including soil type, moisture, temperature, pH, burial container (if any), clothing (I hope the mushroom suit is fluid permeable, or it could very well delay decay), ecological setting including potential contact with soil organisms, condition of the body (including fat content, penetrating injuries, and time since death), and depth. Many of these factors influence oxygen availability.
Soil bacteria, nematodes and some insects also contribute to recycling the body, probably as much or more than fungi do. A square meter of soil may contain a million nematodes; some fungi depend on these tiny animals for their food supply.
To the extent that fungi could play a part in this process, it will be dominated early on by molds and other non-mushroom fungal species that can tolerate high pH and ammonia levels. Later, the pH becomes acidic as the ammonia degrades.
During above-the-ground decay and that occurring at very shallow depths, fungi have early phase-species that can tolerate and utilize ammonia and high pH (including some molds, cup fungi and later, small gilled fungi including Coprinus), and a late phase that is dominated by ectomycorrhizal basidomycetes (mushrooms that have a relationship with the roots of vascular plants), arbuscular mycorrhizal-actually the most common type-that live partially IN the host root, (and other mycorrhizal symbionts including a menagerie of fungal types) and some saprophytes ( those that can live on dead or decaying material) notably Hebeloma (A.K. A. “corpse finder”). Please note, mushroom suit fans, that wood loving saprophytes including oyster mushrooms and shittake are not playing a role here, unless it is in breaking down a wooden casket.
The late phase can go on for years, and the fungi involved depend on the species mix of the site (for example, prairie plant roots have a different set of mycorrhizal associates than those found in forests, although some species overlap). After initially repelling roots, the richness of the late phase burial site stimulates root growth (as does, perhaps, soil looseness, and water percolation). We have seen this in our meadow areas where we no longer re-vegetate the graves with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) because of the exuberant growth-over six feet. In non-grave prairie, it is no higher than 3 feet. S. Forbes documented that increased vegetative growth can assist in locating grave sites in a forensic setting (“Decomposition Chemistry in a Burial Environment”, in Tibbett and Carter, p. 207).
But note that I said that that fungi played a bigger role in above ground decay and decay in shallow graves. By “shallow” I mean less than 30 inches below the surface. In deeper graves, fungi are not all that involved until the roots go that deep, well into the process. Saprophytic Hebelaoma can go at least that 3 feet, but they are at early in the late-phase. I just don’t think oyster mushrooms are going to survive or thrive from even a couple of feet under. Any more shallow, and animals become a big concern.
Burial Suits and Bio-Remediation
Lee claims that one of the important tasks her mushroom suit addresses is bio-remediating the cadaver’s accumulated toxins that she apparently thinks are quite deadly.
First of all, she overstates the case. I don’t know why a general public that is hyper-concerned about the last part per billion of this or that toxin yawns at habitat loss. I do not think we are all walking EPA superfund sites. Yes we have various toxins, but these are obviously not anywhere near lethal levels. Or we would all be dead.
Once buried, and the body dissipates, toxins would further dilute dramatically (especially in a conservation burial ground with low burial densities), and most would stay underground.
Secondly, I would trust the dozens if not hundreds of bacterial and fungi species in a diverse woodland to do just as well if not better than one “selected” species of wood fungus when it comes to bio-remediating toxins (Smith and Read address arbuscular and ectomycorhhizal bio-remediation in Myorrhizal Symbiosis). In fact, we have avoided introducing cultivars of native plants (instead of local biotypes) and would not be terribly interested in introducing a “selected” wood fungus to Ramsey Creek.
Toward a Green Burial Taphonomy (Part 1)
Lee is a great designer and spokesperson (to repeat: I wish we were on the same team), and her belief that fungi play an important role in recycling nutrients of a buried body to the living layer is correct. No, her suit will not work, but all of us doing natural burial need to understand the process better. Such understanding could lead to new region and site-specific techniques to help ensure that our bodies benefit other life.
Taphonomy is the study of the fossilization process, but more generally is the study of the process of decay of remains and those factors that promote longer term preservation. Forensic taphonomy is the study of the decay of human remains.
We need a conservation burial taphonomy: one that integrates landscape-level land protection and with burial services, while ensuring that the remains are recycled to nurture new life.
Slow Recycling can be a Problem for Buried Remains
Bodies that are not buried decay quickly-related to aerobic (oxygen dependent) processes, temperature and the action of animals (vertebrates and invertebrates). The Body Farm in Tennessee studies these processes to assist with forensic analysis of crime scenes, accidents, etc.
When bodies are buried quickly, the chance of long-term preservation of tissue goes up dramatically, and this is an outcome we want to avoid with conservation burial.
Hot and Dry, Cold and Wet, High and Dry, Bogs and Adipocere
Most of us are familiar with mummies high in the Andes, those in the coastal Atacama desert, the incredibly preserved bog-bodies from iron-age northern Europe and the 5000 year old “iceman”, Otzi.

500-year-old-Incan-child-mummy

ancient-origins.net

These finds are remarkable and fascinating in part because of their rarity. However, shorter-term body preservation (decades or even a century or more) could be much more common than we think.
Fiedler and Graw (2003) reported that some 30-40 % of cemeteries in Germany (where they generally re-use graves after 25 years) have a problem with persistent preservation of remains. The chief culprit in dramatically slowing the recycling of buried human remains is adipocere.
Adipocere (or “grave wax”) forms from body fat. After death, fat liquefies and saturates the surrounding muscle and skin tissue. Bacteria change the liquefied fat to fats with much higher melting points, including palmitic acid ( 142 degrees f) and 10-hydroxysteric acid (178 degrees f). These waxy fats are very resistant to further degradation and can preserve parts of the body for decades (several studies documented adipocere lasting 130-140 years).
Factors that seem to promote adipocere include those specific to the body (a high percent of body fat, for example), certain soil conditions including heavy clay soils and high soil moisture, depth of burial, the type of clothing (burial suits?) and sealed caskets. My best guess is that most of these conditions have to do with slowing the decomposition of soft tissue other than fat, and many of them create anaerobic or near anaerobic conditions. In fact, adipocere translocated to or near the surface degrades relatively quickly. The degradation of 1 kg of steric acid requires almost 3 kg of oxygen (Schoenen, 2002, cited in Fiedler and Graw 2003).
What factors seemed to promote prompt recycling? Lighter soils, higher temperatures, less depth, “ventilated” caskets, delay between death and burial and vegetative bedding in the bottom of a coffin (or the bottom of a grave in shroud burial). Interestingly, the extra oxygen present in a casket can make decomposition go faster (Forbes, in Tibbett and Carter). The straw or other material could help recycling in a couple of ways. It can provide some insulation to hold onto some of the heat released as a body decays (it is an exothermic process in technical terms); it could provide additional micro-organism contact with the skin, and could absorb some of the fluid being purged from the body. “Ventilated caskets” means lighter unsealed materials, but also refers to a finding that accidentally perforating caskets with tomb-stone anchors prevented adipocere (in an area where adipocere is a major problem).
So how can we use this information to design site specific burial techniques to ensure that the body is recycled back to the living forest or grassland? That is the subject of the next post: graves as one-use composting machines part 2.

Part 2 Green Burial Innovations

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 light hearted, 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.”

IMG_1603

The Gribbon, Solva, Pembrokeshire Coast

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.

Mr-President-MedWEB-1

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:

Unknown-1headurn

Four Creative Cremations That I Like

Eternal Reefs

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.

Reef-balls-come-in-over-20-styles-with-varying-sizes-to-rehabilitate-a-coral-reef

Reef Ball Foundation photo

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

spiritree-memorial-tree-cremation-urn-5a.jpg.650x0_q70_crop-smart

 

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.

CRESTONE_large

Aurora Sentinel
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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.

explosionat1-1bios2

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:-

Firstly, the process can be seen in the natural environment when bodies are shallow buried in the earth in neutral or slightly alkaline soil. To a great extent the bodies are decomposed by alkaline hydrolysis, expedited by soil bacteria and it is a very slow process.
Secondly, it is also a process that happens in your small intestine where consumed food is digested by the process of alkaline hydrolysis with the benefit of gut enzymes and it runs at a slightly higher temperature than above and it is a moderately fast process for small amounts food.”

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 increadily 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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  1. Getting a grave square when the area is not pre-gridded is time consuming and tedious. Unless you get all 90 degree angles, the grave width is narrower than the short sides and the casket can get stuck halfway down (since we dig the graves only a little wider than the width of the box to avoid more extensive excavation). John created a foldable, hinged wooden template with carrying handle. Just open up and mark the corners and 4 other points halfway between the corners. Saves a LOT of time. We came up with a potential annoying infomercial.

    Tired of graves that are not true rectangles?
    With acute angles, the casket dangles!
    Getting stuck is very hard luck!
    But with our advance, you don’t leave it to chance!
    All 90 degrees is quick and a breeze
    It’s the EZ PLOT!
    No more annoying delays! Run into rock and need to move the site a few inches? No problem with EZ Plot. Your staff seems to have a poor grasp of geometry? Forget about explaining about a parallelogram being a rectangle if and only if its diagonals are congruent! Just use the EZ PLOT!
    Only $99.99 plus shipping and handling. ! It will pay for itself in only a few burials!
    Bur WAIT! Order now and get a second EZ Plot for free!

    6

Mushroom Suits, Burial Pods and Other Thoughtful but Ultimately Useless Green Burial Innovations

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 19th century “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.

urban death care

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.

burial eggs

Next: Creative Cremation, Lye and Mushroom Suits