Green It Out: Gifts of the Afterlife

By Lontier Hicks

As we all know, losing a loved one is never easy. Especially when it’s unexpected. My easy-going, carefree life was recently jarred at the sudden passing of a close family friend and maternal figure, Sandy. It still seems surreal.

The emotion-filled words shared at her home going celebration were a testament to the selfless woman she was. The act of giving was inherent in Sandy’s blood and many people, including myself, were recipients of her generosity. Even in death, she had the opportunity to bless someone else in a monumental way through the donation of her lungs. Moved by the magnitude of Sandy’s contributions, I took the time to reflect and ask the question:

Once we’re no longer present in our original physical form, does our ability to give come to an end?

Introspection

As I continue to make holistic wellness and natural living a priority in my life, I find that my connection to nature is becoming stronger. Specifically, I’ve become more conscious about the impact my presence has on our planet. Thoughts of carbon footprints and sustainable living tumble in my mind because man, Mother Earth sure holds me down. Her gifts: plentiful. Her support: unwavering. It’s only right that I want our relationship to be one of reverence and reciprocity.

It dawned on me that I’d like to carry forth these new set of values even in death. When it’s time to depart from my body, I don’t want to place an unnecessary strain on this planet. I envision a natural and simplistic transition—the earth welcoming me with an affectionate embrace.

After attending Sandy’s funeral, it brought to the forefront that conventional burial practices are not aligned with my new found vision of transition. The focus seems to be on the usual suspect of pollution, but what about the methods we choose to dispose of the deceased?

The environmental impact of traditional burials and cremation is immense, not to mention they’re extremely resource-intensive.

Environmental Impact of Burials and Cremations

Let’s start with the fact that casket burials prevent the body from decomposing efficiently. It transforms the progression of natural decay into a slow rotting process, which can harm nearby water sources due to the type of bacteria produced.

The casket itself is often produced from mined metals, wood or toxic plastics. With about 2 million being produced each year, casket manufacturers are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top 50 hazardous material waste producers.

Then we have the concrete vaults that are required by many cemeteries to the keep the ground level. A typical vault uses about 1.6 tons of concrete.

Layer that with the thousands of gallons of cancer-causing embalming fluid buried each year and top it off with the large amounts of water, pesticides and weed killers used to maintain conventional cemetery grounds.

Cremation seems like a more eco-friendly alternative, but even newer facilities that utilize more efficient equipment still emit pollutants and require a lot of energy. Crematoriums are responsible for the release of carbon dioxide and mercury (among other pollutants) into the atmosphere. Think about how much energy it would take to drive 4,800 miles. Well that’s the energy equivalent of cremating one body.

As you can see, conventional burials and cremation add to the environmental strain placed on our home. However, if you’re comfortable with diverting from tradition, there are options available to you.  

Finding the Green

Burial practices that allow the body to decompose naturally are the least disruptive environmentally. Natural (or green) burials are on the rise and are expected to gain popularity into the future.

Green burials do away with traditional coffins, embalming and vaults. Instead, the body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and/or placed in an eco-friendly container like a pine box, where it is buried in a shallower grave to aid in decomposition.

Natural burial grounds prohibit the use of non-biodegradable materials and chemicals. With the elimination of products like herbicides, the surroundings are allowed to be wild and flourish organically as intended.

The use of green cemeteries also helps to protect rural grounds from development since cemetery laws disallow highways and commercial properties from being built in areas the deceased are located.

The path to greener methods of body disposition doesn’t start and end with natural burials. If cremation is still on the table, your cremains (cremated remains) can become a part of something that will live on and benefit the environment.

Bios Urn, the first fully biodegradable urn, is on a mission to transform cemeteries into forests by converting the end of life into new life through nature. A seed for a tree gemmates in the top compartment, while the ashes of the deceased are placed in the bottom chamber. As the urn begins to biodegrade, the roots are stable enough to come in contact with the cremains. The entire structure becomes a part of the soil and nourishes the growth of a tree.

Repurposing cremated remains is not limited to land. Becoming one with the ocean in the afterlife is a possibility with Eternal Reefs. Eternal Reefs incorporate the ashes of the deceased into an environmentally-responsible cement mixture, which is then used to create artificial reef formations with the goal of enhancing the health of the ocean.

Full Circle

Exploration of green burials and living memorials brought me back to the original question I raised. Our ability to give does not have to cease upon death .We undeniably can continue to pass along our gifts in the afterlife through the form of nature.

Become one with the earth after a natural burial and feed the land.

Grow into a tree that will help produce clean air to breathe.

Transform into an ocean reef that supports marine life.

Those examples all embody the premise of life after life and what better gift is there than life itself? So in essence, death can become a gift. Looking at death through this lens helps to soften the rigid finality you’re confronted with when a loved one dies.

As I think about my final resting place, I find comfort knowing that whatever method I choose, it will be in harmony with how I live my life. In the end, I can take space in a manner that speaks to living a holistic lifestyle and honoring the land that graciously sustains me.

I welcome the opportunity to strip away the norms of conventional practices and establish new rituals—returning to a simpler time, before the Civil War which brought about embalming and modern day funerary services.

Much like the kind spirit of Sandy, I want to be of service for others. While I may never be able to match the scale of her contributions while I’m alive, I know that if time runs out, the gifts I share in the afterlife won’t be insignificant.

In loving memory of Sandra A. Nelson aka Gransan

PHOTO: LONTIER HICKS

PHOTO: LONTIER HICKS

Leaving behind a career in accounting, Lontier Hicks is a freedom seeker exploring her new-found passion for writing, holistic wellness, and entrepreneurship. She created a personal blog called Youthfully Grown in order to utilize her knack for research and document her journey of lifestyle redesign. Through that medium, she hopes to inspire others to achieve freedom in their own way. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, the 31-year-old has an indestructible bond with dance and music -- her first loves. The self-proclaimed foodie loves to adorn herself with beautiful, vibrant headwraps and unique handmade earrings. Lontier currently resides in Chicago with her comedian/social-commentator boyfriend, Felonious Munk, and their cat, Nala.