When you die, become a tree
September 25, 2019 3:46 AM   Subscribe

The world is running out of space for cemeteries. It would take a cemetery the size of Las Vegas to hold all those expected to die in the next 20 years in the US alone. What's the alternative? From Australia to Germany to Japan, a new funerary tradition is taking hold: natural burial.

Natural burials have become particularly popular in South Korea, where tree burials have played key parts in popular dramas including but not limited to My Golden Life and Romance is a Bonus Book (both available on Netflix). The Korean Forest Service is even creating forests for tree burials.

One might even say that tree burials are disrupting the death industry...which of course means there's several startups capitalizing on the trend. Better Place Forests is buying forest space for the burial of cremated remains, and both Bios Urns and Capsula Mundi make biodegradable urns for those remains. Concerned about the carbon footprint of your cremation? Washington State will now allow your body to be composted and turned into two wheelbarrows of soil, to be used as your heirs desire. Ashes to ashes, mulch to mulch.

If you're interested in a natural burial for yourself or a loved one, Be a Tree has excellent information.
posted by rednikki (44 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I first saw this idea on Six Feet Under and it looked so peaceful.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

posted by sallybrown at 4:27 AM on September 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


Washington State will now allow your body to be composted

I would be very much up for this - also feeding some scavenger.
posted by each day we work at 4:38 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is cool, but when did people stop using crypts? Is this a boomer thing?
posted by eustatic at 4:38 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


If you don't use burial vaults or non-wooden caskets, you can totally reuse grave sites in graveyards, in most places at least (it depends on the soil to some extent). In Denmark, where I worked as a gravedigger for a while, graves can be reused after 30 years. I've dug a few of them - there is usually nothing at all remaining of the previous occupant. Where the soil was particularly clay-heavy, you would sometimes find bone fragments - these would be buried in a little hole dug at the bottom of the excavation the casket is lowered into.

I'm not at all opposed to the tree burial thing, but it doesn't seem like it's that different to a sensibly maintained graveyard, operating according to sound ecological practices (i.e. not encasing or lining graves in concrete).
posted by Dysk at 4:58 AM on September 25, 2019 [23 favorites]


Thanks for posting. I'm sending this along to some friends in the Maryland state legislature.
posted by sugar and confetti at 5:20 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Why can't I donate my body to the local death/sex cult? Someone should have fun with my body after I'm done with it.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:21 AM on September 25, 2019 [9 favorites]


Why can't I donate my body to the local death/sex cult?

Most of these cults have been cooped by startups in the last decade; you’d likely end up as an undead minion in some gig economy scheme.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:23 AM on September 25, 2019 [34 favorites]


There's also the newish technology of water cremation, which essentially dissolves you down to your bones. Takes less energy than classic cremation (or at least less heat) and is a speedy process.
posted by xingcat at 5:26 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


Whelp, no hard feelings but that comment train has me noping right out.

Tree or natural burial yay. You've always been able to do this, at least as far as non embalming and your own property/site, I think in Alabama ad long as you did the proper pre planning and setup such that the rules were followed.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:26 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, not embalming (or not doing it in a way that impedes decomposition significantly, which I guess is almost oxymoronic) is important too. I always forget that's a thing people in other cultures do, but I guess it goes with the whole open casket tradition. It's not hard to just... not, if you're not expecting the wooden box to be open at any stage of the ceremony/burial.
posted by Dysk at 5:30 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Ashes Ashes (the podcast) recently put out an interesting episode that delves into the environmental consequences of various burial methods (among other things).
posted by unid41 at 5:34 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


My great grandparents had natural burials in WV, in a tiny family cemetery that had almost disappeared when I saw it twenty years ago. I had to ask at the gas station that had sprung up downhill from it. True to the ways of our people, someone hanging out there knew them by name, and was able to direct me up the hill to find their graves.

I will always cherish the memory of picking wild blackberries from my great-grandmother’s grave, tasting them, not quite ripe, as I remembered stories my dad told me of her strength, resilience, and generosity. The blackberries felt like a gift from this woman I’d never met, whose namesake I am, and I felt entirely caught up in and at peace with this life cycle.

I absolutely want a natural burial. Highly recommended. (Although perhaps not here in Florida, with our very high water table. 🤔)
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 5:39 AM on September 25, 2019 [34 favorites]



Most of these cults have been cooped by startups in the last decade; you’d likely end up as an undead minion in some gig economy scheme.


corpsr.com?
posted by lalochezia at 5:40 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


There's also the newish technology of water cremation, which essentially dissolves you down to your bones. Takes less energy than classic cremation (or at least less heat) and is a speedy process.

That has been getting attention; I've noticed articles in the NY Times both about the human version (legal in 15 states apparently) and for pets.

It is also a minor plot element in Thomas Harris's new book, Cari Mora, which I recently made the mistake of reading. From the Washington Post review:
And early in the novel, Hans-Peter extols the convenience of his most prized possession: a liquid cremation machine, which, he brags, is so much more ecologically friendly than those dirty burning crematories. “The liquid method left no carbon footprint, or print of any kind,” Harris says like he’s channeling Mel Brooks. “If a girl did not work out, Hans-Peter could just pour her down the loo in liquid form — and with no harmful effect on the groundwater.”

Even Anthony Hopkins would strain to make this gory goofiness frightening, particularly when Hans-Peter breaks into a little jingle: “Call Hans-Peter — that’s the name! — and away go troubles down the drain!”
posted by Dip Flash at 5:49 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Dump us all into the sea. Feed the fish.
posted by pracowity at 5:51 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


First, we don't "run out" of appropriately priced resources. As they become scarcer, their prices increase relative to the price of the alternative, and demand shifts to the alternative resource. In this case, the standard resource is burial space, and the alternative is cremation. And people are shifting to cremation; most people in the U.S. are now cremated, and the share is growing.

Second, The world is not running out of space for cemeteries, though the world may be running out of space that is close to where people live. The linked article says we would need 130 square miles of burial space over the next couple of decades, "if they were all buried in standard burial plots." Assume that the fact that less than half of people are buried is offset by the non-plot space in cemeteries. The area of the United States: 3.8 million square miles. The area of urban areas: About 100,000 square miles.

The situation in Manhattan is going to be different than in Albany or Anchorage, and it's still great to provide more options, but if you want to be buried, you can be.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:18 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Isn’t the alternative cremation?
posted by Selena777 at 6:27 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


We could use the space more efficiently if we buried people upright instead of prone.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:27 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


We could use the space more efficiently if we buried people upright ...

Very true, but then we’d need a replacement for Rest In Peace.
posted by terrapin at 6:48 AM on September 25, 2019


Second, The world is not running out of space for cemeteries, though the world may be running out of space that is close to where people live.

I mean, I think that's the heart of it, right there. It gets to the question: Why does it matter what happens to our bodies after we die?

And the answer is going to be different for many of us. Some people want their bodies buried intact for religious reasons; many of us don't care personally what happens to our bodies, but for the sake of those who outlive us, we'll make arrangements of one kind or another; some like to have a physical marker they can visit, where they can pay respects to departed loved ones. Some don't need or want that. And so on.

There are still many people who care about being able to visit a gravesite, and someone living in Newark probably isn't going to want their spouse's remains buried 50 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

I'll probably end up donating my body to science, and I'd like to leave some money behind to dedicate a bench by the nearby lake. For vanity, and for my family to have somewhere to sit and remember me if they feel like it.
posted by sugar and confetti at 6:51 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


We could use the space more efficiently if we buried people upright ...

Very true, but then we’d need a replacement for Rest In Peace.


DECOMPOSE IN ETERNAL VIGILANCE
posted by sugar and confetti at 6:52 AM on September 25, 2019 [39 favorites]


More Americans are choosing cremation as a cheaper alternative to embalming & casket & concrete vault & burial, sure. But cremation has it's own issues being an energy-intensive process with high emissions and issues with mercury.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:52 AM on September 25, 2019


Can I donate my body to pseudoscience? Prop my corpse up in the woods in a Sasquatch costume?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:20 AM on September 25, 2019 [17 favorites]


Can I donate my body to pseudoscience? Prop my corpse up in the woods in a Sasquatch costume?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow


Where can I donate my body to become a theme park urban legend?
posted by gc at 7:24 AM on September 25, 2019 [9 favorites]


My spouse Comrade Doll's family is interred in Cluj-Napoca, Romania's famous Hungarian cemetery, Házsongárdi. Because it's such a beloved cemetery but has been crowded for generations, they've had to solve the problem of overcrowding in a variety of ways, among them: having no spaces between graves; interring entire families in single plots (shrouds, no coffins, shared tombstones with names added as needed); and most importantly, treating the plots as valuable real estate to be willed to heirs (and resold as suits them).

Being buried at Házsongárdi is less like having an eternal resting place and more like owning funereal real estate. Your loved ones visit you and tend to your grave for as long as you are remembered. Once your loved ones have passed on and your plot gets willed to someone who knows few, if any, of the people buried there, the plot will likely be turned over and sold to a new family. Because the plots are valuable, they do not go unclaimed/abandoned, even when the last of the owning family passes away. Someone will claim them, keeping the cycle going.

CD inherited one from an elderly family friend with no other living relatives. She took care of it for 25 years, but the odds are in the next few years, we're selling it, as she is not going to be buried overseas (or at all probably). No one will think less of us for it. It's standard. Another nice family will have a place to bury their dead. Her immediate family's plot is still there and she and her mom still keep it up. They rebuilt its little bench the summer before last. Her mom will be there someday, too.

I was never a fan of cemeteries, but I have to admit, it's a nice system.

Also, it's strangely lovely there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:37 AM on September 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


Oh yeah, not embalming ... is important too. I always forget that's a thing people in other cultures do, but I guess it goes with the whole open casket tradition. It's not hard to just... not, if you're not expecting the wooden box to be open at any stage of the ceremony/burial.

People used to do open caskets for non-embalmed corpses. They just buried them shortly after death, and were okay with them looking dead rather than “asleep”. Even though we hold funerals weeks after death now, we could just keep them chilled. The psychology thing of “we don’t think people can handle seeing a real dead body” is a bigger hurdle.
posted by Hypatia at 7:57 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


Very true, but then we’d need a replacement for Rest In Peace.

They also serve who only stand and wait.
posted by pracowity at 8:14 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Sky burials are where it's at.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:40 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sky burials are where it's at.

My favorite bird is the turkey vulture and I have told my wife and friends that when I die I want my corpse taken up the Central Coast and left in a tree where the vultures can get at me. So far everyone has said that they will not take part in my plan, so they had better prepare themselves for a visit from my vengeful spectre.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:43 AM on September 25, 2019 [11 favorites]


Embalmed corpses still look dead. I could see the stitches holding my father's mouth closed at his wake. It was awful. (In our family you kiss the corpse; maybe embalming and funeral preparations hold up better from a distance.) It felt like a violation and I absolutely do not want that done with my body.
posted by rednikki at 11:01 AM on September 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


The people of the generation-ship society in Becky Chambers' third Wayfarers novel, Record of Spaceborn Few, compost dead bodies and put the dirt in their gardens. In the Afterword, she says that one of the main reasons she wrote the novel was to talk about composting the dead. The concept fits in well with the novel as a whole, because the society was isolated for a long time and developed an absolute waste-nothing ethos.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 11:34 AM on September 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


whatever happened to just walking into the woods or hopping on an ice flow when it was your time to pass?
posted by HappyHippo at 12:37 PM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


There's a space in a family plot waiting for me in Tennessee, in a part of the state that's getting older and being abandoned by the living, always making more room for the dead. I'm not sure I want this plot. It has painted iron gates and its manicured lawns, tiny faded flags and plastic flowers.

What I'd really prefer is the private Elam family cemetery some five or so miles from there, off a forgotten road with the entrance secured by a rusty chain. The family still owns this little knob of land that used to be part of hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres of farms and family estates and eventually sold off in parcels as the various family fortunes were lost. The entrance isn't marked. You walk around the rusted chain, up the hill, through the tall and ancient trees, and there's a small array of gravestones going back into the 1800s, most of them mossy and worn by weather, all of them sinking into the ground. Relatives I've only known from stories. Lots of children, as children died so young then. No one's been buried there for 50 years at least.

It's quiet except for the birds and the wind in the treetops. It sounds like it would feel haunted, but it's the opposite of that. Haunting only happens in places where you don't belong.

I wouldn't mind being a tree there. It'd be somewhere for the lost children to play.
posted by mochapickle at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2019 [12 favorites]


My whole family reserved places at a "Ruheforst" (resting forrest?) here in Germany when my grandmother died about 15 years ago. You get cremated and your ashes put into a compostable urn. Part of the decision was money (it`s a lot cheaper than a traditional grave and burial) but it was mainly about long-term care of a graveyard spot. Decades of arguing with relatives about who has to look after a grave basically made us say "enough!".
When my grandfather died 25 years ago, my grandmother went ahead and paid in advance for his graveyard spot for the next 60 year...which means I will get angry letters from the graveyard administration and then drive 3 hour to clean it up for the rest of my life! (ok, I could avoid the angry letters by just doing the cleaning regularly....but meh....)
The burial itself was very matter-of-fact. No church, no priest etc. You could of course do these things if you wanted. But the presence of a forest ranger was mandatory.
I remember the other relatives being a bit confused about the whole thing.
Aunt: "Can I put this flower bouquet in the grave?"
Ranger: "Yes, of course. But please remove the foil and other non-compostable parts."
posted by mortimore at 12:56 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


I would like to be buried in the most unnatural way possible and in such a position that post-human scientists will be divided as to whether it represents a love of something 21st century people called "yoga" or if I was trying to claw my way out of the grave.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:36 PM on September 25, 2019


whatever happened to just walking into the woods or hopping on an ice flow when it was your time to pass?

There are no ice floes, and precious few forests, left. We can’t have them crowded with people waiting to die....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:56 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Isn’t the alternative cremation?

Well, there's still the question of cemeteries. The article on Japan is talking about tree burial of ashes, not bodies.

Virtually everyone (99.97%) in Japan is cremated. But they still have cemeteries (example), which have a marker and the ashes. These are maintained by families.

This is leading to a few problems. In rural areas, where young people are moving away, no one is left to maintain them. In urban areas, even a small marker/plot still needs space and there is not much space in general.

As mentioned above, the problem is not space in the abstract --- even in Japan, you could find plenty of abandoned space out in the countryside / mountains to stick markers. But people want to be able to visit their family gravesite, which is not practical if you try and put them in deeply unused land.
posted by thefoxgod at 4:52 PM on September 25, 2019




I quite like the idea of being composted.
posted by Pouteria at 7:57 PM on September 25, 2019


I want my body to be taxidermied and taken to various family events Weekend at Bernies style.
posted by interogative mood at 8:28 PM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


Or you could donate your organs and then your body to science to train better doctors. Donate your brain to the Harvard brain bank researching mental illness and brain injuries. Or donate your body to a body farm and help solve crimes.

Make your body useful doing anything other than adding it to a human landfill where no one will visit you after two generations.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 9:19 PM on September 25, 2019


"we should evaporate when we die"

(from Luis Bunuel's Exterminating Angel, probably the best movie ever made)
posted by philip-random at 11:11 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Washington State will now allow your body to be composted

Bodies go in the green bin, not the blue bin.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 4:59 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


I clearly remember my mom telling me that interments in Germany (in this case, suburbs of Stuttgart) are only for 20 years, because there's no space to maintain a single-use gravesite. From what mortimore said, perhaps my family only paid for 20 years (which, honestly, sounds totally stereotypical for Schwaben in general and my family in specific).
posted by JawnBigboote at 8:04 AM on September 26, 2019


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