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If you’ve never heard of water cremation, as I hadn’t until I read about it in the Economist this weekend, it’s a process of dunking a dead body in a heated solution of water and potassium hydroxide.  Voila — a few short hours later the body dissolves into an inorganic liquid, which, if you are a hard-line conservationist, can be further utilized as a fertilizer.  This process, also known as “alkaline hydrolysis” is already happening in Australia where Aquamation Industries opened its water cremation doors last month.  But fear not, America, the procedure is coming to Florida where an enterprising British company, Resomation, will be setting up for business by the end of the year.

An even more radical Swedish approach for green body disposal is on the funeral horizon. After being freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen, a corpse is vibrated till it dissolves into a fine powder. Further processing removes the water and mercury (from dental fillings) and the conservation rolls on when the final residue is transformed into mulch. Promessa, the Swedish company that developed this concept, claims that franchises for the process are now in place in South Korea and Britain.

An AARP survey in 2007 showed that a fifth of American senior citizens wanted greener funerals to the tune of sharing hearses, using simple garden flowers and burials in cardboard and easily biodegradable coffins.

More people also want to be buried in natural habitats – not in regimented cemeteries lined with tombstones and vaults.  While they already exist in the USA and Australia, these natural burial grounds are more widespread in England where more than 200 of them have opened up since 1993. Because these burial grounds can’t be redeveloped and banks won’t exactly jump at the chance to use them as collateral, their commercial appeal is limited. However the first natural-burial ground due to open in Ireland next month will also be a moneymaking managed forest.

Held over from the 19th century, modern society’s burial rites continue to be extravagantly expensive and environmentally unsound. Think of all those tons of noble mahogany and oak trees fashioned into caskets only to disintegrate and disappear.   Consider too that toxic chemical, formaldehyde, leeching into the ground over who knows how many cemetery acres.  Published in the Journal of Environmental Health in 2008, an article warned about the public health risks of this formaldehyde leaking into our groundwater. The paper was titled rather graphically (and unfortunately perhaps quite accurately) “Drinking Grandma.”

Funerals are big-ticket items in the U.S. As our natural resources dwindle and people demand greener funerals, suppliers of coffins, vaults and expensive funeral trappings will have to start rethinking their futures and professions. And we’ll all have to start thinking harder about our physical imprint on our planet.

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