If you care about the planet, decide what to do with your body when you die

May 3—As we learn to live more sustainably, the environmental impact of death is becoming increasingly important. In Maine and beyond, there is a growing movement for more sustainable funerals, burials and cremations, but social stigmas and outdated policies still must be overcome.

The problem, environmentally speaking, is that conventional methods of treating bodies postmortem have myriad environmental issues. Rare woods are harvested for caskets, for example. Bodies are also embalmed using formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, before they are interred.

"There's data out there showing that over time [formaldehyde] is seeping out into the surrounding area, and then also from a worker's perspective, you're exposing funeral home workers to those chemicals as well," said Caitlyn Hauke, vice president and board member of the Green Burial Council.

Hauke said that cremation is slightly more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial, but it comes with its own impacts, like air pollution and energy consumption.

"You're releasing carbon emissions from this burning and then you're also releasing other things like mercury from [burning] dental fillings," Hauke said. "There has been improvement over the years, putting scrubbers on to tamp down on the air pollution. Still, it's not the best, and also it requires fuel, whether it's a wood pyre or traditional oil [or] gas type fuel, and that's energy consumption as well."

As in many other places, there is growing interest in Maine about more sustainable ways of handling bodies after death.

Green burials in Maine

The most well-known form of environmentally friendly final disposition is, perhaps, green burials, which allow bodies to be naturally recycled by the Earth.

"In a green burial you're buried in something biodegradable," Hauke said. "By putting the body into the environment, you're adding organic material into the environment and then sort of end up fertilizing the immediate area. Overall, it's certainly the greenest option."

Green burials can take many forms, from burying a body in a biodegradable shroud under a tree in the woods to interring the deceased in an unvarnished casket in a designated green cemetery, of which there are two in Maine.

Jim Fernald, spokesperson for the Maine Funeral Directors Association and funeral director of Brookings-Smith in Bangor, said that for decades, his funeral home has been effectively having green burials for local Jewish synagogues, as they do not allow embalming and the unfinished pine casket goes directly in the ground as part of the religious rights. In 2008, Brookings-Smith started working with Rainbow's End Natural Cemetery in Orrington for its green burials of all denominations.

Some cemeteries will have designated sections for green burials among the other conventional burial options. Others, like Rainbow's End Natural Cemetery and Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, are only for green burials.

Joyce Foley, president of Cedar Brook Burial Ground, said that she and her now-deceased partner, Peter, converted 3 1/2 acres that they owned into a green cemetery after Peter read an article about green burials out in California and decided that is how he wanted to be buried.

"A couple people thought, 'Oh yeah this is another silly idea, this isn't going to go anywhere,'" Foley said. "Well, guess what — they were all wrong. We've buried probably around 120 people so far."

Foley said that she has even let some people experiment with new kinds of environmentally friendly burial shrouds. A man from Massachusetts came to her with a researcher from Stanford University who had developed a bodysuit with mushroom spores that would consume his body over time.

"He wanted to be buried on top of the ground and I said, 'Nope, you can't do that," Foley said. "There's just things that happen when a body deteriorates that's not pleasant."

Foley said they compromised and buried him 4 feet underground instead of the usual 6. He has been buried for four years, and so far, no mushrooms have grown, but Foley is optimistic.

Environmentalism does play a role in the interest for Cedar Brook Burial Ground, but another factor is cost, Foley said. According to U.S. Funerals Online, a traditional funeral service in Maine costs around $10,000, and even a full-service conventional cremation is between $2,500 and $4,000. In contrast, a site at Cedar Brook Burial Ground costs $800 to $1,400 for a double site, or $600 for veterans — as well as about $100 for engraving and $600 for opening and closing the graves (or $900, where frozen ground makes it a little more challenging).

Challenges of green burials in Maine

There are some challenges to conducting a green burial in Maine. First, there's soil type.

"Sandy, loamy soils tend to favor more rapid decomposition," Hauke said. "What may be good in southern Maine may not work for northern Maine. You can still do a green burial but it may take longer for decomposition to occur."

Then, there's wintertime to consider, when the ground is frozen and covered in snow.

"You can prepare graves ahead of winter and have the holes dug and ready to go," Hauke said. "There are ways to do it in the winter. There's a way to thaw the ground [with] blankets that plug in and you can put it above a grave site [or] set up a fire around the area."

Timing also matters. Hauke explained that if you aren't embalming the body, it must be buried sooner after death — three days is the time frame before visible decay sets in — which can be a logistical challenge.

"The perfect example would be during COVID, we're having this unfortunate influx of bodies," Hauke said. "There is the option to keep the body on ice for a small period of time but because we've had such an influx of bodies funeral homes didn't have the space and because we weren't allowed to have group funerals lots of people who would do green burials opt for cremation."

Liquid cremation in Maine

Green burials aren't the only option, though. Liquid cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation, has been gaining popularity as a less energy-intensive, air-polluting way to cremate a body.

Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast has been conducting liquid cremations since 2013.

"The process [is] more environmentally friendly and progressive as far as where the future of cremation will go and reducing the carbon footprint of the whole end of life care," said Katie Riposta, funeral director at Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast. "It saves 90 percent of the energy over flame cremation."

With liquid cremation, the body is put in a stainless steel container filled with alkaline water. The solution is heated to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit — compared to around 1,800 degree Fahrenheit for a flame cremation — and the soft tissue is dissolved over the course of six to 12 hours. Items like pacemakers do not need to be removed before the process begins, as they would for flame cremations in order to prevent explosions, so it saves time and effort. The liquid is drained into the sewer system, and the skeletal remains are burned.

"You're removing the soft tissue by water like the environment would do to your body if you were placed in the woods and nature took care of your soft tissue over a year," Riposta said. "It speeds up that process and it leaves a sterile skeleton in essence. The effluent is what goes out and goes into wastewater. It's pH neutral, nutrient-rich water. You think about all the things that go into wastewater throughout our life, this is nothing in comparison."

The skeletal remains can be kept or scattered, like ashes for a conventional cremation. Riposta said that in the past, she also has collected the nutrient-rich liquid for mourners who want to use it in a garden for ceremonial purposes.

Weighing sustainability

When it comes to sustainability, liquid cremation and green burials have their pros and cons. For example, liquid cremation still uses some energy and a fair amount of water — between 50 and 80 gallons, depending on the size of the body.

"A green burial in a green cemetery is the only form of body disposition that is actually positive for the environment," Chuck Lakin, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, said. "You're feeding microbes and worms and plants and you're putting all the nutrients in your body back into the system."

Then, there's the issue of land. It is legal to bury bodies at home in Maine, as long as you follow state guidelines like establishing a family cemetery at least a quarter acre in size enclosed with a fence or other boundary markers, having a family member or other person appointed in writing to file the death certificate and obtaining the proper permits if the body needs to be transported.

However, if you don't want to bury your loved one's body in your backyard, green burials require access to a plot. Lakin said that there aren't many green cemeteries in Maine.

In general, cremation has been growing in popularity. The Maine Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow open-air cremations, though they do not have the same sustainability benefits as liquid cremation. For example, Hauke said that for an open-air cremation, you have to maintain the high temperature for such a long period of time, that it uses a significant amount of energy.

Despite some lingering challenges and misconceptions, Hauke said people are increasingly seeking out more sustainable options for after their death.

"The movement is growing," Hauke said. "More people are becoming interested and when people hear about it, they spread the word."