A small but burgeoning area of the death care industry has become more personalized, offering alternatives to cookie-cutter funerals and traditional caskets.
The alternatives are limited only by imagination: there’s ways to memorialize a loved one by using their ashes to make 3-D printed ornaments or jewelry, diamonds made of ashes or hair, and tattoos drawn with ash-infused ink. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ashes were transported on a NASA space shuttle.
“There’s been a shift in society. People want memorial options that have meaning. Why spend $4,000 for a casket you’ll see for half an hour when you could create something unique for the person?” said George Frankel, CEO of Eternal Reefs, which creates reef memorials on the ocean floor that incorporate cremains.
“Baby boomers are making these decisions. And we’ve been the generation of causes and individuality. Some people want to reforest the Earth and plant a tree, some people want to save the ocean and some people want to be mulch and spread somewhere special,” Frankel said.
The United States funeral industry takes in about $20 billion per year, according to Marketdata LLC. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a record 3.4 million deaths and a record 1.9 million cremations. The price of the average funeral is $7,848.
“The average consumer hasn’t thought a lot about it,” said Suelin Chen, CEO of Cake, an online platform for end-of-life planning and bereavement support, with 40 million people coming each year for guidance and information. “This is a challenging topic for many people to discuss. Some people get excited about it and for them there’s no stigma around death. For others, it’s a really emotional topic and it’s very easy to put off most of your life.”
“There’s a human ritual aspect to honoring your loved one and there’s many personal, individual ways to express that,” Chen said. “The historic low participation in organized religion gives people a blank slate and gives people freedom on how to honor their loved ones.”
It’s important to think about your burial desires before the time comes to make it easier on your family. Otherwise, loved ones have to make a decision on your behalf and the outcome may be different than what you envisioned.
“The urgent-need nature of dealing with the dead is not a situation that’s conducive to shopping around and bargain hunting,” Chen said. “It’s important that people think about what they want and do some research before they are confronted with a loved one’s death or in doing their own planning.”
The U.S. cremation rate is expected to increase from 59.3% in 2022 to 78.7% in 2040, the National Funeral Directors Association said. The group attributed the rise in cremations to changing consumer preferences, weakening religious prohibitions, cost considerations, and environmental concerns.
The market for alternative burials is not tracked, but a niche of small companies has emerged to offer unusual burial options for cremains or body decomposition.
“The interest in alternatives, I think, comes as baby boomers are watching their parents die and asking ‘Is this really the best we can do?’” said Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, which transforms bodies into usable soil to enrich gardens or forests.
Environmental consciousness drives many of these end-of-life alternatives.
The funeral industry poses certain environmental concerns. For example, the chemicals used in embalming are toxic to the earth, and traditional caskets are often made with hardwood and steel that don’t biodegrade.
Meanwhile, cremation burns fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere. Conventional burial consumes valuable land, pollutes the soil, and contributes to climate change through the resource-intensive manufacturing and transporting of caskets, headstones, and grave liners.
Most Americans (60.5%) would be interested in exploring green funeral options because of their potential environmental benefits, cost savings or for some other reason, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
But for now, the green funeral market globally is a scant $572 million, according to Emergen Research.
Here are some alternatives to a traditional funeral and burial.
Recompose creates soil that can be used to enrich conservation land, forests, or gardens by cocooning the body in a mix of wood chips, alfalfa and straw over a month. The soil is allowed to cure for two to six weeks.
For every person who chooses Recompose over conventional burial or cremation, one metric ton of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere. Human composting requires one-eighth the energy of conventional burial or cremation. The process is legal in five states and costs $7,000.
“People who choose us have a clear desire for connection back to the land one way or another,” said Spade, the founder and CEO.
Plant a tree:
Living Urn offers a tree urn, which is a biodegradable urn, that grows a tree in combination with ashes or cremated remains. The Living Urn combines the ashes of your lost loved one with wood chips and nutrients to plant a living tree that will grow best in your region. Living Urn starts at about $69 for a biodegradable burial urn, with other packages that include a planting system and tree. That does not include the cost of cremation.
Another company, Capsula Mundi, is developing egg-shaped burial pods that are planted in the ground and the nutrients of the decomposing body feed a tree above.
Create an ocean reef:
An Eternal Reefs, a memorial reef is created when a person’s cremated remains are incorporated into a gigantic reef ball using environmentally friendly concrete. The reef is then lowered to the ocean floor, creating a final resting place and a sustainable way to give back after life by replenishing the dwindling natural reef systems.
At Eternal Reefs, families are invited to mix the cremains into the concrete, personalize the concrete topping and have a goodbye with a dedication and tribute wreaths cast from the boat as the reef is lower to the ocean floor.
“You really get to learn who these people were and what their life was about,” Frankel said. “In most cases, the heavy grieving is over and these families are ready to put a period on it and move on.”
“People want to be involved in the process of memorializing their loved ones. Funeral homes can make you feel powerless,” Frankel said. “Families should be involved as much or as little as they want or need to be.”
“The natural burial movement is incredibly cathartic. The only benefit of coronavirus is that families are talking about death more,” Frankel said. “It’s long overdue as a culture to have these conversations.”
Launch into space:
With bluShift, which developed the first commercial rocket in the world powered by near carbon-neutral, nontoxic fuel, you can launch a small portion of the ashes of your loved one—human or pet—over the northern lights.
Starting next year, bluShift, in partnership with Northern Lights Space Exploration, will release ashes in space and it already has people signing up.
“It appeals to all walks of life—those looking for a novel way to memorialize a loved one. I see it appealing to people who had professional careers in the sciences to nature lovers who like the idea of being part of the northern lights,” said Sascha Deri, bluShift’s CEO. “It’s a novel and special way to be remembered.”
Family and loved ones can view the ceremony as a recorded virtual reality experience. The space memorial costs $750. That does not include the cost of cremation.
Both Deri and Northern Lights Space Exploration founder Charlton Shackleton, a descendant of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, said they both would want their ashes launched in space after they die.
“I hope to be the first Shackleton in space,” Shackleton said.