Growing Interest in Alternatives to Cemetery Burial
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Since the earliest human civilization, burying the bodies of our loved ones has been a sacred death-practice that continues today. When a person dies, the usual course of events, after death certification by a treating physician, is to contact a funeral home or mortuary to remove then prepare the body for final disposition. This typically involves readying the body for burial or cremation. In less common situations, surviving family might also arrange for the body or the cremated remains to be transferred out of state.
This article will explore alternatives to traditional cemetery burials. Alternative burials have a long history in Hawai‘i and elsewhere in the United States, as evidenced by the numerous burial sites of various sizes, styles and state of upkeep throughout the nation.
Ancient Human Burials
Human communities have been burying their dead for tens of thousands of years. Recently the remains of a toddler were discovered in eastern Kenya which were thought to be approximately 78,000 years old, according to numerous articles about this African discovery.
The child, named Mtoto (Swahili for “child”) by modern-day researchers, was found buried at the mouth of a cave and estimated at around 2 1/2 to 3 years old at the time of death. Researchers believe that the burial was intentional and may have involved funeral rites and that the dead child’s head may have been placed on a kind of pillow in the burial pit. The body was tightly wrapped in a shroud made of animal skins or leaves and carefully positioned, suggesting that a formal practice (that perhaps expressed tenderness and respect) was afforded to the small body during burial.
The way the child was buried is significant, because it suggests – although does not prove – the presence of “symbolic thinking” by our early human ancestors. In other words, those who buried the child 78,000 years ago possibly had a view of life that was more complex than the visible material world around them. Archaeologists also found evidence of Neanderthal graves that appear to be the result of intentional burials, which possibly involved rituals, but there is an ongoing disagreement about whether the burials were intentional or the result of natural phenomena like rock falls.
In more recent ancient history, it is clear that humans from many different cultures and civilizations throughout the world have buried their dead with elaborate rituals and monuments. Perhaps most famous are the Egyptian pyramids, built as extravagant tombs for pharaohs and their escorts, that are thousands of years old, as well as the massive keyhole-shaped tombs called kofun in central Japan. So large that they take up the equivalent of multiple athletic fields, kofun are speculated as the final resting place of powerful ancient rulers during the Kofun Period (250 A.D. to 538 A.D.; named after these tombs). However, the tombs are still shrouded in mystery, because they are considered sacred by the Japanese government, which limits access for archaeological research and restricts entry by visitors.
Of course, there are other methods of final disposition rooted in history and culture. India includes the Hindu practice of cremating bodies in open-air funeral pyres: placing the deceased person’s body in a structure of flammable wood pieces then setting it afire to begin cremation, a ritual thought to break the soul free from physical attachment. The ashes are collected after about six hours and immersed in the Ganges River. As COVID-19 surged in India in April and May resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, mass open-air crematoria filled with funeral pyres became overwhelmed and many had to expand to accommodate the urgent need for additional services.
Less common today is the ancient practice of “sky burials” still practiced by some cultures, a method of disposing of the human body by leaving it exposed out in the open, usually a mountaintop, to decompose or to be eaten by animals such as vultures. The idea is that the soul is no longer in the body; thus the body need not be preserved. Sky burials have been practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and others and may be practical for people who live in very high-elevation areas where wood for cremation is not easy to get and the ground too hard or rocky for whole-body burials.
Sustainable Land Practices After Death
“Having your body laid out to be eaten by animals is not for everyone,” mortician and funeral director Caitlin Doughty told the audience in a TED Talk (youtu.be/zcMj4Az1MwE) posted in 2017 on YouTube, but she said she wouldn’t mind it for herself. Doughty — who was born and raised in Hawai‘i and has authored bestselling books on the mortuary industry — is a popular commentator on preparing the human body for final disposition. In her 2015 book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory,” Doughty takes an unflinching look at the mortuary industry as she re-tells, often with an underlying current of gallows humor, what happens to a body as it is being prepared for a funeral and burial, usually out of the view of family and friends. Her knowledge of the process comes from first-hand experience as a mortician, a job she wasn’t sure was right for her at first but came to love, not only for what she could do for the dead, but also for the insights she could provide to the living.
In her TED Talk, Doughty referred to some non-western practices such as sky burial, mentioned above, but said that in the western world, the two primary methods for preparing the body after death involve chemical embalming and cremation, usually followed by a service of some kind and then cemetery burial. She acknowledged the importance of rituals associated with death, especially for the benefit of survivors of departed loved ones, but she asked the audience to consider other options to the more conventional ones available to modern society. In many whole-body burials, for example, the body is encased in a casket with a rubber seal and placed into the ground in a concrete vault. The body, embalmed with chemicals for preservation, does not find its way back into the soil to nourish the earth. Even cremation requires enormous resources to power the equipment that converts the body into ashes.
Doughty proposed an alternative that some reading this article may find interesting, perhaps even appealing, and others may find disturbing. She talked about a “farm” she visited where human bodies are processed into compost.
This method is called “recomposition,” and Doughty said we’ve been doing this with cattle and other livestock for years. “Imagine a facility,” Doughty said, “where the family could come and lay their dead loved one in a nutrient-rich mixture that would in four to six weeks reduce the body — bones and all — to soil.”
This human compost soil would nourish the land so that things like trees can benefit from it. This is different from scattering cremated ashes on the ground, she said, which does not have the nutrient value that recomposition creates and could actually be harmful to plants if not distributed properly.
In this way, we could re-envision cemeteries, too. It is a growing challenge for existing cemeteries to provide the land needed for additional burials, but expansion plans often conflict with community concerns over development that encroaches into neighborhoods or forested lands.
Doughty raised the idea of “conservation burials,” where a land trust would oversee large parcels of land nourished, in part, by human compost. Once used for this purpose, the grounds nourished as such must always remain conservation land, places where people can visit and enjoy knowing that their loved ones remains are helping to keep the grounds fertile.
“There are no headstones and no graves in the typical sense,” she said. “There’s no embalming, no heavy metal caskets.” Only native plants will be allowed to be planted.
“There’s hope in conservation cemeteries,” she said. “They offer dedicated green space in both urban and rural areas. They offer the chance to reintroduce native plants and animals to a region. They offer public trails, places for spiritual practice, places for classes and events, places where nature and mourning meet. Most importantly, they offer us once again, a chance to just decompose in a hole in the ground. The soil, let me tell you, has missed us.”
In December 2020, a company in Washington state called Recompose became the first in the nation to accept bodies for human composting at its location south of Seattle. The idea germinated about a decade earlier when founder Katrina Spade began thinking about her own death and the environmental impact of conventional burial and cremation. While in college, a friend told her about the practice of composting dead farm animals. Spade learned about the role and power of microorganisms in the process of decomposition.
In the ensuing years, Spade researched human composting with the help of others interested in the topic. In the Spring of 2016 she gave a TED Talk that focused on the question, “What if our bodies could help grow new life after we die?” In the Fall of 2017 she founded Recompose and began raising funds, hiring experts and building the company’s infrastructure. A major hurdle was passed when a bill legalizing human composting in Washington state passed the state legislature in 2019. In May of that year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law, making his state the first to legalize “natural organic reduction” (NOR) or the “contained accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” In December 2020, Recompose began accepting bodies for human composting. On May 10, 2021, Colorado became the second state to legalize human composting. In addition to Recompose, two additional companies have opened up to do human composting in Washington state.
How does the process work? In Recompose’s facility, it involves placing the body into a temperature-controlled vessel — one body per vessel — filled with wood chips and straw. Staff monitor the vessels for both temperature and moisture content to ensure that the microorganisms have the proper environment to do their jobs. The vessels undergo slow rotation a few times during the process. The vessel maintains a temperature of 131-degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours to kill any pathogens. The decomposition process takes about a month, after which the compost or soil rests in a box for a few more weeks for curing. State regulations require the facility to test for harmful pathogens before the soil is released. Family members can retrieve the soil or donate it for use in a forest managed by a conservation land trust as part of its environmental restoration efforts. The cost of human composting is about $5,500.
Options in Hawai‘i
Human composting is not legal in Hawai‘i, at least not yet, although it would seem to be something worth considering given its eco-friendly approach compared to more conventional modern burial practices and the persistent challenges of expanding existing cemeteries in a state where land is scarce and expensive.
Another alternative that state legislators in Hawai‘i have seriously considered is one that uses modern technology for an old practice. This past legislative session, a bill was introduced that, if passed, would have effectively allowed a practice that is consistent with traditional Hawaiian burials that involve interring only the bones of a deceased person into a gravesite.
“The legislature … finds that the traditional native Hawaiian burials include the practices for treatment of human remains,” states Senate Bill 1021, “which involve reducing the remains to its skeletal components and interring the iwi (bones) in a kapa or lauhala container. A traditional Native Hawaiian burial utilizes modern technology to effect the removal of the flesh and fluids from a human corpse in a manner leaving the bones intact and unharmed.”
The modern technology used in some parts of the United States and Canada is known as alkaline hydrolysis, which uses water and some chemical additives that dissolve the soft tissue of the body and leave the bones clean and intact. This transformation occurs inside of a cylindrical container that applies the alkaline hydrolysis technology to accelerate the process. When it is over, which can take several hours (more or less, depending on the specific device used), the liquid is drained away and the bones can be collected and buried in a manner of the family’s choosing as long as it complies with state law.
Supporters of the bill included Hawaiian cultural practitioners and organizations. According to the bill’s language, “Prioritizing traditional Native Hawaiian burial techniques, such as alkaline hydrolysis, is a cleaner, gentler and more environmentally friendly process than modern treatment of human remains.”
The bill said that the process is also more cost effective, takes up less burial space and does not require caskets, resulting “in an increase in the carrying capacity for cemeteries.”
The bill was opposed by the funeral and cemetery industry, which expressed concerns about the definition of traditional Hawaiian cultural customs and practices and how they would impact the mortuary and funeral industry. The industry’s representative submitted public testimony asking that pertinent questions be answered before the bill was approved.
Although the bill advanced through both House and Senate committees, and legislators were appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, it appears to have stalled in the days leading up to the close of the legislative session. However, the fact that it made it that far in the process suggests it could be revived in a future session and passed if concerns are addressed and worked out.
While human composting and alkaline hydrolysis for human bodies are not yet available in Hawai‘i, there are other less contentious alternatives to cemetery burial that already exist. Some families keep the cremated ashes of their loved ones at home or scatter the ashes in appropriate locations that had meaning for the deceased person during his or her life. Some cemeteries have scattering gardens. It is also not uncommon for ashes to be scattered in the ocean here in Hawai‘i, although according to the United States Environmental Protection website, “cremated remains shall be buried in or on ocean waters of any depth provided that such burial takes place at least three nautical miles from land.” Scattering ashes on public or private land may require approval from the relevant authorities.
Cemeteries and places of worship may have separate stand-alone buildings or adjacent wings where urns containing cremated remains are kept in rows and columns of recessed compartments, each the size of a small box. Called a columbarium, cremation niche, memorial garden, urn vaults or other names, these places tend to be easier to visit than cemetery grounds, which are sometimes sloped and or have uneven terrain that make it difficult for some people to walk on without tripping or losing their balance.
If the niches are located at a church or temple, they can be visited or seen regularly if the family members and friends of the deceased attend services there. A special trip to the cemetery is unnecessary. These alternatives to cemetery burial take up less land as many urns can be accommodated in a relatively smaller area, almost like a condominium for urns as opposed to single-family homes.
In Japan, some companies have taken columbarium to new levels, featuring high-tech, futuristic perks such as niches that light up and glow in a stunning building that can have 2,000 or more niches extending from ground to ceiling and wall to wall. A visitor walks into this otherworldly space and enters the name of a deceased loved one into a computer. That person’s niche lights up a different color from the other niches so that it is easily identified, and the visitor can go to that area of the wall to pay respects. Despite the glow of LED lights and perhaps the feeling of being in a spaceship, the design of the interior space also projects a sense of the sacred with Buddhist imagery on the face of every niche and a traditional-looking altar with burning incense at a focal point in the building’s interior.
In a BBC documentary, a family member explains that buying a niche in a place like this is less expensive than a cemetery burial, but also that she and her deceased husband do not have any children, so if they had a conventional cemetery grave, there would be no one to look after it after they are both no longer living.
The BBC reporter makes an interesting observation. She said that sometimes when she goes to a cemetery, she sees such a vast difference in the gravesites. Some are small and not well kept up. Others are huge marble “posh” ones. “But here,” she says of the high-tech columbarium, “it’s a sort of democratization of death. Everyone’s the same whether they were rich or poor in this life. Whether they had children or no children. I really love that.” The same can be said of the simpler, low-tech columbaria such as those that exist in Hawai‘i. The collective niches are very uniform in appearance.
Alternatives like this and others mentioned in this article need to be considered as space for new cemetery burials becomes less available and people continue to die as Hawai‘i’s and the nation’s population continues to age. Of course, there are those who will opt to use traditional cemetery burials for a long time into the future. The alternatives are not for everyone, and employing the services of a mortuary and professional funeral director can be convenient and even comforting.
Others — perhaps the up-and-coming generation — may be open to more unconventional options that already exist or that become available in the future, especially as there is a growing consciousness about eco-friendly approaches to final disposition of the body and a change in the population demographics where more aging people are singles or married couples without children. The idea of starting the traditional family grave as it were may gradually become less relevant as families change in their composition or where they live. Many families no longer live in the same geographical location as adult children or retired parents move to other states.
My Own Body
I have already made arrangements for my own body to be donated to the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa Willed Body Program, a decision I made after writing an article about the program in the May 19, 2017, issue of The Hawai‘i Herald – “The Silent Teachers: Donors to the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Willed Body Program are Paying It Forward.” I carry a laminated green card in my wallet that says I am a member of this program and have filled out legal documents to donate my body to the medical school immediately after death so that students can continue to learn from me through dissection, practice and observation. I have no interest in being buried in a cemetery or interred in a niche for time immemorial. Once the medical students or researchers are done with my body, my remains will be cremated and will either be returned to family members or taken out to sea in a canoe during the annual memorial service for willed body donors, also known as “Silent Teachers.”
If human composting is legal in Hawai‘i at that time, I have no problem having my remains turned into soil and returned to the earth if the medical school has that option. In fact, as I was working on this article, I told a friend who enjoys gardening that if my remains are turned into soil, perhaps I could have a bag delivered to her home for her garden. She politely declined.
The Future of Death
The alternatives to cemetery burial are not for everyone. Some people’s cultural traditions, religious beliefs or personal views become barriers to considering some or all of these alternatives. There are those who may even find the discussion of these alternatives distasteful, if not offensive. Others are relieved that these options are available (or may soon be available) as they do not wish — for a variety of reasons — to be either cremated or buried in a casket in a cemetery. They find that to be unacceptable.
Caitlin Doughty and others believe that in order for alternatives like human composting to be more widely adopted, we have to start changing the way we think about death. The decay and decomposition of once-living beings is part of the cycle of the natural world. Plants and animals die; their remains decompose to nourish the land that enables life for new plants and animals. The beauty of the natural world is the result of this process of regeneration, and people should have the option to be a part of that process if it can be done safely and legally.
Kevin Y. Kawamoto, MSW, Ph.D., is a gerontological social–work educator and longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.