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Monday, December 10, 2007

For when you go green, permanently

I am not making this up: Biodegradable coffins, pioneered in England, are being sold in the United States by this Portland company.

Comments (10)

Ashes are a better fertilizer and take up less prime farm land.

agreed on the ashes. Cardboard boxes have been biodegradable for years.

Even though I favor it, cremation reportedly is not green enough because it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So, if you are going to kill someone to earn carbon credits, having eliminated their natural and material emissions of carbon dioxide, you must also properly dispose of the body for sure. By all means bury it deep in an industrial size paper bag using a hand shovel. And don't go to Fatburgers afterwards because you've worked up an appetite.

Let's all drink the Koolaide of Green and Sustainability. Science is not proof. It is consensus. Yes, the Nazis had a consensus didn't they?

Does the coffin biodegrade before the body or after?

I notice it says "available lined with cream..." is it whipped?

I want to be composted. One of the Scandinavian countries had a method of super-freezing then breaking a person up into small, easily composted chunks. I can't tell you how much amusement I derived out of explaining to my family members that this was how I wanted to go.

A biodegradable coffin has been available in the Pacific Northwest for some time. To answer Dave's question, in this case I think the body goes about 17 minutes before the coffin.

Hi there,

Thanks for the mention. I'm going to chime in here because this is my company and I'd love to respond to questions and thoughts.

1) as a long-term composter/natural foodie/og planting person, in the majority of cases ashes are not better fertilizer. They're highly alkaline; they alter ph balance and if scattered on green foliage, burn leaves. If buried, they're a fairly low-quality microbial dinner. Your body, on the other hand, is a 7-course meal for all the little critters that want to come after you (and the more polite ones are waiting til you vacate the premises, so lucky for you!)- Trees don't eat ashes but you - you're like a big marlin just sitting there waiting to turn into a carbon sink. It takes a tree about 3 years to reach you and really set up shop and then, lookout - you're a convert to treeland, for sure.

RE: prime farm land - Woodland burial grounds on urban growth boundaries that turn citizens into 300 year old trees, reclaim soil, build habitat, provide oxygen, sequester carbon, store water, and create revenue-generating greenspace are amazing potential tools for any urban population. Prime farm land is typically class I and maybe class II soil, and it has to be cleared and level. Natural burial sites should never go on flat, level, cleared, Class I soil (most modern cemeteries are on these, btw, as are most suburbs, so pick on suburbs before you pick on natural burial grounds, please) unless they are the only way that soil can be protected. There are too many ways to leverage a natural burial ground for the good of the community as a whole to put one on Class I ready-to-farm land.

2) It's not just the simple availability of biodegradable caskets that's at issue (and the site here was in Yakima WA, not PDX, so where are the successful local biodegradable coffin makers?) - it's the acceptance and ease of use. Biodegradable caskets used to be the norm - now they're the big exception and many cemeteries confound the biodegradation by requiring vaults and other items. Companies like Desert Light exist; they are, however, simple and straightforward in their approach, much like an organic farmer in the 70's or early 80's was. They're not out marketing, nor creating a movement, nor changing legislation - they generally don't need to resell their items, either. Most of them deal direct with the public and that's fine.

3. Whether or not the body goes first depends on the container. The Ecopod is recycled newspaper - worms love it; as long as it isn't buried too deeply, below the level of active microbes (the top needs to be no lower than 18 inches of soil, I believe, but we're checking it all out) then the pod goes first (though some decomposers like cellulose and some dig nitrogen) Cardboard coffins (which we sell either finished or available for you to decorate yourself) go next. Woven fibers decompose at different rates - the water hyacinth and pandanus is fastest; the willow a bit slower; bamboo and seagrass and the harder fibers go even more slowly still. Plywood - formaledehyde free (which we have; 2 different brands so far, and more on the way) goes next and it's much greener than solid wood because it's primarily from secondary forest product particles and breaks down rapidly. The slowest thing to decompose in the biodegradable list is a solid wood casket like the plain pine box, and it also keeps the elements and critters away from the body the longest.

A body takes approximately 12-16 months to lose almost all its flesh, organs and fatty tissue in Oregon, buried at just under the surface of the soil. A tree can eat you, bones and all, in as early as 5 years, I believe. According to Paul Stammets, mushroom guru, there are quite a few fungi who are very capable of eating bone - it's an important resource and is quickly leached from our wet soils, so we have a lot of natural systems working to reclaim the calcium. An active soil web does not give away food easily.

4) Promession is the name of the process mentioned - it's freeze drying, and it's explained more fully at one of the links I mention below.

While biodegradables have been available for a long time, my company and several others are stepping up to the plate and into the process over the next couple of years, taking this to the next level. We're rallying other companies - and funeral directors and cemeteries and citizens - and green burial grounds are being started, policies are being changed, etc. I've already been contacted by several PDX funeral homes, and we're beginning to discuss things they'd never thought of before - it reminds me of natural foods in the 80's.

It's pretty interesting stuff, really, and we find that almost no one has thought it through. For example, there are no "clean crematoria" that I know of in Oregon (and there are 60 licensed facilities) that meet EU or UK standards for emissions and energy use. There's no 'clean' mom-and-pop crematorium. Very very very big companies make crem machines; it's extremely high tech. Natural burial is straightforward, simple, and natural.

I'm an advocate of clean cremation and am looking forward to an equivalent movement in the US to install a cremator like they're setting up in Carlisle, UK (the first natural burial ground there) - reclaims energy and recycles it into the city, filters mercury, doesn't burn any synthetic materials, cleans bodies completely first, double burns, infrequent start-ups, - until they're doing this here, and until that's what you're getting if you're being cremated, you're using the old process and you may want to at least be conscious of that.

We're also outreaching to Metro - they run 14 cemeteries and we're working to find out what it will take to help make natural burial more available to Portlanders.

If anyone wants to know more and stay in the loop, just visit our website and drop us an e-mail. We'll be showing videos, having presentations on a natural end, displaying biodegradable coffins and lots of other things via our new gallery on N. Williams (near chocolate and coffee and beer at Pix and Lompoc and the Waypost)

For more info now, you can read some bits of my forthcoming book at http://www.beatree.com and a lot more on our website and the pages linked there.

There's also a radio interview with me and Edison Carder on KBOO last month avail for download:

Thanks for looking at this issue, folks (and Jack!)

looking forward to seeing a couple of you at our meetings in 2008...

in compost,


Cynthia Beal
Natural Burial Company
3954 N. Williams -
opening showroom in January

unless they stop doing embalming and burying people with makeup, etc., a green coffin doesn't make much sense.

me, I want the Tibetan death ritual. and I want them to play "Free Bird" on bagpipes at the service.

Hi Gullyborg,

The Tibetans' Sky Burial is no longer as effective because the carrion bird population has suffered greatly due to the prevalence of DDT in the food-chain over there. The body parts aren't being fully eaten any longer. It's an "issue."

Also, I don't quite understand the logic you're using when you say green burial doesn't make sense unless other things are also stopped at the same time. Currently a HUGE amount of toxic and non-degradables are buried in cemeteries and burned in crematoria every year - are you saying this should continue if the embalming is also continued, and that improvement - even incremental - is useless? Seems like any lessening of the toxic burden buried in our soil and leaching into our water tables is a good idea to me.

FYI - I don't think the make-up is an extremely egregious toxic load for the microbes (though we do have sources for natural make-up!). The formalin in the embalming fluid is a negative, however, though we also have sources for - you guessed it! - natural embalming fluid! The hump is getting funeral directors to make the switch - it's hard enough just making it in most any independent business these days; try doing it when your peers are laughing at you. It take courage! Luckily a natural burial tends to beg the question about proper degradation in general, and one of our main goals is to get people thinking about something very few people have thought seriously about yet.

I like the idea of bagpipes and Free-Bird - maybe they'll be playing "DDT-Free-Bird" by then!

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