The People Who Fight Climate Change From Beyond the Grave

Biodegradable caskets, mushroom suits, traditional Jewish bone collection or launching grandpa’s ashes into space: Minds in Israel and throughout the world are thinking up alternatives to wasteful burials

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Yair Attias' plan for Capsula Mundi coffins at Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv.
Yair Attias' plan for Capsula Mundi coffins at Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv.Credit: Yair Attias
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

If the American television series “Six Feet Under” was still airing today, the Fisher family’s funeral home would have found itself dealing with all sorts of unusual requests – green or ecological funerals, natural burial pods or mushroom burial suits – practices that are gaining more and more traction in an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint of death itself.

While dying may be the most natural thing a person can do, it turns out that what happens to our bodies after we shuffle off our mortal coil is as far from natural as possible. This is why we cannot escape the environmental discourse that has permeated every aspect of our lives, even when these lives have ended.

Traditional burials harm the environment in countless ways. The coffins are made from wood and metal, and are buried in plots of concrete – a material whose manufacturing process is environmentally destructive. In such conditions, human remains release methane – a much more powerful and destructive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. At the same time, toxins such as drug or hormone remnants are discharged from the body, and find their way to the groundwater.

In the United States and Europe, the situation is even worse because of the common custom of holding wakes, in which visitors view the body of the deceased. In the United States, this is a custom that began during the Civil War, and morphed into an enormous industry worth millions year. The ritual requires fancy, varnished wooden caskets and demands that the bodies be embalmed – which may cause toxic preservatives such as formaldehyde to seep into the ground after burial. The numbers are mind-boggling: In the United States alone, 20 million liters of embalming fluids, 6 million meters of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze and some 65,000 tons of steel are buried along with the dead every year.

Death is not the end

In Israel, where about 50,000 people are buried on average every year, the main problem is overcrowding. Cemeteries take up thousands of dunams of land – twice the size of the city of Givatayim, for example. They are there forever, as opposed to Europe, where it is customary to lease a burial plot for a limited time, ranging between three to 75 years. By law, a burial plot in Israel is permitted only in official cemeteries, and many are on sought-after land that could serve the living – who are facing a severe housing shortage – quite well. All the more so when so many graves are abandoned, after several years of seeing no visitors at all.

A paper published in 2019 in the Hebrew-language journal “Ecology and Environment” by Nivi Kessler, Ido Klein and Joseph Haskin on the “environmental significance of everlasting burial” warned that in coming years, we will lose a great deal of land to the expansion of cemeteries, “which will come at the expense of urban development, agriculture and open spaces, and it will be irreversible for us and for future generations.”

And it’s already happening – for example, the government is planning a new cemetery east of Rosh Ha’ayin in central. This area, Nahal Rabah, is known as the “deer country,” and serves as a one-of-a-kind national ecological corridor. The authors of the paper were skeptical about the costly and grandiose enterprises that hit the public’s purse, such as the burial tunnels at the Har Hamenuchot underground cemetery in Jerusalem, or the Yarkon cemetery, whose construction is far from being environmentally friendly.

Alon Nativ, the co-owner of the Aley Shalechet funeral home, says cremation solves a large part of these problems. The cremation process does require gas, which does create a carbon footprint, but it is a relatively small amount of energy in an enclosed space that does not emit pollutants. This solves the issue of taking up land and polluting the air and groundwater, Nativ says. “You add to this green processes – offering people other memorial solutions, without a gravestone, without taking up land. We have a forest plot in the Mevasseret area, in which they can scatter [the ashes] or even plant a tree and place a small plaque, a place that is pleasant to visit. The tree recycles the carbon. The ashes do not pollute,” he adds.

There is also the option of preserving a keepsake – a piece of jewelry, a record or a diamond containing the ashes of the deceased. Aley Shalechet’s website also offers burial at sea, and even the possibility of launching grandpa’s or grandma’s ashes into space. They do this through an American company, for which the funeral home is its Israeli representative, Nativ explains.

“They add a sort of large capsule containing these sort of test tubes with the ashes of the deceased to the flights that launch satellites into space. The families are invited to the launch and also receive a video documenting the event.” The prices range between 10,000 to 20,000 shekels ($3,100 to $6,255), and vary according to the add-ons, for example, preserving DNA. The problem is that even though cremation is widely accepted throughout the world, just a few hundred people opt for the process in Israel.

Bite the dust (particles)

In the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, there is a rising demand for “green burial” – which does away with the expensive caskets, concrete, heavy makeup and embalming. The dead are buried directly in the ground, where they decompose naturally, in exactly the same way as traditional Jewish and Muslim practice – minus the concrete pits used today by the hevra kadisha Jewish burial societies.

America being America, and an entire industry has developed around organic shrouds and biodegradable caskets. Customers can find a huge selection of designs for fashionable shrouds with brand names such as Mort Couture. Such ecological burials are held in regular ceremonies or in green ones, that is, in special organic plots in forests or nature reserves where the nutrients from the decomposing corpses help the vegetation flourish. This option speaks less to Israel, with its severe shortage of available land.

Another relatively new possibility – which has provided newspapers all over the world with exotic headlines – is body composting known more euphemistically as “natural organic reduction.” This means placing the bodies in a container with organic materials such as wood chips, until they decompose into compost, which can then be used as fertilizer for trees and flowers. This, in effect, just accelerates the natural process of decomposition, and make it more effective. In May 2019, Washington was the first U.S. state to approve this process, and since then a few more states have joined in. The Urban Death Project, which promotes this method, says every instance saves about a metric ton of carbon dioxide that would have been emitted into the atmosphere. But the chances that this practice will reach Israel are very slim, and the Chief Rabbinate would certainly be horrified by the very thought of it.

Over the last year, more and more strange inventions have cropped up around the world to turn our deaths into something more ecological. For example, a Dutch start-up called Loop manufactures coffins made out of mushrooms, which helps decompose the body inside before being absorbed into the ground after just a few weeks. And then there’s the Coeio company, which is already selling burial suits made from mushrooms and other organisms that aid in decomposition, and made headlines when actor Luke Perry was buried in such a suit.

In Israel, too, a new initiative has taken root that seeks to solve the issue of overcrowding that seems to not contradict Jewish law: Bringing back the ancient Jewish custom of gathering the bones of the dead. Through this process, known as secondary burial, first the deceased is temporarily buried in the ground or in a burial cave, and after a year, the bones are gathered and placed in a special box known as an ossuary, which can then be placed in family burial vault. It takes up much less space than an individual grave, and is much cheaper. It also does almost zero harm to the environment.

This idea is known as “Land of Israel burial,” and according to its flagbearer – the head of the Gush Etzion religious council, Rabbi Rafi Ostroff – it is an available, economical and environmentally friendly option. It is also an authentic Jewish custom, which will make it easier for the Israeli public to swallow. “The Mishnah, Talmud, halakhic literature and even research describe how bone gathering was done,” explains Ostroff. “This is the source of the biblical phrase ‘gathered to his people.’”

Architects Sharona Cramer and Yotam Oron have even developed an extensive architectural proposal for such burials, which they said provides a comprehensive solution. It covers the burial units through an overall strategic plan, and provides a solution for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area’s forecasted deaths for the next century.

Yair Attias, a fourth-year student in the interior design department of the Holon Institute of Technology, is also working on an interesting project. Attias wants to make us of the Capsula Mundi, an egg-shaped pod coffin developed by two Italian designers, in which the body or ashes are placed inside. Its biodegradable shell decomposes the remains, and they provide nutrients for the tree planted above.

Attias proposes implementing the idea in the old Trumpeldor Cemetery in the center of Tel Aviv, which will be rebuilt on three levels, including a space for “planting” the burial pods. “The idea is that the Trumpeldor Cemetery will transform from a fenced-off area in the city that everyone avoids into an urban park in which the dead become part of life, because in the end, they will be trees,” says Attias.

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