The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
Risa Morimoto and her siblings dressed their 84-year-old mother, Noriko, in her sister’s kimono, lifted her inert body lovingly off the bed where she had died, tucked her into a simple wooden box filled with flowers and messages, and carried it out of her home for the last time.
Sometimes mourning rituals are dictated down to the tiniest detail by history, as in the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, which captivated millions around the world. But increasingly, US funeral directors say they are adding more green and home funeral options for families such as the Morimotos who want to create their own customs and write their own rules. As more US families try to live sustainably, they are looking for greener ways to die, and taking more of the funeral process into their own hands, says Amy Cunningham, director of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, which specialises in green burials and home funerals.
According to a report this year by the US National Funeral Directors Association, 60.5 per cent of those surveyed would be “interested in exploring ‘green’ funeral options”, for environmental concerns, cost or other reasons, up from 55.7 per cent in 2021. The NFDA says it’s impossible to know how many US bodies are being disposed of in “green” ways, because national statistics don’t make that distinction.
Opponents of traditional burial say conventional embalming fluids, and the concrete used to prevent graves from collapsing as a body decomposes, are bad for the environment, while cremation, especially from older crematories, create harmful carbon emissions.
Jack Davenport is a funeral director in northern Illinois, near where I live. When I visited him recently, he offered me a casket made locally out of banana leaves. At the cemetery outside Detroit where I own a plot, they have just opened a “green burial” section where I can be buried wrapped in my favourite blanket if I wish. Caskets come in willow, sea grass, bamboo and other eco-materials; Davenport offers me a cremation urn made of recycled paper.
Five US states have recently even legalised human composting, which involves the production of soil from human remains. And in 2019, actor Luke Perry was buried in a “mushroom suit” to help him decompose.
But Jimmy Olson, NFDA spokesperson and a funeral director in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, says many families don’t have the option of a truly “green” burial because there is no cemetery near them that allows one. He estimates only 5 per cent of his business is fully green, but half “has a green overtone”. All his wooden caskets are from local products made locally, which reduces emissions from importing them. The pandemic did nothing to make things greener, he says, since it significantly boosted cremation rates — his has risen from 60 per cent pre-Covid to 75 per cent.
What explains the growing taste for home funerals? Morimoto, whose father died early in the pandemic without her even being allowed to see his body, treasures the hands-on experience of her mother’s death. She told me the process of washing and dressing her was “cathartic”.
Sarah Riley, whose family held a DIY green funeral for her mother in July, agrees. She says: “Having that direct role in the burial process was very cathartic . . . It goes back to the way things were done before we hired everything out to non-family members.” Her family bought a cardboard casket, decorated it with magic markers and flowers, loaded it on a hand-drawn carriage and buried her mother in a “succession plot”, which will be used for another body once hers has decomposed.
For myself, despite my pre-bought plot, I’m leaning towards the kind of “shades of green” funeral that Olson provides: once a year he takes a boat out for those who want their ashes strewn in Lake Michigan. Cremation may have its drawbacks, but at least my body won’t be taking up space.
He promises to sprinkle me at the spot on the horizon where the sun will rise on my birthday each year — and give my kids the GPS co-ordinates. They would far prefer that to dressing and shrouding me at home, or anything else more up close and personal.