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What exactly is death tech?

Photo of a section of a Japanese columbarium, where LED buddha glass statues sit on a gridded shelf in place of tombstones.

What we’re calling death tech is any new technology that is used to dispose of a dead body. (The fancy funeral industry word here is “disposition.”) Older forms of death technology might be burial or cremation. Death technology of the future includes methods like aquamation and natural organic reduction.

There are a surprising number of designers who are working toward reforming body disposition, internment, and memorialization. This New York Times article introduces you to some of these ideas and we discuss them in our Eco Death Takeover video.

Technology can also include new green products, cemeteries, and memorialization options. Here are some examples:

  • The DeathLab is working on an alternative to cremation and earthen burial and designing new public spaces of remembrance intertwined with everyday life.
  • The Santa Coloma de Gramenet Cemetery, outside Barcelona, Spain has converted its municipal burial space into a source for renewable energy with solar panels.
  • The African Burial Ground, located in New York, provides memorialization that integrates scholarship, technology, and civic engagement.
  • With changing lifestyles, lack of space, and environmental concerns numerous countries in Asia have been reimagining their final resting places like these columbariums in Japan, and a “library” for cremated remains in South Korea.

Alkaline Hydrolysis aka Water Cremation or Aquamation

A technician in a white coat prepares an aquamation machine.

Resting Waters, Seattle.

Like Cremation, Alkaline Hydrolysis—also known as Green or Water Cremation –

Is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional flame-based cremation. It uses water instead of fire to return a body back to nature.

Aquamation—sometimes called alkaline hydrolysis —is a gentle, environmentally friendly alternative to fire cremation. It is a quiet, water-based process that reduces the remains to dust/ash, and is returned to the family.  The Aquamation process takes place in a pressurized chamber over about 8 hours. During the process, the remains are placed in an airtight capsule with alkalized water and through gentle water flow, all organic material is broken down. When the process is completed, the bone remains are collected, go through a drying process and then processed and returned to family.

Via Kraft-Sussman

This eco-friendly alternative to cremation recently made headlines following the death of anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when it was announced that he had chosen a plain wooden coffin, and alkaline hydrolysis prior to his passing. Tutu was passionate about the environment and often spoke and wrote about climate change, so it makes sense that his disposition of choice would reinforce his beliefs and life’s work.

The process was explained in-depth in two of our videos, Liquefying Bodies, and more recently in this video, in which an aquamation facility for pets is featured and the procedure is explained in detail. This article details the history of aquamation including current efforts to legalize the process, and an article detailing the Order’s legislation advocacy efforts in California. Finally, here’s an explainer on how aquamation has already been in use with pets in Alkaline Hydrolysis – Seattle Style.

How does aquamation compare to compare to flame-based cremation? Environmentally speaking, it’s estimated that aquamation can cut energy use down by 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 35%. Learn why it may well be the future of death care in Why Alkaline Hydrolysis is a Green Alternative. As for other notable differences, the aquamation process allows for about 20-30% more ashes to be retrieved, which are typically white or tan, as opposed to flame cremation ashes that are gray in color.

In addition to Alkaline Hydrolysis being a more sustainable alternative to cremation, this option also provides a path to restoring native Hawaiian burial practices.

Wondering if Alkaline Hydrolysis is legal in your state? Check this current list of laws. You should also know that if you live in a state that doesn’t currently offer Alkaline Hydrolysis, you may be able to find a funeral home in your home state that is partnered with a neighboring one that does provide this option.


Natural Organic Reduction (Human Composting)

Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) also known as human composting, uses the principles of nature, combining microbes, oxygen and plant matter to gently transform human remains into soil, so that our bodies can grow new life after we die. This process was  developed by Founding Order Member Katrina Spade, through public benefit corporation, Recompose. As legalization spreads, other companies have also begun providing NOR services.

Just as with cremation or casketed burial, in states where NOR is legal an individual or their family would have the option of composting. Composting facilities are licensed, highly regulated, and run by professionals just like a crematorium or funeral home. Go behind the scenes with us as we visit a human composting facility.

The process of NOR can strengthen the environment by utilizing climate healing practices and moving away from toxic ones, and prioritizing soil health. Learn more about the environmental benefits of NOR through this graphic.

Learn more about how the composting process works here, and in A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does it work and is it safe? 

NOR gently transforms human remains into soil in 4-6 weeks. Bodies are laid in large, individual vessels with straw, wood chips, and other natural materials. The decomposing process creates heat of over 131F, which kills viruses, bacteria, and pathogens, and exceeds EPA requirements for heavy metals, which are stabilized in the soil, not volatilized.

Microorganisms present in the process break down odorous gases into water and CO2. In addition, biofilters and mechanical ventilation are used to aerate the process and ensure that there is no smell.

The process to transform the whole body into soil, including bones and teeth, takes approximately 30 days.

What Happens to the soil?

Just as with cremation where the ashes are returned to the family, the soil is also returned to the family. The soil can be scattered like ashes, used to plant a tree or flower/native plant garden. In Washington, people have the option to donate the soil to a forest restoration project

A grid of nine captures of different speakers at the public hearing SB 5001 Concerning Human Remains.

Legislation

A bill legalizing the process in Washington State passed in 2019, and as of January 2023, Colorado, Vermont, Oregon, California, and New York have also passed NOR bills bringing it to a total of six states. In 2023 bills have been introduced in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Maine, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts!

After almost a decade of work and dedication, the first Recompose facility opened in Seattle in 2021. The first operating license for NOR was granted to green burial ground Herland Forest.

Want to know how you can support efforts to make NOR available in your state? Visit our Legislative Advocacy page or email us at info (at) orderofthegooddeath (dot) com to get involved. Or, listen to the How  Human Composting Bill Becomes a Law episode of our podcast.


The Mushroom Burial Suit and Mushroom Coffins

The Infinity Burial Suit or “Mushroom Burial Suit” was invented by Founding Order Member Jae Rhim Lee, who says: “The power of the suit is that it creates the need for meaningful planning and discussion around death.”

Photo of Jae Rhim Lee wearing her Mushroom Burial Suit.

The Infinity Burial Suit is a handcrafted garment that is worn by the deceased.

The Infinity Burial Suit has a built-in bio­mix, made up of mushrooms and other microorganisms that together do three things; aid in decomposition, work to neutralize toxins found in the body, and transfer nutrients to plant life.

via Coeio

View her viral TED Talk on the subject, My Mushroom Burial Suit.

Photo of an open Loop Cocoon coffin sitting on a grassy forest floor.

In 2020 another mushroom based product made headlines, a coffin called the Loop Cocoon from the Netherlands. The designers are calling it the “world’s first living coffin,” as it is composed of mycelium and wood chips, with a “bed” of moss, plants and various living microorganisms. The Loop Cocoon has already been used in at least one burial.

In the U.S., designer Shaina Garfield also created a coffin called “Leaves”, which incorporates mushrooms. Here, the body is wrapped in a cotton shroud, and secured to a wooden plank with woven fibers that contain fungal spores.

While these products claim to aid and accelerate the process of decomposition, their effectiveness is questionable. Like anything we purchase, effective or not, these items can be meaningful objects that hold value for the individual who chooses it; serving as a symbol of their care for the environment, and subverting the offerings of a traditional funeral.

Jae Rhim Lee’s original mission to foster important conversations about death, remembrance, and the environment, as well as help to ignite our imaginations regarding what is possible, have certainly been accomplished.


Promession

Promession, by designer Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, is a conceptual machine that would rapidly decompose a corpse through a freeze drying process. At this point it is only at the concept/theory stage and is not available for use (hopefully this will change soon). In Kansas in 2019, efforts were made to legalize the option, however, progress was halted when Kansas Attorney General discovered that promession does not meet the definition of cremation under Kansas law and regulation.

In 2020 we dedicated an entire video to the concept of Promession and its progress so far.





Capsula Mundi

Capsula Mundi is an Italian company that has developed a biodegradable egg-shaped burial pod that replaces a casket.

Photo of three Capsula Mundi pods hanging in an empty room.

While not significantly different than natural burial, the designers created the pods in response to Italian laws that have make un-casketed burial difficult. This product is currently a concept and is not actually available.

Learn more about The Biodegradable Burial Pod That Turns Your Body into a Tree.


Reef Ball Burials

Eco-friendly reef balls offer another option for your ashes.

A reef ball underwater covered in moss and coral.

Here’s how it works-cremated remains are mixed with pH-neutral concrete to form a large “ball” with holes. The ball is then lowered down to the seafloor to help restore areas that have been damaged, providing new habitats for marine life. Families are given GPS coordinates of the site where their person’s reef ball is located.

There are about 25 reef ball sites in the U.S. spanning from New Jersey to Texas that will accommodate the ashes of people and pets. Eternal Reefs is one of several providers, but they stand out as a nonprofit provider that uses associated fees to fund restoration efforts of ocean ecosystems around the world.


Biodegradable Tree Urns

One of the most popular corpse to tree products is the Bios Urn, or similar urns, that promise to transform a person’s ashes into a tree, plant, flower, etc. But, can plants actually grow in ashes?

No. 

Three urns shaped similar to a bowl with s small opening at the top show the progression of a tree growing out of the urn.

While it can be a lovely idea to scatter your loved one’s ashes at the base of a tree or in the garden, this is more of a symbolic gesture, since cremated remains are inorganic and contain no trace of human DNA. You aren’t really “becoming a tree” post-cremation.

In addition, ashes aren’t really compatible with the micronutrients and environment necessary to facilitate healthy soil or plant growth. Some companies claim to have specially prepared the soil to counteract the harmful properties of the ashes, while others include a protective container or filter, which keeps the ashes separate from the soil and plant growth. Please do your own research before purchasing this type of urn.


Memorial Forests

Memorial forests are locations that are protected from future development that are run by companies that will either mix your cremated remains into soil, and place them near or beneath a tree, or scatter them-for a price ($5,000-$16,000).

While interring cremated remains in a memorial forest can help to ensure that the land is protected, there’s the concern that the ashes themselves could potentially harm the surrounding environment.


Burial At Sea

Sea burials have been practiced about as long as people have been sailing. Today, this form of burial is most often associated with naval branches of the military, but in the U.S. civilians have this option, too. A burial at sea can often be more affordable than a standard burial, and if you forego the embalming and casket, it’s among the most environmentally friendly choices available.

A shrouded body covered in flowers near the ocean

Via burialatsea.com

In some places it’s possible and legal to have your whole body “buried” in federally approved waters.

How does a sea burial work? Typically, a few family and friends, along with their person’s body, will be taken several miles out to sea by boat. These boats will be equipped with a special “slide” that will help move the body into the water. Bodies are either placed in a weighted casket, or there’s the eco-friendly option of being shrouded in natural fabric with stones, which allow the body to sink to the ocean floor.


Space Burial

If you want to spend eternity in the final frontier you might be considering a space burial, but what exactly does that involve? (Bagpipes, we hope).

Screen shot from 1982 Star Trek film The Wrath of Kahn. The crew of the Enterprise stand around Spock's coffin.

Scene from Spock’s funeral from the movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn (1982).

The term “space burial” is a bit of a misnomer as no one is actually launching bodies into space, but rather small amounts of cremated remains are released into orbit, or stored in small capsules that are brought into space and then returned to earth.

There are several companies that offer space burial services and each one has a different method.

Here’s a look:

Aura Flights – This company sends small amounts of cremated remains into space via a hydrogen-filled stratospheric balloon, and then releases the ashes. You can watch their process in a video.

Celestis – This company has been in the business of offering “Memorial Spaceflights” for over twenty years. Families are provided with small capsules to place a tiny amount of cremated remains in. The capsules are then attached to a satellite and launched. Families can arrange to attend the launch or watch via livestream.

Elysium Space – A “symbolic portion of your remains,” aka your ashes, will hitch a ride on a spacecraft that will orbit the earth for two years before returning to your home planet. Earthlings will be able to track your journey in real time through an app.


Tree Burial

“I want to be a tree when I die,” is quickly becoming the most popular choice for future corpses. Even with all the new products and providers that promise to do everything from transform your ashes into a tree, to start-ups selling burial space in forests nourished by bodies, the truth is becoming a tree when you die is more complicated than you think.

We suggest starting with our in-depth primer So You Want to Be a Tree When You Die?, in which we separate the facts from the myths about the most popular methods of choice like burial pods, or tree urns, and provide you with some attainable alternatives to achieve your future tree goals.

As with any product or service claiming to do something, it’s important to dig a little deeper. This 2023 article about a company that offers to plant tress over people’s bodies, states that “While many green burial cemeteries do offer to plant a tree directly atop your grave, not everyone in the industry agrees about the environmental credentials of the practice. Lee Webster, a founding board member of the Conservation Burial Alliance, says growing adolescent trees need ample space (ideally 50 square feet). They also require significant water, which can reduce the temperature within a grave below what’s needed to properly facilitate decomposition — between 105 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit, according to soil scientist and mortality composting expert Caitlin Price Youngquist. If all of these conditions can be balanced, the tree can thrive. If they’re not, both the decomposition and growth processes can suffer.”