Turned off by Traditional Burials, Families Find For Creative Ways to Honor Loved Ones

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Sumi Garcia doesn’t have to go far to visit her mother’s final resting place. She just steps out in front of her home and takes in the vivid pink blooms dotting the Bougainvillea tree she planted last year.

When Garcia’s mother passed away in March 2016, 42-year-old Garcia knew a traditional burial was out of the question. Her mother, Olga Orta, had always wanted to be cremated and for her ashes to be spread in a forest.

Sumi Garcia and her mother, Olga Orta
Sumi Garcia and her mother, Olga Orta

The thought of spreading her mother’s ashes in a forest that might one day be converted into buildings was too disturbing, said Garcia, who lives in Miami, Fla. So she found a more creative way to honor her mother’s wishes.

She saw an advertisement for a new company called Bios on Facebook. Bios, which was founded in 2013 by brothers Gerard Moliné and Roger Moliné, developed a special urn that grows into a tree when paired with ashes from a cremation. Over time, the urn decomposes, leaving the plant intact.

The urn, which comes with seeds of your choice, vermiculite, coco-peat, and instructions, costs $145. Garcia chose the Bougainvillea easily. It was one of her mother’s favorites. “It’s not only helping the environment but it’s so nice to see your loved one grow into this beautiful tree,” she said. “It’s kind of like they are still alive in a physical form. It’s amazing to see how much she’s grown.”

Families can easily shell out over $7,100 for a traditional funeral today, according to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). That’s nearly 30% more than funerals cost just a decade ago.

The high cost of the typical American funeral is one reason why a growing number of people, like Garcia, are choosing lower-cost (and often environmentally friendly) alternatives.

Here are a few:

Green Burial

Traditional burials can actually be quite harmful to the environment and even funeral workers themselves. For example, formaldehyde, used during embalming to preserve the body, has proven to be toxic to embalming professionals, causing sore throats, coughing, scratchy eyes, and nosebleeds in the short term and cancer in the long run.

Cremations pose their own environmental hazards. The process releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, as well as other known toxins and carcinogens into the atmosphere.

One way to reduce your carbon footprint after you’ve passed away is to opt for a “green” burial. Green burials, as defined by the Green Burial Council, aim to reduce environmental damage, protect the health of funeral workers, and reduce carbon emissions.

“This is sort of a new concept to the industry, so you might have to seek out a natural burial ground,” says Rachel Zeldin, founder and CEO of I’m Sorry to Hear, an online service that helps consumers search and compare prices for funeral services in their area. “But they are a super, super beautiful way to have a funeral.”

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Sumi Garcia chose to bury her mother’s ashes in a special urn offered by startup Bios, which incorporates ashes into soil that nourishes a tree or plant of the buyer’s choice.

The deceased is buried in a vessel made of organic materials, such as a burial shroud or a simple casket made of untreated wood, or directly into the ground (with or without a liner) if the cemetery allows. The Green Burial Council has a list of certified burial products.

Green burials can also be kinder to your wallet, since you can typically forego the costs of an expensive service, casket, and embalming. The cost of the burial will depend on the cost of the provider that you choose and where you’d like to be buried. For example, startup company Coeio has developed a bodysuit that you can be buried in for about $1,500. The suit is lined with a mixture of mushrooms and other biological material, the company says, to “help the body return to the earth, clean toxins in the soil, and deliver nutrients to plants.” At that price point, the Coeio suit costs much less than the average burial with a viewing, but could cost more than a direct cremation, which can cost as little as $495, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Finding a natural burial ground is the tricky part for anyone considering a green burial. Zeldin recommends seeking out funeral homes that are a bit more progressive.

Direct Cremation

The first and most commonly chosen alternative to a full casket burial is cremation. According to data from the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), the number of cremations has grown from roughly 600,000 in 1999 to a projected 1.6 million in 2016. This year, nearly one in every two funerals will involve cremation.

The median price of a viewing and cremation is $6,078, according to the most-recent NFDA data, about $1,000 less than a viewing and burial. You could also choose to skip the viewing and have an end-of-life celebration elsewhere, in which case you would only take on the cost of a direct cremation. It’s hard to nail down a typical price for cremation services. Prices for direct cremation nationwide can range from $495 to as high as $7,595, according to the FCA.

Always ask the funeral director what their “direct cremation” service actually includes, as it could exclude the actual cost of cremation. A report released this year by the FCA found that among the 142 funeral homes they surveyed, about 22% of them advertised cremation prices that didn’t include the actual cremation of the body.

You can contact a cemetery, a funeral home that offers cremation services, or a stand-alone crematorium to arrange the cremation and have the body moved.

Body Donation

Donating your body or organs is not only a more benevolent option when it comes to handling the deceased, but also a very cheap one, costing less than $100 and oftentimes nothing. For example, Anatomy Gifts Registry, a nonprofit body donation program, pays for every part of the process except for a shipping and handling fee to send the ashes back to you. Many other programs don’t charge anything.

“Not only is [body donation] great for our society because it allows people to do research and medical training, but it’s a really great option for those who either have a desire to donate or really have no money,” say Zeldin.

You have two options with body donation. You can either donate your entire body, or just your organs, but you can’t do both. That’s because body donation requires a body to include organs.

When you donate your body, it can be used to help with medical or military research, whereas if you donate your organs, they could go to save a life.

If you’re interested in donation, you’ll need to contact a medical school or research facility or connect with a national body donation program such as Science Care or MEDCURE that can complete that step for you. The body is usually cremated after donation, then the ashes are sent back to the family after a few weeks. Some programs cost nothing, others may have you pay a small shipping fee to receive the ashes.

You can make the process easier on your family by pre-registering your body for donation or signing up as an organ donor. Read more about body donation here.

Home Funeral

A home funeral happens when the family takes on all after-death care and responsibilities before burial or cremation. The National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) says home funerals emphasize a “minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally friendly care of the body.” That includes filing the death certificate and other paperwork that a funeral director would normally do. According to NHFA, the cost of a home funeral should land somewhere under $200, minus your local cremation or burial costs.

If that sounds daunting, don’t worry, you can ask for help from a funeral educator or guide. Check out the NHFA website to find helpful resources including death certificate templates. Your  family can care for the deceased at home or technically anywhere else as long as the church, nursing home, hospital. etc. allows it. Those who choose this route typically do so because they want to grieve in private.
These are just a few of the more common alternatives to traditional burial, but there are new companies developing new methods of handling the deceased cropping up each year. The takeaway here is to do your research and you may find a disposal method that appeals to you more than the old-fashioned way.

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