More and more people are interested in aligning their finances with their values. There are myriad ways to do that, from choosing investments that focus on environmental, social and governance factors to shopping sustainably to donating to charitable organizations that target the causes we support.
Those of us who are motivated to reduce our carbon footprint may already be taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we produce during our lifetimes and it is now becoming increasingly possible to minimize our footprint even after we are gone.
Reviewing your estate documents (wills, powers of attorney, trusts) and confirming your titling and beneficiary designations are in line with your wishes is critical to ensuring your assets pass to the people and causes you care about while minimizing tax costs and avoiding potential conflicts. The odd thing is that while most of us memorialize in writing what we want to happen to our stuff, we don’t formalize what we want to happen to ourselves.
Our final disposition, or more bluntly what happens to our bodies when we die, is a preference that some attorneys prefer not to put into estate planning documents but that doesn’t mean we should avoid planning for our remains. You never know what can become a point of contention, so if you have clear preferences for burial or cremation, a funeral service at a particular institution, or a certain kind of celebration of life – write them down! They don’t have to be part of your official estate documents but keep those wishes somewhere that your heirs can find them or even better, prepay for your final expenses ahead of time.
For environmentally-focused folks, there are a few ways of disposing of your remains that will minimize the negative impact on the Earth. Consider that American burials deposit millions of gallons of damaging embalming fluid and millions of tons of steel, copper, bronze, and concrete into the ground each year and require millions of feet of casket wood some of which comes from rainforests. Given those statistics, it may not be surprising that nearly 60% of Americans are choosing cremation, though each cremation burns fossil fuels and emits about 600 pounds of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of a 500-mile drive. Total cremations in the US produce somewhere around 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually (about the same as the emissions from powering 45,000 homes for a year).
Alternate disposition methods are being developed and are available depending on the state where you live. Here are the most common green alternatives to traditional burial or cremation.
Also known as water cremation or aquamation, the alkaline hydrolysis process uses water over about eight hours to dissolve the remains, essentially speeding up the process that would naturally occur if one was buried in the ground. Organic material is converted to ash and the ashes and bones are returned to family members.
The cost of a traditional cremation is on average around $1,500; whereas water cremation runs around $3,500. This is still less expensive than traditional burial which costs close to $10,000.
As compared to traditional cremation, water cremation uses about 90% less energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 35%. This process is already available for pet remains and has been codified into law in some states. See where your state lands on aquamation here.
Natural Organic Reduction
Natural organic reduction, or as it is commonly called, human composting, converts human remains into soil. Using naturally occurring microbes, oxygen, and plant matter like alfalfa, wood chips, and straw, the body is transformed over 30 days into nutrient-rich soil, which then cures for two to six weeks. One body creates about a cubic yard of soil which is returned to the family or you can choose in some cases to donate it to a forest restoration project.
Legal in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California, Vermont, and New York, human composting requires about 12% of the energy of conventional techniques and can be used to supplement the health of other living organisms. The cost is in the range of about $7,000.
Green burial is the most straightforward option for someone wanting to avoid depositing hazardous embalming fluid into the ground while minimizing the need for wood, concrete, and other materials that require energy to produce. It involves a ground burial with a biodegradable shroud or other eco-friendly container covering the body rather than a coffin and a concrete vault.
Most states allow green burials, though individual cemeteries may or may not. Some cemeteries are considered hybrid, allowing traditional or green burial on their grounds. Typical costs range between $1,000 and $4,000. Green burial is considered neutral to slightly positive from a carbon footprint standpoint.
Thinking about our own mortality is difficult, to be sure. All kinds of factors may contribute to how we want our remains handled and no answer is right for everyone, but if environmental factors contribute significantly to your financial choices during your life, you can uphold those values at the end of life as well.