How to die a good, green death
With water cremation and human composting on the horizon, Washingtonians are asking: What should happen to our bodies after we die?
Often, the worst kind of dinner party is one with a bunch of strangers: It’s hard to break the ice, and if small talk dies, you might end up sitting in stony silence. But the dinner I spent Sunday at Ballard's Brimmer & Heeltap came preloaded with excited chatter.
This was all the more surprising given the preordained topic: Death. And before I’d even picked up my fork, one purple-haired seatmate, Elly, was already telling us from across the dinner table about the passing of her grandma.
Elly said her grandmother’s death was about as clean as they come. Her grandmother was comfortable talking about it with Elly, she had distributed her belongings long before it happened, and her family was close by at the time of her passing. She even had a “death doula” to assist her during the process. Grandma planned it all out.
“That’s a good death,” Amanda, another participant, said enthusiastically at the end of Elly’s story. Everyone else at the table nodded in agreement. About 40 of us had gathered for Death Over Dinner, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to assauging the pain and suffering associated with mortality.
Dying well means different things to different people. Maybe it’s dying for a good cause, or just dying when you’re still cognizant of your surroundings. But planning my funeral now, at age 23, is something I’d never considered — until I heard about death positivity.
Death positivity is a movement to get people comfortable talking about their eventual demise. Washington is a uniquely good place for it. You can go to one of Washington’s numerous death conventions or parties, such as one hosted by the People’s Memorial Association (PMA) in December. Many of its biggest supporters, like PMA’s Executive Director Nora Menkin or Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, make their home here. And most death-positive advocates know the statistic that although 80% of people want to die at home, only 20% actually do, so they say these conversations are a good way to learn the last wishes of the people you love and to express your own wishes before it’s too late.
For the environmentally inclined, Washington has long been on the cutting edge of what a green death could look like; death positivity is often linked with green options, which offer even more choices for people to consider when planning their deaths. This includes green funerals — basically, environmentally conscious funerals that can include everything from recomposition to water cremation to green burials (also known as natural burials), which allow the body to naturally decompose without preservatives. And a cemetery in Bellingham, Moles Farewell Tributes, became the first certified natural burial ground in an existing cemetery in the nation and the 12th cemetery certified overall by the Green Burials Council in January 2009.
In addition, “recomposition” (frequently called “human composting”) was legalized this year along with water cremation, adding to the list of environmentally conscious ways you can dispose of your body post-mortem. Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is basically cremation with hot, chemical-filled water instead of fire inside a pressurized vessel. (Water cremation of pets has been legal for much longer.)
Advocates say that the death positivity movement, combined with the legalization of more options, has moved forward conversations about it further than ever before.
“Death is having its moment right now, in a lot of ways,” says Brian Flowers, green burial coordinator at Moles Farewell Tributes. “So that education is happening at a pretty rapid pace.”
Michael Hebb, the founder of Death Over Dinner and author of Let's Talk About Death (Over Dinner), is one of those advocates in Washington persuading people to talk with their loved ones about their mortality. While most of Hebb’s dinners happen independently among families (you can download a template to host your own from his website), the dinner I attended was one of the first around Seattle where participants had a chance to delve into death with strangers. For me, those strangers were Amanda and Elly, who are longtime friends, on my left, and a quieter, elderly couple, Sheryl and Bill, on my right. Each person was fairly comfortable talking about their deaths; Sheryl told the table that her last meal would involve potatoes, and Bill matter-of-factly said all he would want was a mango.
Hebb took a moment at the beginning of the dinner to walk participants, seated all around the restaurant, through the night’s proceedings: On each table was an envelope with five short questions about death, ranging from playful to serious. “What would you choose as your last meal?” “What are your wishes for your body after you die?”
But before we could answer, he brought our attention to the candles by our dinner plates.
“The first thing that happens at the table is we all take a moment and think about someone who has died, who had a powerful impact on our lives,” Hebb told us. “Really the first person that comes to mind.” Then, each participant was asked to give that person a short eulogy to their table before lighting the candle.
I knew mine in seconds. Hebb told us to hold on to that person, even if it made us uncomfortable. Vulnerability, he said, was key to making this work. So I held on.
* * *
Most people I talk to know what they want their funeral to look like. Some friends told me they wanted something cheap and easy. Others were quite specific: One roommate told me she wants her cremated ashes exploded in fireworks; another said she’d like her body detoxified and eaten up by mushrooms (she told me this while cooking mushroom risotto). An ex used to tell me he’d like his body shot out of a cannon. When I sent my sister the question over text, she replied seconds later: “Make me a tree for sure.”
My parents also had a response at the ready and told me they’d want a quick burial, no fancy stuff, the day after they die. In Guatemala, where my family is from, most funerals happen that way; there’s no weeklong preparation. When my Abuelito Quique passed away in Guatemala City, my dad flew out from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the night it happened and arrived just in time for the funeral services the following morning. Abuelito Quique’s funeral might qualify as “green” in the U.S. — or at least greener, since there’s no need to preserve the body through embalming or other chemicals.
Most Americans these days don’t pine for a cushioned casket in which to put their immaculately preserved corpse. In Washington, almost 80% choose cremation; the national average sits at about 50%, according to a 2017 study. Environmentalists caution that cremation isn't the best option, given the huge carbon footprint of crematoriums, so perhaps it's a good thing that curiosity about greener funerals is on the rise, too. Adults over 40 interested in green funerals jumped nationally from 43% in 2010 to 64% in 2015, according to a Funeral and Memorial Information Council study.
“In the time that I’ve been doing this, it’s accelerated tremendously,” says Lucinda Herring, a green burial consultant and author of Reimagining Death. “I think that’s only going to grow, particularly with baby boomers who are taking care of their parents and themselves.”
But a greener death doesn’t mean an easier one. There are plenty of hoops to jump through before getting a body in the ground — especially for greener burials. Part of it is the lack of options. In Washington, only a handful of cemeteries allow green burials, some of which are certified by the Green Burial Council. Preplanning is often necessary in order to ensure that the deceased can even be taken to a green burial site.
“[Plots are] hard to get to so, numberwise, there’s probably enough to meet the demand right now, but they’re spread out geographically in a way that’s challenging for families,” Flowers says. At his location, he’s helped service families from cities as distant as Olympia or Boise, Idaho.
Until Herring helped perform her first green burial in the ’90s, she and her friends didn’t know that such a thing existed. A friend dying of breast cancer told her and others that she didn’t want her remains to go to a funeral director. She wanted a funeral at home. It was only after some research that Herring discovered it was possible and legal to care for the body immediately after death at home.
“Nobody knows,” Herring says. “[Even] now, hardly anybody knows.”
Still, Herring says the increase in public interest has made educating others a little easier. She also emphasizes the need to plan ahead.
“If you’re looking for a green burial plot, you should very much talk to cemeteries and ask if they provide green burial,” she says. “Because doing it at need if someone dies quickly is difficult.”
Some of those barriers to green burials are coming down. With the legalization of water cremation for humans this year, Washington bodies no longer have to be shipped to other states (typically Oregon) for the process. Flowers says Moles Farewell Tributes was one of only a dozen green burial sites when it opened its green cemetery in 2009.
“We’ve definitely seen a shift,” Flowers says. “Now, there’s over 300.”
Flowers and others say lack of information is the biggest barrier keeping green death options out of the mainstream. Spade, the founder of Recompose, says that when people are taken aback by the idea of composting their remains, she usually let’s let them mull over other options before pressing further.
“If you really think of the traditional method, [and] you think of embalming, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s intense also,’ ” she says, “So honestly, I usually just let it lie. I think people need their own time to come around to it.”
After telling her about the dinner, I asked what I should do if I ran into a person like that myself. She laughed a little. That shouldn’t be an issue, she says: “If you’re attending Death Over Dinner, you're perhaps more comfortable than the average person.”
* * *
We began to light our candles at the dinner table, and when it was my turn, I returned to third grade. Anisha was one of my best friends, a small Muslim girl with chubby cheeks who shared my adolescent love of the Disney Channel show Kim Possible, whose brother we tormented by hiding his Pokemon cards under her bed, who I would talk to for hours on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, and who passed away from heart failure one night a couple years into our friendship.
My parents told me in our driveway, next to our minivan on a slightly humid, overcast afternoon. We talked about what it meant, and about God. The rest came in pieces: the news of her funeral, which happened quickly and privately, and then the realization that I would never see her again. When I visited her parents’ house the week of her death, Anisha’s mother told mine that she’d looked like she was only sleeping. There were cookies on the table that I didn’t eat. I remember wanting one but passing because everything felt so strange that it didn’t make sense to enjoy chocolate chips.
I’ve told myself this story many times. Retelling it now feels like reciting a mantra, one that’s simplified in its repetition, but has become as much a part of my life as my name or the soft scar on my knee. When I encountered my next death, I can’t say I was ready, exactly, but I knew who to talk to about it.
Finding comfort in talking about death takes practice. Hebb told me that he hadn’t always had that himself. Conversations about death in his family were nonexistent. Hebb’s dad was over 70 when he was born, making it likely he would pass before Hebb graduated from college, or even high school. He realizes that logic now but says he didn’t think much about it when he was a kid. When his father died, Hebb was 13, and his family didn’t know how to talk about it.
“It really devastated our family,” he says. “The majority of the time we’re faced with this conversation, it’s when something has gone horribly wrong or when it’s about to.”
Hebb says his father didn’t get to explain what he wanted from his death, and his family was left with a pain they didn’t know how to process. Just knowing how to talk could have made the situation much different.
The five other guests at my table expressed varying degrees of comfort with talking about the deaths of those close to them. I’d never told the story of Anisha to a group of strangers, and the words felt odd coming out of my mouth (it didn’t help that this happened before we got appetizers). But there was also peace in the process. Everyone listened. I listened in return. And by dessert, we were already planning what we wanted our funerals to look like in detail. I’ve always wanted a burial I can call “green,” whether that means turning my body into mulch or something else. But I also realized I was willing to bend if a cheaper but still-green option was easier.
At the end of the dinner, just before everyone got up to leave, the restaurant’s owner tapped a glass to get our attention. There were two birthdays to celebrate, she told us. A chocolate cake was carried out from the kitchen and everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Ending a dinner about death with a birthday might make sense to a death-positive person: Most advocates will tell you that life and death aren’t so far apart. Spade put it simply, saying she believes “that humans are part of nature, even if they’re destroying it.”
We go back to where we came from. All bodies decompose. Green burials — and the acceptance that comes with them — simply reinforce that whatever is left of us eventually gives life to something else. If that's what I choose, I'll be giving life long after my dying breath.