Sky burial depiction with vultures circling above

Sky Burials And Other Eco-Friendly Funerals

By: Team Earth

Nov 07, 2023 | Green Funeral Practice

7 min read

Funeral customs are firmly rooted in cultural and religious traditions, with countries worldwide celebrating a person's life differently. However, in the fight to save our planet, many people search for eco-friendly funerals instead of traditional burials and cremations.

Sky burials are an ancient funeral practice dating back 11,000 years. They're still common in Tibet, as a Buddhist tradition that ensures bodies give back to the earth and allow wildlife to thrive.

Also known as Jhator, sky burials are not legal in the US, but they are an interesting example of a sustainable funeral option. In this guide, we'll explore sky burials in more detail and reveal other eco-friendly funeral options.

Short On Time? Here Are The Key Takeaways:

  1. Sky burials are an ancient practice, still widespread in Tibet. They involve letting the body nourish vultures, a sacred animal in the country. While sky burials are highly spiritual, they're not legal in the US.
  2. There are other cremation and burial options available for people looking for a sustainable solution, including human composting, green burials, and aquamation.
  3. Of all the eco-friendly funerals, human composting is the most eco-friendly option. We explain why in this guide.

What Is The Meaning Of Sky Burial?

Cultures around the world have varying beliefs about what happens after we die, and Tibetan culture is no exception.

Followers of Buddhism believe in reincarnation, and Tibetan Buddhists believe that the body is just a shell after death, as the spirit moves on.

Tibetans also believe that death represents the end of one life and a journey to the next, and they prepare for their spiritual journey from their body to another life - also known as bardo.

While many Buddhists believe reincarnation can happen immediately after death, Tibetan Buddhists believe their spirits can travel for up to 49 days (represented by bardo levels) before finding a new incarnation.

Family members and monks can help the spirit's journey by reading the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of Dead in Western culture).

Sky burials play an integral role in Tibetan culture, as they view the vulture as a sacred animal. By practicing Jhator, people can give back to the earth and perform a last act of charity.

How Do Sky Burials Work?

In Tibet, there are two types of sky burial, depending on what the family can afford. However, the most popular - and spiritual - form of sky burial involves following a particular process after death.

Preparing The Body

When a person passes away, their body is usually kept in a seated position for a few days while lamas or monks perform prayers and rituals.

Most sky burials take place in designated areas, which aren't highly inhabited and are usually elevated. The main reasons for this are so the body is closer to the heavens and to ensure it will attract birds.

Before the official ceremony, a burial master will prepare the body by breaking it into smaller parts, ensuring the birds can consume the remains.

Laying It Out

Once the body is ready, the burial master will lay it out, and vultures will consume it. If there are remains after the ceremony, they're usually broken up and buried, but some Tibetans will also burn them.

People also believe that the deceased has lived a good life if the birds consume the body quickly.

The Purpose Of Sky Burials

Sky burials serve a distinct purpose for Buddhists, and Tibetans consider them a spiritual practice that's all about giving back to the world.

Tibetans believe the body is useless once the person's spirit departs it, but sky burials can help them give back to the world by nourishing another animal.

The final act of generosity aligns with Buddhism's emphasis on altruism and compassion, ensuring the person's spirit goes on its next journey in a peaceful state.

However, sky burials are also a sustainable option, essential to Tibet, after losing much of its wildlife and seeing widespread deforestation due to being under China's control (Tibet Nature).

While the tradition is still regularly practiced in Tibet, it's a declining tradition in other countries such as Mongolia.

Are Sky Burials Legal In The USA?

Sky burials are one of the most environmentally friendly funeral options, which may lead some people to wonder if they can have one. Unfortunately, the human remains laws in the USA are strict, and many states make traditions that go against social norms illegal.

When a person passes away in the US, their loved ones must get a death certificate, which lists the state the person died in, a burial and transit permit, and a disposition permit, which tells local authorities how the person's remains will be handled.

In simple terms, the laws prevent you from having a sky burial, and anyone who performs one for you could face legal action, as it falls under desecrating human remains.

Luckily, there are environmentally friendly options out there that are legal in most states.

The Importance Of An Eco-Friendly Funeral

Green burial forest with glass windows surrounded by tranquil trees. Eco-friendly funeral options.

Green funerals are becoming increasingly popular as people realize that even small actions can harm the planet.

Traditional burials and cremations might be the norm in Western culture, but a report from the Berkeley Planning Journal shows both practices can harm the environment:

  • Chemicals: Embalming fluid contains hazardous chemicals, such as formaldehyde. In the US alone, over 800,000 gallons of the chemical go into the ground yearly.
  • Cremations: The cremation process requires a lot of energy, which goes into the air and can cause pollution.
  • Deforestation: In the USA alone, caskets use around 30 million board feet of various hardwoods, contributing to deforestation.

Luckily, there are some sustainable alternatives, and we'll reveal them in the next section.

Eco-Friendly Funeral Options

Hands holding human composted soil post natural organic reduction

An eco-friendly funeral can offer peace of mind that your death will be peaceful and give back to nature instead of taking away from it.

The following options are more sustainable than traditional burials or cremations and still allow loved ones to commemorate your life.

Human Composting (Soil Transformation)

Technology has given us access to various advances, but human composting is changing the world of funerals. Also known as soil transformation, recomposition, and natural organic reduction, it's an eco-friendly funeral process that turns bodies into nutrient-rich soil.

Human composting essentially imitates the natural decomposition bodies experience when left in nature but in an accelerated and more controlled manner.

When someone passes away, their body will go to a green funeral provider specializing in body composting services, and the process will begin.

How Soil Transformation Works

The body goes into a container full of organic materials, such as organic mulch, wildflowers and wood chips. The temperature and environment are carefully regulated to create the perfect conditions for the body to break down on a molecular level.

Over a gentle 45 day process, the body turns into approximately one cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil. The family can then specify how much soil they want to keep, to scatter or plant, and the remainder is available for use on conservation projects.

For example, at Earth Funeral, we use the soil on our conversation sites, where it plays a key role in restoring the land.

The environmental impact of soil transformation

Soil transformation offers a range of environmental benefits, and it's also an opportunity to give back to the world and ensure you make a lasting statement when you pass away. Human composting is also the most sustainable method.

It uses:

  • Renewable Electricity
  • Zero C02 Emissions
  • 40 Gallons of Water

Green Burials

Green burials, or natural burials, aren't new concepts by any means. The practice of burying a body in a natural setting with no or minimal resources goes back to early human history.

While there is no set definition for ‘green’ or ‘natural burial’, these processes typically involve the use of a biodegradable burial vessel, the avoidance of chemicals such as embalming fluid and pesticides, and the minimal use of other resources.

Conservational Burials

Conservational and green burials are often confused, but opting for a conservational burial is going a step further for conservation.

The fees you pay also contribute to land acquisition and management, which protect the land from any future development.

Instead, native plants turn your burial site into a beautiful garden where nature and wildlife can thrive. Of course, the main barrier to this type of burial is the associated costs, so many people opt for green burials instead.

Is Natural Burial or Human Composting More Sustainable?

Natural burial is more sustainable than traditional burial or cremation. They do, however, require a lot of land which is one way in which human composting is more sustainable. The healthy soil from human composting has an actively positive impact on the environment, helping with important land conservation.

Aquamation

Aquamation - also called water cremation - is a relatively new technique that is a more sustainable alternative to traditional cremations. When a person passes away, their body goes into a special chamber made of stainless steel.

The body is exposed to sodium hydroxide and water, which pass over it to create alkaline hydrolysis. Depending on the pressure used, the body will usually decompose in six to 16 hours.

Returning The Body

During the aquamation process, the body's tissues dissolve and are disposed of at the facility, while the bones become a powder and are returned to the person's loved ones.

Water cremation is available in more than 20 states, and it's fast becoming a popular alternative to traditional cremation, where the body is burned at high temperatures.

The Environmental Impact Of Traditional Cremation

Traditional cremation is a popular method for people who don't like the idea of burials, but it does come with significant environmental drawbacks. The method uses fossil fuels, on average emitting 535lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere, along with other noxious gasses.

With emissions equivalent to a 600+ mile car journey, cremation is not an appealing option for those concerned about their planet, leading many people to explore alternative cremation methods.

The Environmental Impact Of Water Cremation

Aquamation is undoubtedly more sustainable than traditional cremation, using electricity and resulting in zero CO2 emissions. However, it does use 400 gallons of water, which flushes back into the main sewer, which is the main drawback.

The amount of water it requires does pose issues for some people, and aquamation isn't the most eco-friendly option for water conservation efforts.

Which Is The Most Sustainable Funeral Option?

In a world that's becoming increasingly aware of how our daily lives impact the environment, it's only natural that people are becoming more concerned about what happens after they pass away.

Moving towards sustainable solutions is key to protecting our planet and ensuring its survival. Of all the funeral methods available, human composting is the most environmentally friendly while also being a beautiful and appealing process, which appeals to nature lovers and allows for meaningful memorialization.

Instead of entering the ground, the body becomes part of it, playing a pivotal role in helping nature and wildlife thrive.

If you’re concerned about your final impact on the planet, and human composting appeals to you, you can read more about Earth’s process and get an instant online quote.

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