The United States funeral industry tallies up an estimated $20.7 billion per year. There’s an average of 2.4 million funerals annually in the United States. Typical funeral costs start around $11,000.
This figure breaks down like this: Fees for embalming and body preparation, grave space, headstone, casket, funeral ceremony, viewing, and a funeral director’s fee. And, to some, many of these costs are incredibly inflated, especially if the processes don’t perfectly align with the dead’s personal wishes.
The funeral industry also offers certain environmental concerns. For example, the chemicals used in embalming are toxic to the earth, and traditional caskets are made with hardwood and steel that don’t biodegrade.
It’s no wonder many people have begun exploring nontraditional funerals — some are low-cost and some are green burial options. Some are just creative and personalized to individuals. Here are some non-traditional natural burial choices you can make.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just the type of interment to think about. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
1. Water Burial
A water burial consists of disposing of the remains of a loved one at sea. This could be in the form of cremated remains, either scattered or in a biodegradable urn that is cast into the water. It could also be in the form of whole-body disposal in which the deceased is submerged in a specially-made casket or natural fiber burial shroud.
This process, while legal, is strictly mandated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Private companies that hold water burial services can help navigate the rules and regulations surrounding water burial.
2. Virtual Funeral Service
Sickness (or pandemics), long-distance travel, and work concerns often leave loved ones out of the funeral service, and only able to send condolences, flowers, and other tokens.
Virtual funeral planning services give families an opportunity to not only watch the in-person funeral from afar, but interact and engage with the in-person and virtual funeral as well. The services normally take care of beginning-to-end planning, virtual invitations, tech support, reception facilitation, and recording, among other responsibilities.
Tip: We recommend GatheringUs's virtual funeral planning service to help you with logistics, tech, and day-of-funeral production.
3. Space Burial
A small amount of ash is encapsulated and sent into orbit in a space burial. Over 450 people have had their ashes sent into space since 1992. Some of them, like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, were transported on NASA space shuttles, and others have been transported by private companies like Celestis and Elysium Space.
Costs aren’t as high as you might think — it depends on the type of space burial you prefer. Prices start at just $2,490.
4. Memorial Diamonds or Jewels
Memorial diamonds are synthetic, lab-grown diamonds made from cremated remains. In nature, diamonds are a solid form of carbon with a crystal structure. Cremains happen to contain carbon and can be extracted through filtration and purification techniques.
Naturally-occurring diamonds take over a billion years to form but memorial diamonds take just 7 to 11 months to produce. A memorial diamond crafted from ashes is a wonderful eternal reminder of your loved one.
Certain memorial diamond companies, such as Eterneva, offer gems in several colors and cuts and can even make diamonds out of locks of hair, too.
5. Cremation Jewelry
Memorial diamonds aren’t the only jewelry item you can wear to honor a loved one. Cremation jewelry has become increasingly popular over the past several years. The popular craft site Etsy has over 26,000 listings under “cremation jewelry.”
Cremation jewelry may contain the ashes of a loved one or a treasured pet. Cremation jewelry could include a locket or pendant that holds a small amount of ash — you can add them yourself. There are plenty of cremation jewelry options on Amazon.
You can also send the ashes to a specialty jeweler and have the jeweler craft it into a ring, bracelet or another special piece.
6. Cremation Art and Glassware
Glassblowing is a discipline that’s been practiced for over 2,000 years. It’s a technique that involves heating glass until it is molten and shaping it into intricate and beautiful works of art.
Some glass artists are able to incorporate a teaspoon of cremated remains into a piece of decorative art glass. Glass cremation art can turn into paperweights, sculptures, suncatchers, and more.
7. Cremation Fireworks
Have you ever said you wanted to go out with a bang? You’re in luck. Many fireworks companies can pack small amounts of cremains into fireworks used in professional-level displays.
You can have cremated ashes placed in small, self-firing rockets for a more personal display or you can go all out and put on a large public fireworks memorial. Regardless, it’s a display that no one will ever forget.
8. Donate Body to Science
One person can have a big impact — even in death. Donate your body to science and allow researchers to learn more about diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more. It can help advance understanding of particular diseases.
Donating your body to science can also allow med students the opportunity for hands-on experience. After a body is donated, the donor’s cremated remains are returned to their next of kin.
9. Sky Burial
A Tibetan sky burial is an ancient and sacred tradition for Tibetan Buddhists. Much of what is known of this ceremony is derived from the 12th-century treatise The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and from eyewitness accounts from the few outsiders who have been invited to watch.
A body is simply left in the open air to be entirely consumed by vultures. While it may sound gory, it is deeply tied to Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation and honoring the Earth by nourishing its creatures.
10. Tree Pod Burial
With a tree pod burial, you might find that there’s something very healing about the process of taking care of new life after death. The Capsula Mundi burial pod holds cremated ashes or a whole body in the fetal position.
The pod is then buried in the earth, much like you would plant a seed, and a tree is planted above it. The body inside the eco-friendly pod decomposes and nourishes the soil and the family of the deceased can continue to tend to the tree as a living memorial. Note that this option is not yet available in the U.S.
11. Conservation Burial
A natural (or green) burial simply refers to any burial that minimizes environmental impact — but a conservation burial goes a step further. You or your next of kin pay burial fees for a body to be buried in a conservation cemetery.
Conservation burials become an option when a conservation-minded organization buys land with the intent to preserve it from development. They also usually commit to maintaining the land using environmentally safe practices.
Burial fees go to the organization to support its mission of acquiring more land and preserving all the land under their purview. The land is protected forever — and instead of being relatively neutral for the planet, it is actively beneficial.
12. Reef Burial
Water burials involve the disposal of ashes or a whole body at sea, but a reef burial is distinct from that practice. An individual’s cremated remains are mixed into an environmentally-safe concrete and cast into artificial reef formations.
The resulting structures are placed underwater to serve as a lasting habitat for fish and other sea life.
13. Ashes to Vinyl
Music is the soundtrack of our lives. And now, your life can be part of the soundtrack. You can have your ashes sprinkled on a raw piece of vinyl before it is pressed and your ashes become part of the record.
Resomation is known by several other names — aquamation, biocremation, alkaline hydrolysis, water cremation, and flameless cremation. It’s a process for disposing of human remains using lye and heat.
Resomation mimics a body’s natural decomposition process and even accelerates it. Resomation can break down a body in a matter of hours. It’s far more energy-efficient than standard cremation practices.
15. Freeze Drying for Compost
People have practiced some form of composting or another for thousands of years, perhaps back to the time of the Akkadian Empire in ancient Mesopotamia.
A relatively recent spin on the practice, called promession, involves freeze-drying the deceased and pulverizing the remains into a fine powder, which can be mixed with water to create a substance similar to compost. However, it’s still largely theoretical and not currently a viable burial option.
16. Mushroom Burial
Proponents of green burial eschew embalming practices. But bodies that aren’t embalmed are also filled with toxins from day-to-day living. Human bodies are riddled with heavy metals, preservatives, pesticides, BPA, and more, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A special suit made by a company called Coeio wants to mitigate that. Its natural fiber suit is seeded with mushrooms, which sprout underground as a body decomposes and metabolizes those toxins.
17. Burial at Sea
Like a water burial, burial at sea involves the disposal of human remains in the ocean. The distinction is that the term burial at sea is typically reserved for active-duty military, military retirees, and honorably discharged veterans. Water burial is done for civilians but a burial at sea follows the same principles.
Cremated remains or a whole body can be disposed of as long as EPA regulations are followed. Regular citizens must pay for a water burial but a burial at sea performed by the United States Navy is done at no cost to the deceased’s family.
18. Biodegradable Caskets
Traditional caskets are made out of hardwood and steel. An incredible amount of resources goes into producing these, and then they go underground and don’t break down. Biodegradable caskets are constructed of natural material that breaks down relatively easily.
These materials include wicker, seagrass, bamboo, willow, and more. Best practice involves not embalming the body because toxic chemicals used in the embalming process could seep into the earth.
19. Biodegradable Urns
Human bodies are disposed of at sea either as whole bodies or cremated remains. Ashes can be scattered or can be placed in a biodegradable urn, which is placed directly in the water. You can order a biodegradable urn online, like this one on Amazon.
After 15 to 20 minutes, the urn begins to break apart and allows the ashes inside to disperse throughout the water. The urn itself breaks down and causes no harm to marine life.
20. Above-Ground Burials
Mausoleums have been around for thousands of years. Notable public mausoleums include the Great Pyramids and Westminster Abbey in London.
These above-ground structures family members or community members to be interred above ground in a cool, dry space. The building’s footprint allows many people to be buried together in less space than they would take up with in-ground burials.
Cryonic preservation is the process of freezing and storing a human body or severed head at incredibly low temperatures, with the hope that one day, science will be advanced enough to resurrect people who have been preserved.
The practice is regarded with skepticism by mainstream scientists. Walt Disney has been thought to be cryonically frozen — but that’s an urban myth.
Plastination is a process used in anatomy to preserve body parts. Whole bodies, body parts, and even cross-sections of body parts can be preserved indefinitely without decay, as waters and fats are removed from samples and replaced with different types of plastics.
Plastinated specimens are an integral part of teaching anatomy, especially in medical and dental schools because they allow students to gain a more thorough understanding of the human form.
The Right Non-Traditional Burial Method for You
There’s bound to be a burial rite that’s right for you — whether you’re an eco-warrior, a technology junkie, or simply someone who likes to think outside the box. Select a non-traditional burial method that fits you perfectly — that helps you put your stamp on this world in one last way.