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Dying isn’t just bad for you. It’s bad for the Earth. Burials result in the interment of more than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde in the United States every year, according to a study in the Berkeley Planning Journal. Traditional cremation might be better for Mother Nature, but ashes can’t nourish the soil. Water cremation, however, gives new life to the dearly departed by helping flowers, trees, and other flora thrive.
Companies such as Denver-based Be A Tree Cremation dissolve the body using a solution of alkaline chemicals aided by warm water. Within 18 hours, the body is reduced to a nutrient-rich liquid (the skeleton remains but is pulverized into powder), having saved the 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions than the average traditional cremation creates. Be A Tree then disperses the liquid at places such as Evergreen Memorial Park. “It’s time for the death care industry to do the right thing for climate change,” says Emily Nelson, founder and CEO of Be A Tree. “People find comfort in the fact that their loves ones are going back to nature.”
A so-called death worker, Eric Rooney is a sort of caretaker for those who are dying and their loved ones; he helps ease the formers’ transitions and helps the latter process their grief. But Rooney has also used the water-cremation mixture from Be A Tree as nourishment at Half Moon Farm, the Lakewood flower farm he’s owned since 2020. (The family receives the remainder.) As of November 2022, more than 200 people had returned to the earth at Half Moon Farm, Rooney says.
Water cremation isn’t the only way Coloradans at the end of their lives are attempting to leave this world better off than they found it. In 2021, Colorado became the second state in the country to legalize human composting. The Natural Funeral in Lafayette insulates bodies in a box it calls a Chrysalis for up to six months to facilitate their transition into a different kind of organic material. (Rooney uses these remains at Half Moon Farm, as well.) At Colorado Burial Preserve, a 65-acre green cemetery in Florence that also opened in 2021, bodies are buried in plain wooden boxes, in biodegradable shrouds, or au naturel—and never underneath a tombstone. “People want something natural,” Rooney says. “They want to be connected to flowers, to the trees, every bit of nature, and they want to be in the soil.”
Correction: The print version of this story reported incorrectly that Rooney offered water cremation and human composting as a service.