People generally fall into two camps when it comes to the disposition of their body after death: burial or cremation. A lot of factors influence that decision such as family tradition, cost, geographical location (lack of cemetery space), environmental impact, and some people just like the idea of one over the other. For those who choose cremation, scattering remains or purchasing an urn for burial or to keep in the home are traditional choices. But there are more options than that! Ashes can be added to a keepsake or work of art; they can be added to a piece of decorative blown glass; you can add them to a water urn where they dissolve; and you can even have your ashes become part of a coral reef, which loved ones can visit underwater. And there are more options beyond the ones just mentioned, such as having ashes added to fireworks, becoming part of a diamond, flown out to space, the list goes on… But if you desire a final resting place for loved ones to visit and you are a proponent of green burial – green burial options for cremated remains do exist!
Cremated Remains and Soil
In order to understand the methodology behind green burial of cremated remains, it’s helpful to understand the chemical makeup of cremated remains (otherwise known as “cremains” or “ashes”). Cremated remains are naturally alkaline and salty, since they contain high levels of phosphorus (calcium phosphate) and sodium.1 Although plants need phosphates, calcium, potassium, and sodium – the levels of these nutrients in cremated remains is so high that it’s actually harmful, preventing plant growth above and around where cremains are buried (whether they’re placed in a biodegradable urn or directly in the ground).2 Here is a photo of ashes that were placed in a biodegradable urn 16 months after burial – you can see that they have remained completely intact:
Even scattering of ashes can be harmful to plants, resulting in scorching, due to the high alkalinity of cremated remains.3 (We’ve seen this first hand at the Sanctuary.) In both the case of scattering and burial, the way to address the naturally high alkalinity of cremated remains is to add a soil amendment that helps balance the pH (remember high school chemistry class!). Adding a soil amendment not only lowers the pH of cremated remains – it also helps make the nutrients in cremated remains bio-available, benefiting plant life.4
Biodegradable Urns + Soil Amendment
There are a number of lovely biodegradable urns, however, many of them don’t address the soil issues mentioned above. The urn itself may be biodegradable, but again, the inserted ashes will remain intact and inhibit plant growth. Since Carolina Memorial Sanctuary is a conservation and green cemetery, we will focus only on options that are suitable for green burial. There are currently three options in the U.S. that include a soil amendment so that cremated remains can be buried and plants planted above: Bios Urn, Let Your Love Grow, and The Living Urn.
Although similar in many ways, there are some important differences. The price for these different products range from $119 (The Living Urn) to $230 (Let Your Love Grown – to mix with all the ashes of an adult human). The process for using them varies also. We first started with Let Your Love Grow, which requires a lot of mixing in large volumes and placing the mixture directly into the earth. We recently tried The Living Urn, which we found to be more streamlined and simplistic, where everything is poured in layers into a biodegradable container. We haven’t tried Bios Urn, but looking at their website, it functions very similarly to The Living Urn.
Some families and individuals prefer scattering ashes instead of burying them. Based on what we’ve learned about soil science and the chemical makeup of cremated remains, we rely on Let Your Love Grow’s soil amendment made specifically for cremains, which we mix with the ashes prior to scattering. I corresponded with an employee there who explained that there are beneficial bacteria in the soil amendment, which penetrate the calcium of the bone for the bone to break down, allowing the calcium to be used by plant life. For this positive effect to take place, the cremains and amendment must sit for at least 90 days prior to scattering, however, Let Your Love Grow recommends letting the amendment/cremain mixture to sit for 120 days when possible (or longer). If you are considering doing a scattering on your own where you will be sprinkling the ashes over plant life, you might considering purchasing some soil amendment to achieve the same beneficial effect.
Green Burial of Cremated Remains at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary
Based on affordability, elegance, and ease of use – for burial of cremated remains, we have decided to partner with The Living Urn. Their product is beautiful, elegant, easy to use, and most affordable (keeping costs down for guests). The Living Urn is included when you purchase a burial of cremated remains at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, so guests are not responsible for acquiring the product in advance or at time of burial. See how it works!
A common question we get when someone has chosen burial of cremated remains is whether the ashes of their pets can be buried with them. The answer is YES! Based on the amount of additional ashes added (we’ve had multiple pets added to someone’s grave) – we may need to add additional soil amendment, which would be a slight increase in cost.
In addition to having a final resting place where loved ones can visit, another great aspect of green burial of cremated remains is the option to plant a tree or shrub along with the ashes (or near the burial site). With every purchase of a Living Urn system, a voucher for a seedling is included. We are working with The Living Urn to secure native plants acceptable at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. If you are interested in planting a memorial plant at a gravesite or as part of a grave during a burial, contact us to see what options exist for your particular grave location. In compliance with our restoration plan (which is required as a conservation site), we follow strict guidelines that dictate which plants are allowed, to aid in the rehabilitation of the different habitats at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. You can read the Memorial Plantings Blog to learn more about your options.
What you choose for the final disposition of your body is very personal. Burial versus cremation – they each have their pros and cons. What is important is that you’ve done your research, you know your options, and make the choice that is right for you (and let your loved ones know the choice you’ve made). We’re glad that green options for cremated remains exist and that we can support our guests who choose cremation, want a final resting place, and are committed to practices that honor the earth.
- Soil science related to the human body after death (2016)
- Would cremated ashes help plant growth? (2014)
- Stop scattering ashes, families are told (2009)
- Why Burying Ashes is Harmful to the Environment (year NA)