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The Indicator from Planet MoneyburialsThe growing industry of green burials
How sustainable burials could save the planet—and maybe your pocketbook : The Indicator from Planet Money One estimate says 2.4 million people die in the U.S. each year, and burying them is expensive: a typical burial can cost about $10,000. That's a lot of money, caskets, and plots filling up cemeteries. But ... what if there was a cost-effective option to bury people, one that was good for the Earth and your pocket book? Today, we look at the prices and features of sustainable burials.

The growing industry of green burials

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods. And today we've got Felix Poon here with us. Hey, Felix.


WOODS: So good to have you. You're a producer for the public radio podcast Outside/In. And this is a show about nature and our relationship to it.

POON: Yeah. And here's a pop-quiz question for you.


POON: Can you guess how many funerals happen every year in the U.S.?

WOODS: Ooh, I don't know - 10 million?

POON: Not quite. You overshot it. One estimate puts it at 2.4 million.

WOODS: OK, I'm a bit pessimistic on how many Americans are dying every year.

POON: So the funeral business is a $20 billion industry, and it's growing because, you know, demographics - the number of seniors is actually expected to increase by almost 50% in the next couple of decades.

WOODS: I guess that some of those are wanting to look for low-cost options 'cause funerals are expensive.

POON: They're also looking for more sustainable options, too, because, you know, climate change? So it's not just burials and cremations now. There's a growing market for green funeral options.

WOODS: Green everything - including death. So today we're going to be talking about all of these options for what to do with your body after you die. We're going to look at what the costs are - both the environmental costs and the cost to your pocketbook. That's all coming up after the break.


POON: We're going to begin at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., where I met Regina Harrison. She's the sales manager here.

REGINA HARRISON: I work out of the office, but I spend a lot of time out on the grounds...

POON: Yeah.

HARRISON: ...Doing these tours with families.

POON: Regina's been in the business for over a decade. As a nature lover herself, she's really proud of the fact that Mount Auburn is an accredited arboretum and important bird habitat. But also, she's acutely aware of the issues with conventional casket burials.
潘:Regina 从事这个行业已有十多年了。作为一名自然爱好者,她对奥本山是一个经过认可的植物园和重要的鸟类栖息地感到非常自豪。而且,她也敏锐地意识到传统棺材埋葬的问题。

HARRISON: There's a lot of chemicals involved. They do have a very harmful effect on the funeral directors who work with them.

POON: Embalmers are at higher risk of getting cancer and possibly even ALS - also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

WOODS: So that's a significant human toll. And the environmental toll comes from the casket - typically steel or wood - plus a concrete vault that's sort of like a casket for the casket. Now, we don't often think about the vault, but it's part of the landscaping of a cemetery. And without them, bodies and caskets, which eventually decompose - I mean, you'd be left with a sagging soil and an otherwise pristine lawn.
伍兹:所以这是一个重大的人员伤亡。环境损失来自棺材——通常是钢或木头——加上一个混凝土拱顶,有点像棺材的棺材。现在,我们不经常想到金库,但它是墓地景观的一部分。如果没有它们,尸体和棺材最终会分解 - 我的意思是,你会留下下垂的土壤和原始的草坪。

POON: Yeah. And as with anything, there's a carbon cost for making and transporting all of this stuff. So we crunched the numbers, and the carbon cost here - it's the equivalent of a little less than a tank of gas in your car.

WOODS: Yeah. So when you're on your deathbed, don't worry too much about the climate impact. But as for the cost to your pocketbook, conventional burial is the most expensive way to go. In 2023, the price tag of a conventional burial was around $10,000.

POON: On to cremation, which is kind of having a moment.

WOODS: OK. I did not know this - trends in death.

POON: (Laughter) In 2015, it overtook burial as the most popular option in the U.S. And by 2045, the National Funeral Directors Association thinks that 8 out of every 10 funerals will be cremations. Now, cremation involves special furnaces, many of which burn natural gas. And Regina says Mount Auburn just got new, top-of-the-line burners.

HARRISON: Our previous equipment took, you know, about six hours for a cremation. And this equipment is under two, so it's a lot faster. And that's all the way to cool-down.

POON: Estimates on the carbon emissions for cremation put it at about twice as much as for conventional burials - again, not that much in the grand scheme of things.

WOODS: Cremation is cheaper for your pocketbook, though. The median cost for a cremation in 2023 was $6,280. But you can get it even cheaper if you skip the funeral service for about $1,500 to $3,000.
伍兹:不过,火葬对于你的钱包来说更便宜。 2023 年火葬费用中位数为 6,280 美元。但如果你不参加葬礼,花费大约 1,500 至 3,000 美元,价格会更便宜。

POON: OK. We just talked about burial and cremation - stuff we're all pretty familiar with. Now we're going to talk about the more sustainable options. Let's talk about green burial first.

HARRISON: Fundamentally, it's the burial of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable container. So that biodegradable container could be as simple as a shroud or a plain, pine casket.

WOODS: And so the share of funerals that are green burials is probably less than 1 in 20, but cemeteries are reporting increased demand for them.

POON: Yeah. So with green burials, you're saving money and cutting carbon costs by skipping the fancy casket and the vault. But you're still paying to open and close a grave and for a funeral service, so it can be anywhere from a thousand to $5,000 - sometimes more, depending on the cemetery.

WOODS: So that's the green version of burial. But there is also a green version of cremation, and this one's called water cremation. And I got to say, this one is kind of gruesome to think about. Basically, you're submerged in a vessel of water and sodium hydroxide, which is basically lye. If you've seen "Breaking Bad" and how they dispose of bodies there, you'll know what I'm talking about. And this all takes about 16 hours. And when all is said and done, your flesh on your body is just gone - just a skeleton, essentially - and your flesh has become this sterile liquid that's just poured down the drain. Your bones are then ground into this white-colored dust, and that's kind of the equivalent of the ashes.

POON: Oof (ph).

WOODS: It's a lot.

POON: Yeah. The carbon cost for all of this comes from the energy it takes to warm the water and to run the vessel, which advocates for this say isn't that much, but there's not a ton of data on this. The price? It's about one to $3,000.

WOODS: And finally, you've got one last option. And are you ready for this one? It is human composting. Katrina Spade is the founder and CEO of a Seattle-based company called Recompose. And the seed for this idea came when she was thinking of her own death.

KATRINA SPADE: I don't really want to be cremated because, to me, it feels a bit wasteful. Something I've got left in my body - you know, could I give that back somehow?
KATRINA SPADE:我真的不想被火化,因为对我来说,这感觉有点浪费。我体内还剩下一些东西——你知道,我能以某种方式把它还给你吗?

WOODS: At a Recompose funeral, they lay the body inside a vessel on a bed of woodchips, straw and alfalfa. They then lay more of that material over the body, along with some flowers, which is something that loved ones can do.
伍兹:在一场 Recompose 葬礼上,他们将尸体安放在一个容器内,上面铺着木片、稻草和苜蓿。然后,他们将更多的这种材料和一些鲜花放在尸体上,这是亲人可以做的事情。

SPADE: So the body's cocooned inside of the vessel.

POON: After the service is over, the vessel gets to work.

SPADE: And the ratio of carbon and nitrogen plus the body is the perfect mixture to make enthusiastic microbial activity.

WOODS: So then they rotate the vessels every week - you know, like what you have to do with your backyard compost.
伍兹:那么他们每周都会轮换容器 - 你知道,就像你必须处理后院堆肥一样。

POON: Yeah.

WOODS: And after about two months, the body's transformed into about a cubic yard of soil, which is enough to fill an average truck bed.

POON: So there are a few different ways people can use the soil. Katrina told us about a man who died and was composted, and his sister came to Recompose with a trailer in tow.
潘:所以人们可以通过几种不同的方式使用土壤。卡特里娜告诉我们,一名男子死后被堆肥,他的妹妹拖着一辆拖车来到了 Recompose。

SPADE: And our team helped her load that trailer up with her brother's soil. And he had lived in Seattle for much of his life and was an avid gardener. She brought that trailer back to the neighborhood where he had lived, and his friends and neighbors brought five-gallon buckets. They all took some of that soil home to their own gardens. And so there's this concept that this person is still gardening with his friends and neighbors, you know, even after he's died.

WOODS: That's so morbidly lovely.

POON: The other thing you can choose to happen is have your soil donated to conservation land. Again, this is such a new option that we don't have a ton of data on what the environmental costs of human composting are. But one issue we see is the fact that this is currently only available in a couple of states - Washington and Colorado. The costs to your pocketbook for composting - 5,000 to $7,000 - about the same as a cremation with funeral services.


POON: What have we learned, Darian?

WOODS: We've learned there are many options for death.

POON: Yeah. And also, at the end of the day, the carbon costs are not that big, no matter what way you choose to go.

WOODS: Yeah, but the price tag can be pretty expensive.

POON: Yeah. So I hope you've got insurance for that, Darian.

WOODS: Uh, I don't.

POON: (Laughter).


WOODS: This episode was produced by Angel Carreras with engineering by Neal Rauch. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
WOODS:本集由 Angel Carreras 制作,Neal Rauch 负责工程设计。它经过了 Sierra Juarez 的事实核查。凯特·康坎农 (Kate Concannon) 担任节目剪辑,《THE INDICATOR》由 NPR 制作。

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