Italian-made burial pods could turn cemeteries into forests

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” the Book of Genesis boded -- a once-natural process now interrupted by chemical embalming, shiny caskets and steel vaults.

Good Friday, a time to reflect on Jesus’ death, might also serve to remind us of his natural burial, at a time when alternatives to today’s traditional means of interment grow more necessary as available global burial space shrinks.

To address this emerging environmental issue, two Italian designers have created a burial method that could potentially transform cemeteries into forests using biodegradable coffins.

With the “Capsula Mundi,” the deceased is placed inside an egg-shaped pod in a fetal position, essentially buried into the earth like a seed, with a tree of his or her choice then planted on top. Currently, the burial method is illegal in Italy, but the designers have worked to secure official approval allowing burials without standard coffins.

“In this way, death takes on a new meaning -- no longer considered as an interruption of the process of life, but rather as the beginning of a series of transformations that reintroduce us into the natural cycle,” Anna Citelli, who designed the coffin with Raoul Bretzel, told the business magazine Fast Company.

About 76 million Americans will reach age 78, the current life expectancy, between 2024 and 2042, according to a 2013 study from Iowa State University. Burying them all in standard burial plots, CityLab reported, would require approximately 130 square miles of grave space -- or about the size of Las Vegas. The addition of roads, trees and pathways increases the space needed even more.

Cremation, an alternative that the Catholic church approved in the 1960s, is environmentally preferable to chemically-intensive embalming and burying coffins but not entirely green, either: as dental fillings are melted, harmful mercury emissions are released.

Related: “Cremation is popular, but is it green?

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, fewer than 4 percent of Americans chose ashes to ashes in 1960; by 2010, that number increased to 40 percent. Still quite a bit lower than the United Kingdom, where about three-fourths of burials are cremations, and Japan, where incineration is essentially the only option.

Creative alternatives to crowded grave plots have ranged from launching bodies into space to Hong Kong’s floating cemetery.  But in 1998 a movement began that recalled the ancient approach -- natural burials -- “driven by dissatisfaction with typical funeral rites,” Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, told LiveScience.

“Most people, when they find out what happens in the embalming room, they're pretty horrified. They can't believe the cost, which is outrageous, and then there is this growing concern about the environmental effects of all of these procedures and of all of the goods and resources devoted to this modern method,” Harris said.

Related: “Green burials reflect a shift to care for the body and soul

In lieu of embalming, metal caskets and concrete vaults, natural burials place the body into the earth in a shroud or biodegradable container, allowing for natural decomposition.

Samuel Perry, head of funeral home compliance and education for the Green Burial Council, told NCR by email that acceptance of a natural burial is not so much a religious-based issue, but rather, a “deeper culturally-based issue.”

“Jesus was shrouded and buried naturally. What better model of traditional burial is there?” he said.

Perry has not heard of any Catholics contesting natural burial, but rather said most people aren’t aware it’s an option. In Indianapolis, where he works at a traditionally Catholic funeral home, a single company operates all the Catholic cemeteries and requires a vault for burial.

“How green is a vault?” Perry said. “Well, they are made of sand, rock, and concrete. That sounds OK, but they require a lot of energy to make, ship, and place. And all for what? To keep the grave from sinking in and prevent the body from being that much closer to the earth.”

Green burials are also more financially viable. According to Bloomberg Business, without embalming and a casket the eco-friendly alternative can cost around $3,000, as opposed to the typical $10,000 for a traditional interment.

The money in the funeral industry, however, poses a challenge to alternative burial procedures, Perry said. “This pod challenges the whole ironed out elaborate process that the funeral industry has groomed and set in stone.”

“Will it catch on? It certainly is a wonderful option in the plethora of disposition options,” he said. “Is buying an Italian-made pod and having it shipped to me affordable and green? That's debatable, but the idea and the ethos behind all of it are very much catching on.”

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

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