FARGO — They’re billed as earth-friendly approaches to the end of life and are certainly intriguing, if not a little peculiar.
One is a biodegradable burial suit made, in part, out of mushrooms. Actor Luke Perry’s family recently revealed he was buried in one following his death in March from a stroke.
The second amounts to human composting, similar to what’s done with farm animal remains.
Lawmakers in Washington recently passed a bill making their state the first to allow “natural organic reduction” as soon as May 2020.
Both are offered as alternate choices to conventional burial and cremation and are mostly getting attention along the coasts.
Jim Boulger, a funeral director at Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo, welcomes new views on dealing with death.
“I’m for it. You know, the funeral industry is, in my opinion, it’s kind of like a dinosaur, where things are hard to come up,” he said.
Change is happening, little by little.
Along with the traditional caskets like what Grandma was buried in from 1960, some funeral homes offer pine and wicker caskets, as well as cremation urns made of sand or salt, Boulger said.
Craig Olson, funeral director at West Funeral Home in West Fargo, said others are finding new ways to remember loved ones.
“I just sent off some cremated remains the other day to be hand blown into a piece of glass,” he said.
Returned to the earth
The Infinity Burial Suit or "mushroom suit" in which Perry was buried is made by a company called Coeio. According to its website, the garment is handcrafted from organic cotton and contains a biomix of mushrooms and other microorganisms meant to aid decomposition. It sells for $1,500.
The concept may seem odd to many people. But Steve Wright, owner of Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead, said it could be the right choice for others.
“For the right person, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing,” he said.
Boulger said if the idea catches on, the funeral home may offer it in the future.
As for human composting, that idea is being spearheaded by a Washington-based company called Recompose.
According to its website, the company envisions a facility where families who've lost a loved one would gather and place the body in a vessel that would convert it to soil over a month's time. They could take the soil created home with them, to plant as they wish.
The process would reduce the need for cemetery space, which is difficult to come by in denser, urban areas.
Critics of conventional burial find plenty of reasons to move away from it.
They point to embalming, the practice of pumping chemicals into the body to delay decomposition, as bad for the environment.
It’s done, upon family request, to improve the appearance of the body at the funeral and give family members who have to travel, time to view their loved one.
But Boulger said he and fellow funeral directors are also doing less of it than before, because some families are choosing to bury or cremate the body within a day or two of death.
Most local cemeteries also require a concrete outer burial container or vault around the casket, a $1,300 to $1,400 expense.
The concrete keeps the casket from caving in over time and helps keep grave markers straight, Wright said.
Only a handful of cemeteries in the F-M area don’t require concrete containers: one near Hawley, Minn., a Hebrew cemetery, Beth El Memorial Park in north Fargo, and a Muslim cemetery, south of Fargo Davies High School, Boulger said.
A “hybrid cemetery” allows vault-free burials to be mixed in with traditional ones.
According to the nonprofit Green Burial Council, in Placerville, Calif., a total of 23 states have certified hybrid cemeteries.
Minnesota has one in Brooklyn Center and South Dakota has one in Sioux Falls, while North Dakota has none.
Boulger said there were plans to open a green burial space at Holy Cross Cemetery just south of Fargo.
“They had it plotted, and they haven’t had a single request for it,” he said.
Different shades of green
Some people may think of cremation as an eco-friendly method of final disposition, but it also has drawbacks.
George Korsmo of Korsmo Funeral Home in Moorhead said large amounts of natural gas are used to cremate a body, and mercury fillings from teeth, when burned, go into the atmosphere.
“If you’re cremating thousands of people, now we have a big deal,” Korsmo said.
The National Funeral Directors Association projected the 2018 cremation rate to be 53.5 percent. In the Fargo-Moorhead area, the rate is around 50 percent, Wright said.
He and other funeral directors are keeping an eye on another method of final disposition, legal in Minnesota but not in North Dakota.
During alkaline hydrolysis, the body is placed in a stainless steel cylinder and essentially dissolved with a mix of lye, water and heat. Only skeletal remains, like in cremation, are left.
The process uses much less energy than cremation, Wright said, and the non-toxic effluent that comes off can go into city waste systems, or put on gardens and farm fields as fertilizer.
Wright said the people he knows in the funeral industry who are using it haven’t found it cost effective.
Whichever direction these trends go will depend on consumer demand.
Korsmo said when it comes to emotions, the closest thing to a funeral is a wedding.
No one would tell a bride to wear a paper dress instead of a cloth one, he said, and those in the funeral industry shouldn’t dictate what families do.
“That’s a very fine line for us and all funeral homes to tread,” Korsmo said.