Thinking out of the box

While death marks the end of an era, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of our time on Earth—physically at least. Though the passing of a loved one is always a difficult time, each person’s service is a special testament to a wonderful life lived and a way for families to celebrate shared love of their dearly departed.  Although many families choose a traditional coffin burial or cremation, there are many other options for end-of-life-planners who want to think “out of the box.” 

The case for going green 

Environmentally sustainable funeral services are becoming increasingly popular. As reported by The New York Times, traditional burials put over 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze and 64,500 tons of steel in the ground each year. Those looking to reduce this impact are turning to the various forms of green burials—something nearly 54 percent of Americans are considering, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Ocean reefs:  One environmentally sensitive alternative for anyone who loved the ocean helps nurture the undersea.  An ‘eternal reef” burial uses a mixture of concrete and human cremated remains to create artificial reefs in areas in need of restoration, attracting fish and other aquatic organism necessary to a healthy underwater habitat.  According to Eternal Reefs, family members can place palm prints in the damp concrete during the casting, make a rubbing of the bronze plaque during the viewing ceremony, or place a flag on the memorial reef during its military honors ceremony. Florida even has the Neptune Memorial Reef, an underwater mausoleum. 

Nurturing the soil:  Some opt for “burials pods,” organic caskets that break down with time (the Natural Burial Company calls them “Ecopods” (learn more here).  Others offer ‘tree urns” a more comprehensive method that allows cremated remains to nurture a tree. 

Out of the Box Alternatives

Flying high:  If money is no object (costs range from $650 to $13,000 and up), cremated remains can be sent into space.  The options range from a brief trip to the heavens and back, orbiting the earth, orbiting the moon, landing on the moon, or even going into deep space from Celestis Memorial Spaceflights (which offers tracking of the vessel).

Still more flying high:  Some news stories report fireworks displays using a small portion of the cremation ashes into professional-grade, specially modified fireworks.   To stage such a display yourself, you can order do it yourself kits like the ones offered by Heavens Above Fireworks, but that takes a lot of planning and there are many safety concerns – this is best left to professionals.

A lasting legacy: If leaving a lasting legacy is important to you, consider donating your body to science. “Whole body donation,” as its formally known, can be an especially attractive option for those who had an ailment in life such as cancer or heart disease and are no longer medically viable for organ donation. Whole body donation is growing at over 20,000 donations a year, and has made essential contributions to the advancement of treatments for cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, among many other medical breakthroughs.

How to decide

Before you decide if a nontraditional burial is right for you, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is leaving a lasting legacy important? If you want your legacy to take form in a celebration of life, perhaps something commemorative like a fireworks display is the right choice for you. If instead you want to celebrate by leaving some type of legacy physically on earth, consider an environmentally friendly option like a natural reef burial or donating your body to science, which can impact the lives of thousands through medical research.  
  • Would it be important to my family to have the remains? While one option might be the deceased’s last wish, it may be important to also consider the wishes of those left behind. Some may find comfort in visiting a gravesite, or having the remains in a special place in the home. Be sure to research nontraditional options and see if this is possible. Cremation options listed above such as fireworks, orbital memorials and body donation may include the option to receive at least partial remains.
  • Is cost a determining factor? A traditional coffin burial can be quite costly for some families. If you need an option that is more cost-friendly, look into pricing for the above and related possibilities—which range from free to several thousand dollars.


About the author: Heidi Kayser is the director of donor education and outreach at MedCure, which connects people wanting to donate their body to science to researchers uncovering tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs. If you’d like to learn more about whole body donation, visit  



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