Can our death help the life of our planet?

With Earth Day just around the corner, our Director Nic Palmarini wanted to write about death and how we might innovate the process of dying to help the life of our planet.



The past year has been nothing but a series of death bulletins. The Office for National Statistics’ figures show that there were 608,002 deaths registered in England and Wales last year, up 15% from 530,841 in 2019. It is the first double-digit increase since 1940, which had 16% more deaths than 1939. It is also the highest total number of deaths since 1918, when there were 611,861. The total last year was 75,925 above the five-year average. And we have certainly not stopped counting at the beginning of 2021, overwhelmed by statistics and the obsessions of dataists. Never in our recent history have we been reminded so thoroughly of the existence of death in the context of our lives.

Previously lulled into a narrative of growthism, progress and seemingly endless life, we have now realised that yes, we can still die. En masse, at that. And certainly, amidst the reopening of pubs, restaurants, and shops, in the joyous atmosphere of a social return to life, no-one wants to hear about death anymore. No-one.

And yet, not talking about it does not erase it from the horizon. On the contrary, talking about it is perhaps the most important thing we can do, not so much to accept or understand it, but rather to contextualise it. I have no intention in this blog to enter into a debate on the spiritual aspects of death, nor on the deeper, more personal aspects of the meaning it has for each of us individually and for those close to us.

What I’m interested in offering is some food for thought, and suggesting a little knowledge and ability to challenge systems and organisations bounded to death in the light of its impact on the planet. Because even death, in its definitive and immutable function as the presence of what will be our absence, has changed. The context in which it is placed has changed. Its infiniteness in relation to life has changed. So, yes, it is also right to talk about the innovation of death. Especially when it has to do with the life of the Earth.

At NICA, we take the word ‘innovation’ very seriously. It is not an accessory word that we tack on everywhere to give today a dash of tomorrow. Seeking the levers of ‘innovation’ in the field of longevity and ageing is our mission and our daily activity. We do this by constantly involving people in an ideally never-ending dialogue on life issues. And therefore, also those of death. And not so much because, since we are interested in ageing, death might seem a more relevant or even urgent topic. We certainly do not see it that way. We are staunch defenders of the possibilities offered to us by nature and of the quest to live fulfilling lives in all stages of life, but neither are we so demagogically obtuse and intellectually superficial as to promote a positive narrative simply by not mentioning one that might be perceived as negative. And which, perhaps, is not negative. Ours is a work about life, both broadly and deeply, and although we are interested in the whole spectrum of innovations that can help us live a better, healthier, more meaningful life for ourselves and others, we also have a duty and an interest in dealing with death.

In our manifesto on the approach we have named Ageing Intelligence®, there is a pledge that is very close to my heart: “become good ancestors”.  What can we do today to make a better planet as we live it today and leave it to our peers tomorrow? Research, data, and the knowledge derived from their interpretation have enabled us to understand in ever greater detail and with ever greater awareness the dramatic state of our planet’s health. Similarly, we have come to realise that while governments, administrators, and industries have a decisive and crucial responsibility to commit to action to ensure a global impact in the shortest possible time, we have also realised how necessary it is for each of us to commit to reducing our footprint on the planet, to changing our lifestyles, and therefore also our “dyingstyles”.

According to Recompose, “the environmental impact of conventional burial and cremation are about the same”. In England the last available statistic counts 437,000 of people cremated, which represent around 80% of all deaths. Conventional burial also creates emissions from the manufacture and transport of headstones, caskets, and grave liners, and requires ongoing upkeep of cemeteries. It is clear that with emissions of 235 million lbs and a consumption of more than 45424941.408 litres of fuel (the total UK yearly Petrol consumption is 16.2bn litres for reference) every year in England, the choices we make about our body after death have a price toll and an impact not only on our deepest and most intimate feelings, but also and above all on the future of our planet and the people who will live on it after us.

It is therefore no coincidence that this renewed awareness of our impact on the planet has given rise to thought movements around how to reduce the impact of death. The so-called green, or natural, burial refers to the practice of burying an un-embalmed body in a designated green burial cemetery with a simple casket or shroud. Alkaline hydrolysis, also called water cremation, is another process for the disposition of remains.

As I’ve said, at NICA we are interested in understanding the dynamics of innovation around the phenomena of life, identifying in advance the trends that may lead to radical changes in our habits and customs, understanding their dynamics and trajectories to provide our clients and the organisations that work with us with the tools to intercept both the meaning and the opportunity. Death makes no exception.

“The funeral industry has always been about making your body immune to nature, preserving yourself in spite of it,” said Philip Olson, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a death studies expert. “Processes like the one described before require an acceptance of becoming part of it. “It’s new to think about bodies that way, as a kind of eco-product. It demonstrates a shift in how people are thinking about our relationship to the natural world.”

If more people respect the planet in death, it bodes well for how they’ll treat it while they’re still alive. Following this principle, we have noticed the growth of innovative players who aim not only to treat the bodies after death in an eco-friendlier way, but also, and probably foremost, in raising the awareness on the pollution of death we almost didn’t think about until today.

If we have begun to be indignant about our excessive consumption of water, the impact of plastic straws on the oceans, the pollution generated by cars, or the aerophagy of cows, why should we not care and act about something as certain as death?

And if in India, as early as 1992, the non-profit Mokshda Green Cremation System has been trying to curb the pollution due to Hindus’ long tradition of cremating relatives on an open-air pyre by giving communities access to more fuel-efficient structures for funerary rites, we have recently noticed a trend of innovative enterprises in the eco-friendly management of the body after death.

It is important to understand what the innovation factors are that make us guess that a trend is emerging according to the rules of innovative enterprises.

These are services developed around a patent following a research process carried out in collaboration with academic entities, where business and service models meet an exploration in design, languages and processes never adopted before. In fact, these pioneers have not only embarked on the development of a ‘product’ to be offered to the market, but also, needless to say, with a set of moral principles and rules anchored in the cultural, religious, and legal traditions of a people.

It is no coincidence that one of these, Recompose (whose domain extension is not surprisingly ‘.life’) is based in the state of Washington where the federal administration is one of the most open and (perhaps) forward-looking in matters of life and death. Recompose – whose business promise is ‘Become soil when you die’ and which has just completed a $6.75M funding round – ‘was born from research on the soil cycle. Soil created by Recompose will nurture growth on the same forest floor that inspired its creation, allowing us to give back to the earth that nourishes us all our lives’.

Recompose has developed a complex project that includes a proprietary and patented process called NOR (Natural Organic Reduction) that in May 2019 has been legally approved by Washington Governor’s Jay Inslee signing the SB5001 into law, defining NOR as “the contained accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” Acceleration is one of the factors that make Recompose different from other initiatives. Recompose has developed its process according to the intuitions of its founder, Catherine Spade, who, in an interview with the New York Times over 6 years ago, stated “our bodies have nutrients. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?” Scientists agree that human beings can be composted. “I’m absolutely sure that it can work,” said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University.

Fast forward to today, Recompose has begun operations and launched an entire process around the NOR, including a funeral ceremony, the storage of the body in a series of Hive-shaped vessels designed and patented by the founder and placed in a kind of greenhouse, as if to represent life and not death, and also created a forest where they could bring the one cubic yard of soil amendment generated by each body, and nurture full-cycle sustainable growth in accordance with the narrative “become soil when you die”.

Photo taken from Recompose website

“Say goodbye with water, not flames” is the way Doola (again, the domain extension is ‘life’), on the other hand, has decided to launch its ‘deathcare’ service, which involves a radically different approach in terms of technology and logic than Recompose, but with the same ‘back to Mother Nature’ objective. This process, named water cremation (it’s also known as resomation, bio cremation, green cremation, and aquamation even though its technical name is alkaline hydrolysis (AH)), is not new per-se, it was originally patented as a method to process animal carcasses into plant food by Amos Herbert Hobson in 1888. It regained some popularity during the mad cow disease epidemic in Europe in the 1990s, and became an approved process in most US states in 2007 when Scottish biochemist Sandy Sullivan installed a machine of his own design at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, starting a company making the machines and calling the process Resomation, now a company based in Pudsey, UK. The energy needed for the average process of alkaline hydrolysis in the form of electricity and gas is less than one fifth of the energy required for a typical flame cremation and the output of the process, different from compost, is a dense brown liquid containing a former body in form of amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts. Different from competitors like Resomation and Aquamation, who seem more dedicated to developing the technology and providing it to the lucrative (and pretty traditional) funeral industry (circa £1billion year) through a very technical and engineering-based approach, Doola is following a different commercial narrative. This one interests us the most, and suggests an end-to-end – ça va sans dire – “handling process: from beginning to end, meaning: no funeral directors, no logistics, and no stress”. In other words, they are entering into the funeral business from the eco-friendly angle, suggesting a fully online process to make it “easy to organize a water cremation”. Doola is not yet operative on the market, but we promise to keep you updated on the development of their offer as soon as this changes to understand more about how online management is structured.

So, is this the future of our death? In the UK, progress continues to be made to introduce water cremation as a safe, natural, and environmentally sustainable end of life option, whilst to date human composting has not been undertaken by local authorities. And so no, the future of how death is managed is not yet in the UK. We suspect it will take some time, and a wide-ranging debate between citizens, professional organisations, politicians, and, of course, the spiritual entities involved. But beyond the personal, ethical, and moral considerations of what to do with our bodies once death has occurred, it is perhaps time to ask ourselves what the real alternatives are, what are the actions we as individuals can take to avoid contributing to polluting the planet, whose death, unfortunately, seems not as remote as we might imagine.

Apparently, there is no solution to manage its disposal. Or rather, there will be no need.