At 1:05 a.m. on a crisp February morning in Boulder, 52-year-old Sheila Luna laid her head back on the hospital bed in her moonlit living room, closed her eyes and took her last breath.
Her death did not come without warning. Ever since the day 14 months earlier when doctors diagnosed her with late-stage colon cancer, Sheila and her husband Charles had been planning for what would happen next.
A quiet and pragmatic scientist who shifted to medical herbalism late in her career, Sheila had always felt at peace forging through the wilderness with a backpack or sitting cross-legged on a rock by a stream. In death, the last thing she wanted was to pollute the ground with chemically treated casket wood or foul the air with toxic cremation emissions.
Charles, a quick-witted marketing exec, had loved her desperately from the moment they met in college 27 years earlier, through their adventures across 19 countries and the raising of their two daughters. To him, the thought of handing her still body over to a stranger in the night was incomprehensible.
So they chose to do things differently.
There would be no middle-of-the-night call for a hearse, no hired embalmer, no velvet-lined casket.
Instead, Charles would keep Sheila at home, ensuring her body stayed cool with dry ice as he and other loved ones personally washed, anointed and dressed her. Friends and family would say their goodbyes during a prayerful ceremony in the same rustic cabin at the base of the Flatirons where she had spent her final year. And when the time did come to bid her flesh farewell, Charles would arrange for a “water cremation” to transform her remains into what he described as “incredibly nutrient-rich fertilizer that would otherwise just go to waste.”
“We hear a lot of great birth stories, but how often have you heard a really great death story?” Charles said. “Sheila deserved a good death story.”
Charles Luna is among an increasing number of loved ones opting to eschew the conventional $16 billion funeral industry prescription for death care in favor of what they view as more intimate, less polluting rites of passage. Propelled in part by aging baby boomers facing death with the same counterculture ethos with which they faced big ag and big oil, the alternative death care movement is thriving, with the Green Burial Council — a California-based nonprofit founded in 2005 — now certifying more than 323 cemeteries, funeral homes and products in the U.S. and Canada.
Colorado is emerging as a pioneer:
In August, the state became only the second, behind Washington, to legalize natural organic reduction, aka “body composting,” which in the span of about four months turns a human body into rich black soil. In 2019, Colorado also became one of the first to offer water cremation, which proponents say uses about one-tenth the energy of a conventional cremation and emits fewer pollutants.
Meanwhile, the state’s first “conservation burial ground,” the Colorado Burial Preserve, opened last year in the foothills of Florence, enabling families to bury their loved ones in a simple biodegradable shroud — no embalming fluids, steel caskets, vaults or lawn-mowing allowed. Families, if they so wish, are invited to close the grave themselves, the collective shoveling serving as a powerful act of closure.
And in the small mountain town of Crestone, about a half-dozen individuals are laid to rest each year at the nation’s only public, open-air cremation pyre.
“When the family is taking the torches and going to light the fire it is, as you can imagine, a very powerful moment,” said Stephanie Gaines, director of the Crestone End of Life Project, which is now working with a nonprofit in Maine to start a similar effort there.
The movement is not without opposition.
The Catholic Church in the United States has expressed opposition to water cremation and body composting, saying they are not in keeping with the catechism teaching to “treat the body with respect.”
“This method is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies,” wrote the New York State Catholic Conference, in a recent opposition to a bill in that state to legalize body composting.
Others are simply grossed out.
“There is definitely an ick factor that some families might find unsettling,” said Jack Mitchell, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, the world’s largest funeral industry trade group.
Nonetheless, nearly 60% of respondents in the association’s 2021 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study said they would be interested in exploring a green funeral option, and 52% said they have attended a funeral at a non-traditional location, such as a home.
Since The Natural Funeral, Colorado’s first holistic funeral home, opened its doors in 2018 in downtown Lafayette, it has served more than 300 families. And a handful of others, including Denver-based Feldman Mortuary — one of the state’s oldest Jewish mortuaries — are beginning to embrace not only the new offerings, but frank discussions about them long before death comes.
“There is a different way to approach death and dying than the way we have been taught, which is to fear it and not talk about it,” said Vanessa Johnston, an end-of-life doula who founded the Colorado End-of-life Collaborative in 2020 to help people navigate the growing array of options. “If you are interested in dying with dignity and grace in the way that best suits you and your family, we have more options here than most anywhere.”
The funeral industrial complex
Every 12 seconds someone in the United States dies, kicking off a series of tough decisions that can result in financial hardship and, for some families, a sense of powerlessness. It can also take a heavy toll on the environment.
The average conventional burial in the U.S. today runs $7,848 (not including cemetery or headstone costs), according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Body composting, by comparison, costs between $5,500 in Washington and $7,900 in Colorado, and water cremation can run $1,700 to $3,900 depending on where you live..
According to research by a Cornell University scientist, Americans collectively bury about 1.6 million tons of concrete for funerary vaults, 90,000 tons of steel for caskets, and 20 million board feet of casket wood annually — enough wood to build about 1,600 homes. For the roughly half who opt for a conventional cremation, the procedure is estimated to emit the energy equivalent of driving a car 4,800 miles and emits between 1 and 6 grams of mercury in the atmosphere, depending on how many fillings or implants the person had.
Then there’s the somewhat grisly practice of embalming.
Popularized during the Civil War to keep the bodies of U.S. servicemen preserved long enough to transport them home for a funeral, embalming remains commonplace today to make bodies look their best for a viewing. (Contrary to popular belief, it is not required by law as long as the body is either disposed of or refrigerated within 24 hours.)
Embalmers flush all bodily fluids from the corpse and replace them with formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) to plump and pinken the skin and prevent it from decaying. Not only does 4.3 million gallons of that fluid end up buried each year, the process also puts those tasked with the job at risk. While research is mixed, one study showed that embalmers have an eight-fold higher risk of leukemia.
“Embalming can be like an amazing magic trick. It can get people looking their best and give the family the time to correct that last memory at a viewing and that can be very meaningful,” said Emily Miller, a former mortician and funeral director who founded the Colorado Burial Preserve.
But, she said, funeral directors often call for, and charge for, embalming as part of a larger package when there is no viewing planned and no real practical need. Sometimes, Miller said she suspects, grieving loved ones, asked by a trusted funeral director to sign on the dotted line, might not even know they’re paying for it. Roughly half of those surveyed by the funeral directors association said they were not aware that embalming wasn’t necessary.
“A lot of these chemicals get injected into the dead and laid in the ground for tenuous reasons,” Miller said.
Mitchell, of the funeral directors association, acknowledged that the industry, like any other, has some unscrupulous actors. But as a sixth-generation funeral director, he said the vast majority, like him, are in the business because they genuinely want to help families through what is one of the hardest times of their life.
He’s open to novel forms of disposition, as are most in the industry, he said. But as far as viewing that casket wood as waste, he sees it differently.
“To countless people for countless years it has been very important to have a place to come and view their loved ones,” Mitchell said. “They would probably argue that there is great value in using that wood for that purpose.”
He welcomes a return to the home funeral, which was long the norm. But he said he’s “leery” of families caring for the dead at home without embalming.
“What nature does to our bodies after we die… it varies from person to person,” he said, recalling how the tradition of sending flowers to a home after a death grew out of a need to overcome unwanted odors. “With embalming you can take control of that. Without it, it leaves too much to chance.”
The Natural Funeral does not offer embalming.
Instead, loved ones can learn to preserve the body with dry ice and prepare it with anointing oils, as Charles Luna did. For many families, this allows for a less abrupt goodbye.
“We don’t look away from death here,” said co-founder Seth Viddal, seated next to co-founder Karen Van Vuuren inside the pastel-hued reception room of the funeral home, surrounded by wild orchids and colorful, hand-crafted urns. “We look at the reality of what is before us, we accept it, and we try to bring beauty into our rituals in other ways.”
Thirty miles away, in a gritty industrial park in Arvada, he also takes a novel approach to disposing of those bodies.
Water to water, soil to soil
The body arrived at 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday in late February.
He was a large man, well over 6 feet tall and weighing 300 pounds, so Viddal politely excused himself and lent a hand to his two full-time “cremationists.”
The three of them gently lifted their latest client from the transport vehicle into a plain wooden vessel crafted of blue-tinted beetle-kill pine and lined with a fine layer of wood chips, aged alfalfa and straw.
A biodegradable cotton shroud concealed the decedent’s identity. But he was a pioneer — one of the first in the state and only about 100 nationwide to have his body composted.
“This is home to some of the most exciting funeral work in the world,” proclaimed Viddal, as he toured his visitors around a facility that has performed roughly 300 water cremations since introducing the practice to the state, and provided body composting to 30 others.
Viddal was dressed sharp as always — his long gray beard neat, his head slick-bald, his blue eyes open wide as he described his life’s work.
“We see a huge shift happening, and it is driven by the funeral consumer,” he said. “People are recognizing, ‘Hey, I lived as an environmental activist. I recycled. I grew my own food. I composted. Why on earth would I live this purposeful life and teach my children these values, and then do something that completely disregards that ecological ethos at my death?’”
He apologized for the industrial look of the place: a collection of converted warehouses nestled between an electronics recycling facility and an auto salvage yard.
It is, he was aware, a stark contrast from the artfully decorated funeral home where he consults with families.
But it was hard enough in 2018 to convince the Lafayette neighbors to allow them to open there. Opposition abounded. Neighbors complained to the City Council that it would be “unsettling” to have “hearses” and “dead bodies” next to quaint ice cream stores and brewpubs.
He understood. People are still afraid to talk about death, much less have it in their face. So he and his partners opted to do this part of their business at a more discrete location.
“You could imagine that what we do here wouldn’t fly very well there,” Viddal said, as he led his visitors through a doorway labeled “alkaline hydrolysis.”
First invented in 1888 by a British farmer who wanted to come up with a way to quickly turn deceased livestock into something beneficial to crops, the process, also known as water cremation, chemically mimics and accelerates the process that naturally occurs when a body is buried.
A body is placed in a stainless steel vessel, and a switch is flipped to make it rock back and forth, bathing it in a mix of warm water and potassium hydroxide to break down skin, organs and bones. Inorganic materials, like pacemakers, knee replacements and fillings are removed, their metal recycled. A final chemical step adjusts the pH and eliminates any remaining pathogens.
In all, it takes about three hours to turn a 250-pound body into 67.5 gallons of liquid nutrient-rich fertilizer, a small portion of which is returned to the family, along with a small bag of solid remains.
The remaining liquid, if families so choose, is comingled with that of others and donated to farmers, who spread it on their fields.
Body composting is similar, using biology instead of chemistry, resulting in soil rather than water and taking considerably longer.
During the February “laying in” ceremony, Viddal gently spread a final layer of what he called “bulking material” — corn cobs and stalks, more straw, alfalfa and wood chips — over the top of the covered body. Next came a mix of bacteria-rich liquid, or compost tea, to kick-start the decomposition.
Then he closed the lid.
Over the next four months, the air-tight wooden vessel will join the others in a nearby curing room, natural microbial activity inside surging the temperature to as high as 132 degrees and thoroughly eliminating any pathogens. (The state of Colorado still prohibits the soil remains to be sold or used to grow food for human consumption.)
When the lid is opened, a rich, black soil will be all that remains.
Blaze of glory
Two-hundred miles to the west, in the eclectic mountain community of Crestone, the community gathers a few times each year for a different, equally unconventional form of disposition.
The fire crackles. The air smells of juniper and incense. Thick smoke and orange flames rise, a cirque of snow-capped fourteeners towering in the background.
On the pyre on Dec. 17, 2017, concealed beneath a cotton shroud and a pile of pine boughs, rested the body of Marv Mattis, a gregarious Brooklyn-born music industry executive who died three days earlier at the age of 87.
Over the previous 72 hours, his son Michael Mattis and daughter Elizabeth Mattis prepared and cared for his corpse at his nearby home, two speakers near his bed playing an instrumental Buddhist mantra in the front room as Marv’s many friends filed in to pay respects.
The turnout at his cremation was impressive, too, with friends and family crowding around the pyre to share funny stories about a man his children described as “extremely extroverted” and a “bit of a maverick”
He wouldn’t have had this day any other way, they recalled in the spring of 2022. They plan to hold a similar service for their mother, who is ill, when the time comes, and will choose the same path for their own disposition
“It wasn’t this heavy thing at all,” recalled Michael, of Marv’s service. “It was of course tinged with sadness, but the cremation itself felt joyful.”
More than 75 Saguache County residents have been cremated on the open-air pyre in Crestone since 1998, when loved ones set the body of Ann D. Alves Doubilet, a devout Tibetan Buddhist, aflame in her own backyard.
Such open-air cremation has been commonplace for centuries across India, Nepal and other countries with rich Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Funeral pyres blaze in full public view along sacred waterways like the Ganges River, families chanting alongside them as they stoke flames viewed as liberating the soul from the body.
In the U.S., in contrast, cremation has only come into favor in recent decades: Less than a quarter of individuals opted for it in 1999 (today more than half do), and some Western traditions still associate flame with damnation, or the holocaust. It is typically done privately, in an industrial incinerator, with no option for loved ones to participate in the ritual — their remaining bones reduced to fine ash by a mechanical crusher called a cremulator.
In Crestone, home to a rich fabric of spiritual traditions, including Hindu, Native American and Tibetan Buddhist, the community sought something different.
In the early years, with the blessing of the local coroner and fire departments, a small group used a pickup truck to shuttle what they playfully refer to as the “porta-pyre” (essentially a pile of cinder blocks and a metal grate) from place to place to facilitate a half-dozen cremations.
“I just kept thinking, there has to be a better way,” recalled Gaines, director of the Crestone End of Life Project, who was instrumental in the early days and has played a hand in every cremation since.
By 2006, the group set out to establish a permanent site. They distributed petitions at community picnics, lobbied the local coroner and fire officials, went before the county planning commission, and filled out reams of paperwork for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs. Then, they were met with a stroke of luck: With the funeral laws in Colorado sunsetting and the state industry hovering in a regulatory gap, they faced remarkably little resistance.
“There was this window of opportunity where we were allowed to enter, and we have become a fabric of the community ever since,” Gaines said.
In 2007, the Crestone End of Life Project created a permanent site on a donated property set amid high desert sage, peaks towering above.
Since then, Colorado’s statutes have been revised and made far more stringent, prompting the End of Life Project, which runs the pyre, to adapt to meet new regulatory requirements.
“Under the new statutes, there is no way we could have operated as a business,” Gaines said.
Today, the End of Life Project operates purely as a nonprofit using only volunteer labor. It may not transport, embalm or refrigerate bodies as a mortuary can. Only residents or landowners in Sauguache County may use the service, and those who wish to must sign up on a registry well in advance, assuring that they have a backup plan should adverse weather or fire danger make open-air cremation impossible.
A second, private open-air pyre already exists at the Drala Mountain Center at Red Feather Lakes west of Fort Collins. And one nonprofit, Good Ground Great Beyond in Dresden, Maine, is currently lobbying its state legislature to legalize a similar open-air pyre there.
But as special as the ritual is, Gaines is doubtful open-air cremation could take off broadly nationwide in the current regulatory environment.
“The fact is, this is a very unique community,” she said. “They really wanted this.”
When need for a cremation does arise, a remarkably well-oiled machine of two dozen volunteers kicks into gear, guided by a 45-page manual Gaines referred to as “Cremation for Dummies.” One team supports the grieving family. Another group handles parking.
Some prepare the fire, stacking a quarter of a cord in a single layer upon the body, along with juniper boughs and a splash of kerosine, before inviting the family forward to set it ablaze. As it burns, reaching as much as 1,500 degrees over the course of three hours, another volunteer churns the coals.
Sometimes, as the fire dies down, and the remains settle into the blackened grate, a bleached bone will surface, catching the eye of a family member who requests to take it home the next morning — a relic of their beloved.
“This is how we learn how to do death — to be around it,” said Elizabeth Mattis, who gathered some bones and ashes from the cooling pyre after her father Marv’s cremation. “I think in doing so, it makes you less afraid.”
Back to the earth
Just after 2 p.m. on the first day of spring 2022, the sky was a flawless cobalt blue, and birdsong filled the air.
At the Colorado Burial Preserve, a scenic, 65-acre slice of former rangeland south of Florence, a small crowd began to gather, filing in to place flowers and cards on a table at the front and take their seats on hay bales as a cellist played “Oh Danny Boy” in the background.
An officiant took the stage to acknowledge the importance of the day — the spring equinox, a day of renewal. He then spoke the name of the young man this day was about: Joseph Poisson was the first person in the state to have his remains composted.
He loved the outdoors — fly fishing, skiing and skateboarding any chance he got. He was 19.
The crowd took a moment of silence to honor him.
Then Viddal tipped over the contents of a large wooden vessel, which he referred to as a chrysalis, spilling out a large mound of black soil. Friends and family lined up to rake it into the earth, literally rejuvenating a land long denuded by grazing and symbolically providing nourishment to a movement whose time has come, Miller said.
“Of all of the good that people are wanting to do by having their body composted, we can double down on that by using those remains to improve the environmental health of the property here,” said Miller, who has volunteered to take any extra composted remains as fertilizer for the new burial ground. “This is the beginning of something.”
A final homecoming
More than two years have passed since Sheila Luna’s death.
Charles stood at one of their favorite Boulder trailheads on a crisp spring morning, a few blocks from the home they shared together, which he has since left. His voice still cracked when he recalled those intense final days.
Weeks after her death, a half-dozen silver containers — what Charles wryly described as “one-gallon paint cans full of Sheila” — arrived at their Boulder home.
A few of her close friends came by the house to ask: Could they take some home?
“They were like, ‘Hey, man. It’s free fertilizer.’ Honestly, it was fitting. Sheila would have been really tickled.”
Due to the pandemic, he has yet to host the memorial service he had imagined. He purchased a gourd, hand-painted with orange flowers, to place her solid remains in when the time feels right. That time hasn’t come yet.
And he has plans for the remaining water. Perhaps a sprinkle here or there, he said, keeping the details to himself as he looked to the mountains.
“I told her before she died: I said, ‘You know, I can take this anywhere in the world you want.’ But she didn’t want that,” he said. “She loved it here.”