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Choosing our disposal

What do we do with our bodies when we die? Who, what, where ... here are some details of what’s available here in Southwest Colorado. There are so many more choices now, in our more environmentally conscious world.

There is the traditional burial, where the body is embalmed with formaldehyde-based fluid, and placed in a steel or wooden casket underground with a concrete vault. Thirty-seven percent of Americans choose this option. However, it is quite costly ($7,000 to $30,000) and toxic to the earth (concrete and embalming fluid).

There is also the traditional cremation, where fire is used for a thermal dissolution process. Fifty-six percent of Americans choose this option. It is cheaper than a traditional burial ($1,500 to $2,500), and loved ones retain the ashes for ceremony. However, this too is costly to the environment, with the high use of fossil fuels emitting 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly. The burning also releases sulfur dioxide, heavy metals and mercury into the air, and the cremated remains are also toxic.

Many of us are more interested in a green burial these days. The body is not embalmed and is buried underground in a simple casket or shroud. The usual cost is $2,000 to $4,000. All the materials are biodegradable, but this process may need to happen quickly. I’ve attended two of these recently and they were lovely.

Now, there is water cremation, also legal in Colorado. A process using an alkaline solution is used with water, heat and sometimes pressure and agitation, to accelerate natural decomposition, leaving bone fragments and a neutral liquid called effluent. This decomposition is the same as that which occurs during burial, just sped up dramatically by the chemicals. The remaining effluent is sterile, with no tissue or DNA left after the process. It is discharged with all other wastewater to city water systems. This choice is eco-friendly but is only legal in 19 states as of now. The cost is $2,500 to $3,900.

Ryan Phelps at Hood Mortuary represents the new era of funeral professionals. He is looking into purchasing this system, and says it will be available within a couple of years to us here. After a long conversation with him, I believe he wants to keep up with our new attitude on using the most nontoxic processes we can.

In Colorado, there is also human composting, only legal in six states. This is the process of breaking down human remains into usable compost or soil by use of alfalfa and straw. Over a 45-day process (or longer in colder weather), the body is transformed into nutrient-rich soil. It is a regenerative and sustainable practice, preventing pollution, saving energy, reducing greenhouse gasses and it creates fertile soil. I believe it is only available in Denver. The cost is $5,500 to $7,900.

There is always a science donation to either a medical school or research facility. This greatly contributes to advancements, has a minimal cost and normally includes cremation after the research. This is usually free. Check with the anatomical board of Colorado.

Lastly, there is the open pyre, a personalized ritual and sacred celebration in community. It is only available in Crestone, and one must be a resident there. Sounds pretty ancient and wild!

So, those are our choices. We have two mortuaries in La Plata County. They do the work of retrieving the body and doing whatever is needed in order to get it to the final process of burial or cremation. Phelps says Hood does the whole process, including finding a burial plot if that is the choice. He calls himself the “family secretary,” taking care of all needs. He also does cremation on site.

If one is researching their own cemetery plot, Greenmont Cemetery still requires a plate or whole vault, not entirely a green burial site. The city is working on an area for this which will be available in two to three years. Hermosa, Crestview, Ignacio East and West, and the Florida Cemetery do not require vaults. Colorado Burial Preserve is a conservation project dedicated to green burials in Florence.

Hood sells a cardboard box for about $150 and also a bamboo casket. It will refrigerate a body for two weeks if one dies in the winter and there needs to be time to defrost the ground for burial. Refrigeration does not require embalming.

If you live out in the county, you can be buried on your ranch or farm, but there are many regulations you must follow.

It is good to think about these things now and to make our wishes known to our family. And may we all rest in peace, sometime, somewhere and somehow.

Martha McClellan has lived in Durango since 1993 and has been an educator, consultant and writer. Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.