No one knows for sure what happens when we die, but a new company is giving the deceased a second life—in the form of trees.
Launched in 2022, Transcend hopes to establish entire forests offering tree burials for both people and pets beginning in 2023.
It may sound far-fetched, but Transcend’s founder and CEO, Matthew Kochmann, says he hasn’t reinvented the wheel.
Instead, he’s helping people—and burials—return to their roots.
“This is the oldest form of burial,” Kochmann says. “This isn’t reinventing anything. What we’re advocating for is putting a body naturally in the ground, which was done for millennia.”
It’s a stark departure from traditional casket burials or cremation.
What’s the inspiration and science behind tree burials, and is it truly a sustainable option? Read on to get the details.
Kochmann caught wind of the concept of tree burials several years ago when he learned about the Capsula Mundi project.
The idea, created by Italian designers Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, involves an egg-shaped urn made of biodegradable plastic. Ashes from human remains can be placed in the urn, which would then be lowered into the ground and nurture a tree.
“I thought, ‘Of course, that’s how I want to go. I want to go back into the earth and be planted as a tree,’” Kochmann says.
Eventually, Kochmann reached out to Capsula Mundi, but was turned off by the cremation aspect—what he thought of as the “lesser of two evils” compared to a casket burial.
“It involves the burning of fossil fuels to incinerate the body that otherwise would’ve [provided] rich nutrients in the ground,” he says. “Your last gesture is being a fossil fuel emitter.”
On the other hand, planting trees accomplishes the opposite.
According to research presented by Zurich-based professor Thomas Crowther at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), planting 1.2 trillion trees could neutralize CO2 emissions.
For Kochmann, the proverbial seeds were planted.
It dawned on him that other people were probably looking for tree burials that didn’t involve cremations that, if done correctly, could drive down carbon emissions.
“Death is a common denominator in everybody on the planet. If we can find a way to link reforestation with death, that’s a world-changing idea,” he says. “If you take land and chop it into sub-dividable parcels and sell it to people so they can plant themselves as trees when they die, you can start re-foresting swaths of land with death.”
Kochmann points out that tree burial is carbon-negative, which makes it a positive for Mother Nature and those who want to be more sustainable in death than they were in life.
Plus, he isn’t the only one looking for a greener way to die.
According to a 2022 consumer report by National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 60.5 percent of respondents said the prospect of “green funerals” interested them, citing potential environmental benefits and cost savings.
Embalming rose in popularity during the Civil War when there was an increasing need to return soldiers who were killed in action long distances for proper burial, Kochmann says.
Embalming involves injecting fluids into the deceased body to delay decomposition, usually a solution of formaldehyde in water. The process allowed the soldiers’ bodies to make it home, regardless of weather conditions or distance.
President Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the most public early example of embalming. His body was embalmed so it could travel from D.C. to Illinois as part of a two-week funeral.
“What you start to realize as you dig into this is, in the U.S., our burial practices have gotten away from our roots,” Kochmann says.
Today, local laws vary, but the tide is slowly turning. In December 2022, New York became the sixth state to legalize human composting.
Other states had legalized human composting since 2019, including:
- Washington state
Unlike human composting, tree burials are legal in all 50 states.
Kochmann says the current hang-ups involve confirming forest locations and working through local laws to ensure Transcend can provide perpetual protection for each site.
The idea of a tree burial may sound interesting, but how does it work?
Here’s the breakdown of Transcend’s process, step-by-step:
- Dig a hole about 3.5 feet deep in a legally-designated area.
- Bury the body wrapped in biodegradable flax linen.
- Line the grave with carbonaceous materials, such as hay or woodchips from local suppliers.
- Cover the body with more carbonaceous material and about 1.5 feet of soil.
- Add a layer of ectomycorrhizal and endomycorrhizal fungi (mushrooms that help with decomposition).
- Plant an adolescent tree that’s two to four years old on top.
Kochmann says that the roughly 3.5-foot hole is better for oxygenation than the standard six feet used in traditional burials. The body isn’t altered as in the conventional embalming process, so chemicals won’t seep into the ground.
Composting best practices
As for the carbonaceous materials, one scientist says this step is based on composting.
“In compost, you don’t want too much nitrogen-rich food in there, or it won’t decompose as efficiently,” says Jennifer DeBruyn, PhD, an associate professor of biosystems engineering & soil science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who helped Transcend in an advisory role.
Effective compost uses a balance of green foods containing nitrogen and brown foods containing carbon
“It’s the same idea for the body,” DeBruyn says. “Our bodies are nitrogen-rich, so you want to have the carbon to balance out the nitrogen and help with decomposition.”
DeBruyn says the mushrooms can serve as an extension of the roots and help the tree get nutrients. Using a tree native to the area also increases the positive environmental impact.
Why use an adolescent tree instead of a sapling or an older plant?
“An adolescent tree is hearty enough to take root but young enough to take all the good nutrients coming from our body,” Kochmann says.
From there, the tree will take in nutrients like:
It also releases oxygen into and sequesters carbon from the environment
“Transcend is about planting a tree that, over its lifetime, sequesters lots of carbon every single year,” Kochmann says.
Cost and environmental impact are two of the most commonly cited reasons for looking into tree burials, per the NFDA.
So, how does a tree burial stack up against traditional and cremation?
According to the NFDA, the median cost of a traditional funeral in the U.S. with a viewing and burial was $7,848 USD in 2021.
Meanwhile, a cremation with a funeral came in at a median price tag of about $6,971. To sign up for a tree burial with Transcend—a non-binding agreement—you’ll pay $8,500.
Comparing environmental impact
An increased interest in sustainability is a driving force behind early interest in Transcend’s idea.
“People are interested in lowering their environmental impact and doing things to help with the climate change issue,” DeBruyn says.
It may not come as a surprise that traditional burials aren’t environmentally friendly. A wooden and metal casket take resources to build. Plus, that casket is going into the ground with a slowly-decaying body.
Beyond that, a
The chemicals used in embalming and non-biodegradable materials involved in the burial can get into the soil and water table. Green burials don’t involve embalming, eliminating the possibility that chemicals from the process can seep into the environment.
Cremation is viewed as an environmental-friendly alternative, and the projected number of cremations in 2021 was far larger than that of burials—57.5 percent vs. 36.6 percent, according to the NFDA.
Cremation’s environmental impact is less clear, but Kochmann says it’s like taking a 500-mile car trip.
“The burning process changes the organic carbon in the body into carbon dioxide, so you produce greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide,” says DeBruyn.
On the other hand, Transcend’s concept offers a carbon-negative approach.
“Because there is a tree being planted…it will end up being a carbon-negative process,” DeBruyn says.
Traditional burials have an undeniable carbon footprint.
The chemicals involved in the embalming process and non-biodegradable materials in caskets cause soil and water pollution, while cremation emits greenhouse gases.
Green burials may offer an alternative.
Startup Transcend hopes to offer tree burials in 2023 after untangling the legal red tape, providing a carbon-neutral option for those who want their legacy to involve a positive impact on the planet.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.