8 burial alternatives that give new meaning to 'life after death'

Oct 19, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. ET

Why go for traditional burial or cremation when you can get turned into a gemstone or become part of a coral reef?

For at least 100,000 years, humans have buried their dead — it’s a societal custom that we accept as totally normal. But who has not at least once let out a tiny shudder at the prospect of themselves or their loved ones being stowed underground forevermore? Almost half of people who die in the U.S. are cremated, and the number is going up, due mostly to the high cost of funerals and burial, which run from about $7,000 to $10,000. But both burial and cremation raise environmental risks: Neither the millions of gallons of formaldehyde-containing embalming fluid used to preserve bodies nor the toxins that cremation can emit are especially great for the earth. Herein, some creative alternatives.

Become a tree

You choose the type of tree while you’re still alive (imagine the conversation: "I’d like to be a magnolia." "I see you more as a Douglas fir, Grandpa."). When you die, you’re buried in the fetal position in a biodegradable egg-shaped capsule, and the tree is planted on top. The result is a forest, or "memory park," rather than a field of tombstones. When you consider that we are running out of room for cemeteries, the idea becomes as practical as it is poetic.

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Sleep with the fishes

Coral reefs, known as the "rainforest of the sea," are in severe danger due to overfishing, climate change and other environmental threats. Eternal Reefs allows you to be part of the solution to reef degradation: They cast the cremated remains of your loved one into an environmentally safe concrete ball that is used to create a new marine habitat.

Get launched into the stars

It’s still prohibitively expensive for most people to go to space while alive, but Celestis will launch a "symbolic portion" of your cremains into space for a mere $1,295. (If you want to enter the lunar orbit or deep space, that's $12,500.) When you take into account that we are, after all made of stardust, being returned to space does seem like the dreamiest interpretation possible of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

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Become a diamond

Yes, your remains can literally be turned into a precious gem. A Swiss company takes the carbon left in your ashes and subjects it to the same environmental processes that create actual diamonds. You can select the cut and weight just as you would an engagement ring diamond, which is either creepy or a beautiful echo of another rite of passage, depending on how you look at it.

Get poured down the drain

Marketed as an environmental safer alternative to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis (known as "bio-cremation" or "desomation") applies heat and lye to break down the corpse into a brownish liquid that can be safely poured down the drain. It’s a little disconcerting to think we can be this easily disposed of, but no more disconcerting than when you think about the way we deal with our dead now.