“It’s really a western culture thing, this death denial," says Emily Nelson. "Where we just don’t really think about it or talk about it and it’s just become rather taboo.”
Nelson, the founder and CEO of Be a Tree Cremation in Denver, believes there is more to death than traditional burials.
“Our current conventional method of burial and cremation really perpetuates the idea that somehow we’re separate from nature as humans. We’re not…we don’t need to be preserved in any way,” Nelson says.
Water cremation creates life after death
Be a Tree cremation partners with Half Moon Farm to create life after death.
Be a Tree Cremation, the second facility of its kind in Colorado, specializes in the process of water cremation—technically known as "alkaline hydrolysis." The process, which was legalized in Colorado in 2011, is surprisingly simple.
“The decedent gets loaded directly into this vessel,” says Nelson, motioning to a large cylindrical metal tube behind her. Then, water is pumped into the vessel along with a small amount of potassium hydroxide. The mixture mimics the natural decomposition process and gently dissolves the body.
When the process is finished, all that remains in the vessel are skeletal remains and things like gold teeth and artificial joints from surgeries such as knee replacements. The skeletal remains are ground into ashes for the family. Other items are safely recycled.
The process also creates a nutrient-dense liquid branded as “Tree Tea.” Family members have the option to purchase small bottles of the liquid to use as nourishment for their plants at home.
Nelson says water cremation is one of the most natural and environmentally-friendly ways to return to the earth, which is what originally inspired her to research the process.
“At Be a Tree Cremation, we really have two goals,” she explains. “To help people live on through nature, and to reduce the carbon footprint of the funeral industry, which is not insignificant.”
The process of water cremation uses about 90 percent less energy than typical flame cremations, Nelson explains, adding that flame cremations also emit the same amount of CO2 as a 600-mile road trip.
“We have no emissions or smoke coming from our building,” says Nelson.
Prior to opening Be a Tree in Sun Valley, Nelson worked with a corporation that owns over 2,000 funeral homes across the county.
“At that point I really saw behind the curtain of conventional burial and cremation work, and just didn’t feel right about it. I just knew there had to be a different option for people,” Nelson says.
Cremations have only recently surpassed burials as the most popular end-of-life option. According to 2019 estimates from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), by 2040 "the cremation rate in the U.S. is projected to be 78.7% while the burial rate is predicted to be just 15.7%, signifying that cremation is no fading trend."
A traditional fire cremation is estimated to produce an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per person. As journalist Eleanor Cummins noted in a report this month for WIRED, that is a higher figure than the per capita emissions of Afghanistan. Burials are not much better. The embalming and burial process can release harmful toxins into the earth.
Be a Tree Cremation currently has one water cremation system and works with about 10 clients per month. From start to finish, the process takes about 18 hours.
“Realistically we can really only work with one person a day,” says Nelson. “Once we hit one person a day in the month, we’ll really be at capacity here and start looking at other ways that we can serve more people.”
Nelson says Be a Tree's packages start at $2,250 and they include water cremation, transportation and a basic urn. That is significantly cheaper than the average burial process. A casket alone costs an average of $2,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In 2019, the cost of burials in Colorado averaged $6,907 while the average cremation came out to $4,517, according to data from the NFDA.
While Be a Tree's process is time-consuming, having fewer clients means that Emily and her team can work closely and intentionally with each family. Appointments are often filled with music requested by the decedent’s family, while incense, sage, and candles are lit.
“Even though this is a really technology-driven process, it’s still a person, and it’s still someone’s loved one,” says Nelson.
Apart from what the family takes home, the majority of the liquid is sent to Half Moon Farm in Lakewood to be used on flowers and other non-edible plants. The partnership between Be a Tree Cremation and Half Moon Farm started about a year ago, when both facilities opened.
“It’s one of the healthiest ways in returning us back to the earth,” says Eric Rooney, owner and "chief plant companion" at Half Moon Farm.
“Everything that’s in our fertilizers is what’s in this liquid,” says Rooney. They regularly test the Tree Tea, which is a non-toxic solution of amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap. The exact makeup “will vary from person to person,” says Nelson.
The flowers from Half Moon Farm travel all over Colorado—to weddings, funerals, dinner parties, and a variety of other celebrations.
“It’s an opportunity for people to look at the story of life,” says Rooney, “and this regenerative idea behind us going back to our most physical sense, the earth.”
Alexis Kikoen is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.