The lack of burial spaces is leading entrepreneurs to come up with out-of-the-box alternatives such as bio-burials, virtual graves and space disposal.
Mankind has been burying its dead since time immemorial. But what happens when we run out of burial space on a planet that is also running out of space for the living?
A new generation of options are being pioneered by enterprising businesses that could change the way we send off loved ones. For example, San Francisco-based Elysium Space describes itself as a “memorial spaceflight” company planning to send the ashes of dead people into orbit, hitching on to one of South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rockets.
Closer home, there are alternative on-the-ground solutions being looked at. A South African startup, Biotree.earth, produces biodegradable urns made out of natural plant fibers and materials that aid in fertilizing soil and neutralizing the pH levels of ashes, creating a healthy environment to grow trees.
It was founded by 60-year-old Dereck Holmes and 28-year-old Christo Cilliers. Generations apart, they are on the same page when it comes to life and death matters.
Holmes, who already owns a logistics company, never thought he would find himself in the business of death and funerals.
“The whole concept of Biotree.earth is that it celebrates the life of a person and not the death and you can see it manifest in the tree of life and [it’s] not a piece of stone in the ground,” says Holmes.
He has four children and four grandchildren and is Biotree’s CEO. Cilliers left his advertising business to start Biotree.earth and is now its Managing Director.
“I feel that the funeral industry is very dated, our practices are very dated and they are not considerate of the environment at all. And I just believe that there’s a time and space, that is now, to start addressing that industry and create a more sustainable alternative,” says Cilliers.
The inception of the business was when he had a light-bulb moment about an alternative to conventional burials and cremation.
“Cremation in itself is not necessarily sustainable because when we cremate a body, there is still a carbon offset that we need to deal with because we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” he says.
“One adult tree produces about 170kg of oxygen a year. And then I went ‘but is that enough to offset what we are doing with cremation’?”
The idea was to double that effect by growing a tree for every body cremated.
He developed and tested the product for two years and then approached Holmes with the idea.
Coincidentally, Holmes, who owns a farm next to the Vaal River in South Africa, was also thinking of an alternative way to bury his animals.
“Chris came to see me simultaneously and I told him, ‘look I’m interested in creating a biodegradable urn for animals’. He had ones that were for humans. So we said, ‘how can we combine this’.”
Holmes invested in Cillier’s business idea and the two ventured into completely new turf selling biodegradable urns suitable for humans and animals and in 2015, they started operations.
They tested out their first animal bio urn on one of Holmes’ farm animals, a pet duck named Gosling in 2016.
They cremated the duck, put the ashes into the base of the urn, dug a hole and placed the urn in the ground.
They planted a lavender seed to celebrate the life of the duck, and it grew into a lavender shrub.
The trial was a success and the same year, Holmes buried a chicken named Henrietta, and in 2017, he buried a duck named Norman using the bio urns.
Fiona Kantor from Wynburg, a suburb in Cape Town, lost her mother in 2015 and cremated her.
After researching bio burials, she came across Biotree.earth and purchased an urn. A year later, her dad fell ill and also passed away. He was cremated.
She then placed both her parents’ ashes in the same urn.
“It’s almost bringing them back to life in a way… It was more [about being] closer to them spiritually and have a place we could visit, and contribute to the environment,” Kantor tells FORBES AFRICA.
She planted an erythrina lysistemon, known as the common coral tree, that’s bright red in color, in the urn.
“At the moment, mom and dad are in a very beautiful green pot in my patio,” she says happily.
In a sense, the words ‘family tree’ take on a new meaning here.
Cilliers was astounded by Kantor’s story and says: “That’s one of the things where someone really thought out-of-the-box and used the product to make it something unique to their story.”
The pet urns go for R2,290 ($152) a piece and the human urns for R2,490 ($166). Biotree.earth has also grown to a staff of 10.
Trees of life
On touching, the urn feels plastic but it is made of natural plant fibers that bio-degrade in the soil after about two months, depending on soil and weather conditions.
The ashes go into biodegradable bags and are placed in the base of the urn. This prevents the ashes’ alkalinity from damaging the plant’s roots as it grows. The top of the urn gets re-attached and 800ml of water is added to expand a soil disk inside. A seed can then be planted.
In addition to the coral tree, other locally-conducive tree seed options include bolusanthus speciosus known as elephant’s wood, acacia tortilis known as umbrella thorn, cytisus scoparius known as the common broom, castanea sativa known as sweet chestnut, and quercus robur known as the English oak.
Once the seed has germinated, the urn is planted in the ground.
Cilliers attests he has never received any negative feedback about a plant failing to germinate. The trees can be planted in backyards so long as they are not on private land or in a botanical garden.
Can you actually become a tree after death?
Professor Cas Wepener, a theologian and religious studies scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has done research on rituals in the Christian religion and work pertaining to death.
“People’s beliefs and views concerning death have changed quite a lot and what we call future hope, ‘eschatology’, in theological terms has also changed and it has changed from ideas about heaven to ideas about better ecology,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
He says that the planting of a tree symbolizes different things in different cultures and shows something about their faith. But there are different views.
From a scientific perspective, Professor Mary Scholes from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that it is impossible for ashes or for a dead body, if buried close to a tree, to generate energy which could be used by the tree.
Ash is made up of magnesium, calcium and potassium. “Energy is defined in physical terms and ash does not meet this definition. If someone wants to believe that energy is generated in a spiritual way, they are perfectly entitled to their opinion,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
A multi-billion rand industry
Due to the many different cultures within the South African context, Cilliers’ and Holmes’ biggest challenge is to change the perceptions around burials.
“The funeral industry is a very tight-knit group… when someone new steps into that and poses direct competition, it is not always accepted. So it has been a very difficult journey to get people to accept the idea. It has been a very difficult journey to get the product out to consumers,” admits Cilliers.
“I feel like there’s a very big monopoly in the funeral industry that’s not right. You know, when we are benefitting from people’s death, that’s not right.”
Cilliers says Biotree has seen a growth of 21% from February last year to this February. They have also expanded into seven countries including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Twentynine-year-old Lethi Mngadi is one prospective client buying in to the concept of bio-burials.
“Before I used to think cremations [were a] ‘no’. But now I’m like ‘let me just donate all my organs, get cremated’ and I know that my family has control over what they do with me,” she says.
She is the marketing coordinator for Doves, a funeral provider in southern Africa, and has been working in the funeral business for three years.
One sunny spring afternoon in September, FORBES AFRICA visits the Doves funeral home in Randburg, a residential town in Johannesburg.
There are spring flowers and roses in the gardens surrounding the main office.
But these aren’t just your normal garden flowers, they are home to ashes buried in clay urns.
“Underneath each of these rose bushes, there is someone,” says Willie Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen, the branch manager of Doves’ Randburg branch.
He works with Mngadi and has been part of the funeral business for over 30 years.
“The funeral business is a multi-billion rand industry,” he says.
According to Hippo, a financial services provider, there are more than 100,000 burial societies in South Africa and about 18.9 million South African adults are covered by a funeral plan.
They say the biggest expense when organizing a funeral is the coffin or casket.
An average casket could cost around R8,000 ($533) while top-of-the-range coffins could sell for between R37,500 ($2,500) and R50,000 ($3,332) or more. The grave would range from R1,500 ($100) to R6,000 ($400) and a headstone can cost from R1,500 to R7,000 ($467).
Conservatively, all of the above could approximately cost R40,500 ($2,700), whilst a cremation could total up to approximately R7,000 ($467). A private cremation can cost around R5,000 ($300) while a chapel cremation starts at around R9,000 ($600).
Thankfully, preferences are changing.
“Most families would prefer not to leave a carbon footprint,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen. Mngadi agrees: “I think it’s also the millennials, especially in the black culture, we always want to bury. But now our generation is starting to be more educated about what’s going on. Because you are going to be burying your parents, you are now more educated and informed about all the different options.”
The prevailing problem in South Africa and many parts of the world is that burial space is limited.
A 2013 survey by BBC LocalRadio indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.
“By 2025, we won’t have burial space left,” agrees Cilliers.
As per news reports in South Africa earlier this year, families have been encouraged to share gravesites by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo that’s in charge of the City of Johannesburg’s cemeteries and designated public spaces.
This means a family member might have to be buried on top of another.
The argument is that being buried in the same grave has huge cost-savings‚ is environment-friendly and affords families a central point to pay tribute and conduct religious ceremonies if needed.
However, Van Nieuwenhuizen says that burying bodies in one gravesite can cause further problems.
“If it is a very wet season, the settlement does take longer, because the coffin at the bottom is going to collapse.”
Of the 32 cemeteries across Johannesburg‚ only four have not yet reached full capacity; Westpark‚ Olifantsvlei‚ Diepsloot and Waterval cemeteries are still able to house over one million future graves, says a report on timeslive.co.za in April. Johannesburg itself has a population of over five million.
“So it is becoming more expensive to bury a person in cemeteries,” says Mngadi.
“It’s becoming very limited as well because of space. So you will find that in rural areas, people still bury in their yards. But us in urban areas would rather not. And purely because you don’t want to leave your loved one in Johannesburg and then relocate.”
These considerations force some to opt for cremation, preserve the urn or scatter the ashes.
“To put it in a simpler form, we are going to get to a point where you are forced; you have no other option but to cremate because where are you going to put your loved one?” says Mngadi.
Another problem plaguing the burial business is theft and vandalism.
During our interview, Van Nieuwenhuizen shows us an image on his phone of a grave that was recently dug up and the body removed.
He says some of the reasons people dig up graves is to use the body for muti (traditional medicine), witchcraft or to make crystal meth.
The Friday before our visit to Doves, they had reported missing marble headstones. People who steal them, they say, varnish the engraved names and resell the headstones to other users.
“[People] are now being abducted for their parts while they are alive, so how [much] worse is it when you are putting your loved one in a cemetery that has very limited security,” adds Mngadi.
This is one of the reasons why both Van Nieuwenhuizen and Mngadi advocate cremations.
“I find more comfort in knowing that my mom is in a beautiful urn in our house than not knowing what’s happening at the cemetery,” she says.
But even so, cremations can be taxing on the environment.
As per an article in the Huffington Post, “the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year”.
Experts are therefore still looking for new innovations to come up with answers.
What does the future of funerals look like?
“I think we will eradicate traditional burials. Whether that be in the next 10 or 30 years, I am not sure,” Cilliers offers.
“Burials are going to stop sooner or later, and then we are going to move over to resomation,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen.
Resomation or biocremation is an alkaline hydrolysis process that typically produces less carbon dioxide than cremation.
Another alternative is to create a diamond out of a loved one’s ashes by extracting the carbon remains.
Space burials have also been introduced where they blast the cremated remains into outer space.
You can send the ashes of your loved ones into space on one of techpreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets for $2,500.
Burials gone digital
At the time of the interview with Biotree.earth founders Cilliers and Holmes, they were launching an additional product to their business, a digital funeral platform.
Memory Lane is an online app that details a person’s life including key milestones, where they have traveled to and their life’s achievements.
With every urn sold, a code is given to the client to create an online memorial and geo-tag the urn.
“In concept, it’s like a virtual grave,” says Cilliers.
Holmes says the app won’t only be for the dead but for the living as well.
“It takes you down memory lane. So you can write a biography about yourself, and then it can take you to all the places you have traveled to, the pets you have had and it puts that on a timeline with the photos and a gallery,” he says.
“Over and above that, you’ve got a life file which is a safe, which keeps your will, any title deeds you have to your properties, insurance properties, all your codes you have to your ATM cards, everything. That lifeline is bank encrypted. So it has one-time pin numbers that no one can get into until after your death.”
Only nominated guardians can gain access to it and your friends and family can continue to contribute to your site with pictures or stories and family trees.
Even people who can’t make the funeral can post online.
Holmes was inspired to create this site after not being able to save his late parents’ photos in one place.
This, he feels would be a way to digitally track a family’s lineage for years to come. Holmes says the app will be free for the first few years.
As for the future of burials, he says: “I think the concept of burial forests will become bigger and bigger as we start moving out of the developed areas and move into the rural areas to create burial forests with long-term sustainability and as gardens of remembrance.”
Cilliers and Holmes hope that with each death, a new tree, a new life can take its place, creating a greener earth in the process.