I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer (his given name was Albert Joyce Kilmer so many mistakenly think he was a she) wrote “Trees” in 1913. The poem is often scoffed at for being overly simplistic. But “Trees” remains memorable, unlike other more pretentious works. People love trees. Some even want to become a tree after they die.

So it’s not surprising that people are going bonkers over a fairly recent alternative to traditional burial called a Bios Urn. At least a dozen people have forwarded me articles about it, so I knew I had to see what they were all about.

The Bios Urn is being touted as an economically friendly way to dispose of your ashes, which will eventually help fertilize a tree. Picture courtesy of Bios Urn's web site.

The Bios Urn is touted as an environmentally and economically friendly way to dispose of your ashes, which supposedly help fertilize a seed as it becomes a tree. Picture courtesy of the Bios Urn web site. Co-designer Martin Azua told Discovery News that he would “like to be buried in a Bios Urn in a forest in the Basque country [of Spain].”

Back in 1999, two Spanish designers named Gerard Moline and Martin Azua owned a studio called Estudimoline. Together, they patented a biodegradable urn with a plant seed inside designed to place beloved pets who had died back into the life cycle. From there came the idea of the Bios Urn for humans.

A big selling point of the Bios Urn is that you can use your cremains (the ashes from cremation) to nourish a tree seed. In other words, you can literally become a tree that will grow for years after your death. Instead of taking up space in a cemetery, you can become part of a forest. The idea is very appealing to environmentally conscious post-Baby Boomers that want to do things differently than their parents did.

Before I explain how the Bios Urn works, let me clarify that I am in no way a scientist or a horticulturist of any kind. I am simply sharing with you what I discovered when I searched a bit beyond the Bios Urn web site.

The urn itself is made up of 100 percent biodegradable materials such as coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose. So nothing is left behind after it breaks down. The top section contains the seed of whatever tree you’ve chosen (eight varieties are available) or you can supply a seed of your own.

The separate bottom part is where you pour the ashes. I’m not sure just how much is required but since a human body usually becomes between four to six pounds of ashes after cremation, there’s going to be some left over.

[caption id="attachment_4749" align="aligncenter" width="529"]This diagram gives you an idea of how the Bios Urn works. The top half contains the tree seed and soil while the bottom half contains the cremains (or cremated ashes) of the deceased. Photo courtesy of Jebiga.com. This diagram gives you an idea of how the Bios Urn works. The top half contains the tree seed and soil while the bottom half contains the cremains (or cremated ashes) of the deceased. The roots eventually grow through the bottom half and into the ashes. Photo courtesy of Jebiga.com.

Here’s how it works. You place some soil from where you intend to plant the urn in the top half along with the tree seed. You then pour the ashes into the bottom half. The two parts are secured together, which can then be planted. Bios Urns’ website recommends that the urn be planted five centimeters (about two inches) from the surface.

The Bios Urns website says the urn requires the same care as a normal tree: water, sunlight and a good temperature. This can vary according to the kind of tree you choose so they recommend that you read up on whether or not it is a good variety to plant in your specific area.

The Bios Urn tree seed eventually grows roots and breaks into the lower section where the ashes are, which are supposed to serve as fertilizer. Voila, you’re now part of a tree!

While one advertised benefit of the Bios Urn is that you can plant it almost anywhere, I don’t know if cemeteries are too keen on them. You’d have to get permission to plant it and they would be the ones in charge of maintaining it for you. Since most traditional cemeteries are very focused on maintaining easy grass mowing, they may not allow it. However, the new “green cemeteries” would likely be happy to handle that request.

One variety that Bios Urns sells is the ginkgo. Considering that they have a reputation for emitting a strong unpleasant odor, I don't think that's a legacy I'd want to leave behind.

One tree variety that Bios Urns sells is the ginkgo. Considering that they have a reputation for emitting a strong unpleasant odor, I don’t think that’s a legacy I’d want to leave behind.

My thoughts on the long-term implications go into overdrive when I consider this. If my Aunt Harriet wants to be buried in her back yard, what’s going to happen if the property is eventually sold? Do you dig her, I mean, the tree up and take it somewhere else? If Aunt Harriet wants to be buried in a park, you’d probably have to get permission. If you own family land, you could plant the urn there. But what happens years from now after you die and your heir chooses to sell the landt? What do you do if the tree dies?

I did read about proposed BiosParks where you could plant your Bios Urn and monitor it via GoogleEarth. But I couldn’t find any information about whether or not that ever became reality.

What I wanted to find out was if the concept of using human cremains as tree fertilizer is scientifically valid. Here’s what I came up with.

After a body is cremated, the resulting ashes and bone fragments are left to cool. A device then pulverizes the bone fragments into a fine dust with a consistency similar to sand. There’s nothing organic left behind.

What exactly are cremains made up of? The graphic below breaks down just that. Almost half of human ashes are made up of phosphate and a fourth of it is calcium.

Human cremains are made up of a mixture of different chemicals, but most of it is phosphate with calcium coming in second. Photo courtesy of VillageMemorial.com.

Human cremains are made up of a mixture of different chemicals, but most of it is phosphate with calcium coming in second. Graphic courtesy of VillageMemorial.com.

Some gardeners believe that calcium phosphate makes an excellent fertilizer. But I’ve also read that when produced at higher temperatures (like fire from a crematorium), it can become insoluble and not very useful as a fertilizer.

A company called Let Your Love Grow (LYLG) has done extensive research that shows that cremains have a very high pH level that hinders their ability to release any helpful nutrients. Also, cremated ashes contain sodium in amounts that range from 200 to 2000 times what plant life can tolerate.

LYLG published a photo that shows how 16 months after burial, a biodegradable urn has completely dissolved (I have no idea if this is a Bios Urn). The ashes are left in concentration and may remain that way for years. Plant roots will inevitably turn away from this clump of salty rock.

To remedy that, LYLG sells a special mixture that, when added to regular soil and cremains, balances out the high pH level/sodium. This enables people to then bury their loves one’s cremains without harming the soil or any surrounding plant life.

This picture from Let Your Love Grow shows the ashes left behind from a biodegradable urn some 16 months after burial in the ground. They contend that these ashes do not provide fertilization for growing plants.

This picture from Let Your Love Grow shows the ashes left behind from a biodegradable urn some 16 months after burial in the ground. They contend that human ashes do not provide adequate fertilization to support growing trees.

Discovery News’ article about Bios Urn points out that “plants that like acidic soil might find that the ashes raise the pH of the soil too much for comfort.”

I’m not enough of a scientist to say whether or not these concerns are valid. Perhaps there’s something in the Bios Urn itself that makes the growth process of the roots into the ashes work well with the local soil. The Bios Urns website is vague on those horticultural particulars.

Bios Urn can be purchased directly from their website for about $145 with shipping costs being variable. The cost is the same for Bios Urns for pets. Some retailers sell them as well. Bios Urns’ website claims that over 7,000 have been sold.

Puerto Rican-based Spiritree sells a similar urn. Their cost is a bit higher at $225 and the process is a little different in how the ashes are introduced to the roots. Another option on the horizon is the actual composting of human remains, but current state laws forbid it. I plan on writing about that soon.

I’m sure many people will continue to be enamored with the symbolic idea of becoming a tree. Me? I don’t think so. Because this is the mental picture I get when I think about it. And that’s one I don’t think I can live (or die) with.

dog-peeing-on-tree

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