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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Creating Life from Death:
Transcend Attempts to Reverse the Environmental Impacts of Burial

The new startup offers a regenerative ‘tree burial’ service that reimagines cemeteries as forests — enabling the dearly departed to truly give back to the land and encouraging younger generations to think about death in new ways.

In Western society, death is a topic often avoided — not just because of the emotional complications of the event itself; but because of the logistical, financial and environmental complications of what comes after.

The post-mortem process in the Western world largely goes in a couple of directions: a traditional burial with embalming, a casket and ceremony in a purchased land plot; or cremation, with remains either buried, scattered, or stored in an urn or mausoleum.

Conventional burials are notoriously expensive — whether with preservation or cremation — and both processes have long-term environmental repercussions.

The climate crisis; concerns about running out of space, particularly in urban areas; and a generational shift in thinking about death are spurring new alternatives to centuries-old customs, with companies such as Transcend looking at more planet-friendly ways to honorably pass on.

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“We participate in the process of getting out of the way and letting nature do its thing,” Transcend founder & CEO Matthew Kochmann explained during a recent panel discussion about the company’s offering, its unique mission to “reforest the world,” and the broader environmental issues associated with traditional post-death practices.

Kochmann’s proposition revolves around working within the very old-school laws and regulations around death (of which no two states are alike) and creating a carbon-negative way to let the body degrade back into the soil. As he explains on the company’s website: “I started Transcend to help people open up to life by not being so afraid of death. I envision a world in which our decisions today can create an immediate impact that continues on well after our last breath.”

Transcend has a five-step process — which begins with the body of the dearly departed person (they offer an at-home kit for planting your pet) being wrapped in an organic and biodegradable flax linen cover, then placed on top of a bed of wood chips in the reserved burial spot “to help maintain optimal oxygen levels in the soil.” From there, a proprietary blend of fungi, soil and wood chips is spread across the body to help further overall decomposition. Before the plot is fully covered, a pre-selected tree is planted on the plot. In theory, the tree will then root into the fresh soil, utilizing the nutrients of the soil blend and the decomposing body to grow and thrive.

The company says the process is 576 percent more sustainable than cremation; and can offer a 100 percent reversal of the decedent’s lifetime carbon footprint. Transcend will also plant 1,000 trees for every Grove (burial plot) reserved; which means if 1 in 7 people choose tree burial, 1.2 trillion trees would be planted worldwide — the amount scientists believe could meaningfully offset the most harmful effects of climate change.

Lower environmental costs, but still costly

Unfortunately, this “greener” approach to death is still rather pricey: As of now, a Transcend burial costs $8,500 — the company says this is all-inclusive (in an industry notorious for hidden fees and extra costs); but it is still roughly in line with conventional burial costs.

The company is taking initial deposits of $100 (including the planting of additional trees through a partnership with One Tree Planted), with the first round of burial opportunities tentatively launching in 2023. According to a Transcend representative, burials “will take place within a global network of beautifully maintained Transcend forests two hours outside ‘select metropolitan areas.’” (The company declined to say which metropolitan areas will be first; but let’s hope they’re not particularly prone to forest fires.)

Evolving the conversation around death

Environmentally considerate offerings such as Transcend have the potential to move the conversation around death forward in a way that hasn’t been done so in a long time, if ever.

On the company’s Advisory Board is filmmaker and environmentalist Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) who believes that with cremation, specifically, there’s an opportunity to change the narrative with climate-conscious consumers as more light is shed on the amount of carbon the process puts into the atmosphere.

“It’s an easy story to tell,” he noted.

Kochmann is betting that as the next generation considers climate in just about every purchasing and living decision, considering how to decrease the impact of a final resting spot will be a natural progression of the conversation.

“This is a product that affects every possible human on the planet,” he said.