PARSIPPANY, N.J. - When we think of burials, the image that often comes to mind is one of being laid six feet under in a hard wooden casket.
However, a growing number of people are now choosing a more environmentally friendly approach – green burials.
For Phynjuar Thomas, the choice holds special significance.
She has faced immense loss in her life – her father, a world-class chef, her daughter, the late actress Michelle Thomas, and her husband, Dennis-Dee Tee Thomas, a founding member of the iconic R&B group Kool and the Gang.
Phynjuar's responsibility was to return them to the earth, in a way that respects nature.
"The dust didn't come with embalming fluid," Phynjuar said. "That's not the way the creator sent us here."
What are green burials?
Instead of spending thousands on traditional caskets, families like hers can opt for wicker caskets made from bamboo, seagrass, or woven wool – all biodegradable and environmentally sensitive.
Vail Cemetery in Parsippany is one of the few cemeteries in the tri-state area that reserves space for green burials.
The approach allows loved ones to rest not surrounded by tombstones, but in a grassy knoll surrounded by nature – a serene place for reflection.
Green burials aren't the only alternative.
Mushroom caskets are gaining popularity.
A Dutch inventor has created organic coffins aimed at those wanting to maintain sustainability even in death.
Ed Bixby initiated the Global Green Burial Alliance. The process includes natural organic reduction done within a heated oxygen chamber, resulting in enriched soil that can be used for planting trees or in memorial gardens.
It's sometimes referred to as human composting. While currently legal in only seven states, New Jersey is considering legislation to make human composting a viable alternative.
Aquamation is another alternative.
It's a choice Archbishop Desmond Tutu requested when he passed away.
Memorial reef balls
Another option is memorial reef balls placed on the ocean floor to replenish coral.
The structures, weighing 200 tons and with a 500-year life expectancy, act as carbon sinks and offer a unique way to remember loved ones.
Whether traditional or eco-sensitive, the burial options spark meaningful conversations. For Phynjuar, they've brought closure.
"I'm absolutely positively sure that when you die, something magical happens," Phynjuar said. "It's an honor. I believe that in my heart of hearts."
As society becomes more environmentally conscious, the way we approach death is evolving. Green burials offer a sustainable and heartfelt way to say goodbye to our loved ones, while honoring the Earth's natural cycle.