Where do you go when you die? Literally, not spiritually.

Elise Buie, Esq.
9 min readAug 11, 2022


Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Like taxes, there’s no avoiding death. Similar to taxes, you may not feel like thinking or talking about the subject. However, a conversation could benefit you and your loved ones following your death.

More specifically, some attention during your life about how to handle your remains can ensure two crucial outcomes. First, that your final wishes will be honored. And second, that your grieving family won’t have to make difficult decisions, at least about this, during an already difficult time.

One of the best places to memorialize your wishes about where you will go when you die — literally, not spiritually — is along with your estate plan, where you’ve recorded other end-of-life decisions. Whether you have an existing estate plan needing updating or want to create a new one, this is what you need to know.

You have the right to plan for what happens after you die.

Rules regarding the handling of remains, including restrictions, vary by state. However, while you’re still living, you can make certain plans. So, if you have specific thoughts about how you would like your remains handled, the time to speak up is while you’re alive.

Even better is to make and memorialize these decisions along with your estate plan. You can do this by creating a new estate plan or updating your existing one to account for any life changes. Those can include marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child or grandchild.

A lot of people either ignore the choices available to them or don’t realize they have choices about where they, or at least their remains, will go when they die. However, the options are important to consider because what happens to your remains after you die can affect your family members and the Earth for years to come.

Lack of information or misinformation about what happens to your remains and their impact on the environment is rampant. The good news is you can make an informed choice by researching your options before you die. Doing so will save your loved ones from having to make this decision on your behalf, which may not be obvious to them, or conflict with family members, causing divisiveness.

In general, people don’t want the responsibility of making important decisions on another family member’s behalf. This is especially so when grieving. And if by chance you don’t care about the disposition of your remains, document that, too. In other words, give your family the gift of guilt-free decision-making. It could save your family the worry of having to decide what they think you would’ve wanted.

How do you make a choice about disposition?

In most states, you can make choices regarding the disposition of your remains through a written expression that clearly states your instructions.

The purpose is to make sure your wishes will be easily accessible to your family at or before your death. If you include your wishes in your will, you run the risk that your family won’t be able to find it or won’t have access to it until it’s too late. Families must make decisions about the disposition of remains long before probate.

A written expression is useful given some means of disposing of remains are more timely than others, sometimes as few as 24 hours. Therefore, whatever writing you create, be sure you share it with your health care proxy or the person to whom you assign a power of attorney or the individual you appoint to carry out any wishes you have concerning the disposition of your remains.

Who gets to decide?

The task of deciding what happens to your remains once you die will rest with one person or a group of people. They will include those listed below in the following order.

  • Whoever you choose in your writing
  • For military personnel, the individual you name in the U.S. Dept. of Defense Record
  • Your surviving spouse
  • If you are unmarried and die without leaving conveying your wishes, the majority of your surviving children (they must agree)
  • If you are unmarried and have no children, your parents
  • If you are unmarried, have no children, and have no parents, the majority of your siblings (they must agree)
  • The most responsible person available ( leaves a lot to chance)

What are your choices for the disposition of your body?

The options available for disposing of your remains vary according to state. They also differ according to other factors, including cost, whether they’re environmentally friendly and to what degree, what permissions you need, and how soon after death you must choose the option for it to be viable.

Traditional Burial

Traditional burials occur in a cemetery. As to what qualifies as a cemetery, that, too, varies by state. In some states, for example, you may not conduct a traditional burial on private property, even if the property owner designates the land as a cemetery.

People tend to like traditional burials because of the options available. With so many cemeteries in existence, it’s easier to choose a location near friends and loved ones, facilitating visits.

Traditional burials, which often include formaldehyde embalming and long-lasting caskets (those made from treated woods and metals designed not to decompose), do have their downside. Due to the cost of the materials involved, they’re expensive from the get-go.

Gravesites, too, require upkeep such as landscaping, which can come as an annual expense or a one-time fee for perpetual care, adding to the overall cost. Then there’s the headstone, the cost of which can be significant. It also costs a lot to maintain a cemetery over time, which gets factored into the price of a traditional burial.

On another note, traditional burials leave an environmental mark. In addition to taking up space, traditional burials deposit a significant amount of wood, metals, chemicals, concrete, and formaldehyde into the earth from caskets placed into the ground. The use of fertilizer and pesticides for upkeep also impacts the environment. Fortunately, if you’re interested, there are greener options.

Traditional “Green” Burial

All the attention to the environment has given rise to green burials, which are growing in popularity. A green burial is similar to a traditional burial, except without the use of embalming chemicals and with the use of caskets designed to decompose naturally. Mortuaries use refrigeration or dry ice to preserve the body until buried instead of formaldehyde.

Refrigeration and dry ice are much less expensive ways to prepare a body for burial than formaldehyde, and the natural casket options are less expensive than treated wood or metal caskets. These methods are also better for the environment.

In addition, green burial grounds typically use natural markers such as rocks to designate gravesites, which allows those who choose this option to save on the cost of a headstone. Green cemeteries also tend to look more like forests than manicured parks, limiting the need for a lot of landscaping and further reducing the cost.

With either traditional burial or its green equivalent, location is paramount. People generally choose traditional burial because, with many options, they can usually find a location convenient to family and friends. They may, for instance, want to choose a location near a particular area, like their former home or their parents’ final resting place.

However, because some locations are more desirable than others, it can drive up the price. That’s why it’s best to do your research in the present, review your options, and then purchase what you want. It will also take pressure off grieving relatives who already have a lot to deal with in your absence.


Cremation is more environmentally friendly than traditional burial but not necessarily green. Though cremation reduces the burden on land and doesn’t involve toxic materials as traditional burials do, the process emits pollutants into the environment.

People find cremation attractive because it’s convenient for families to store ashes or scatter them at a time and day they choose, and it is inexpensive. However, there are limitations as to where you can scatter ashes.

Popular locations for scattering ashes include national parks, state trust lands, and navigable waters, so long as the individuals doing the scattering have obtained permission. When scattering ashes in the Pacific Ocean, for example., it’s necessary to have an EPA general permit and report a sea burial.

For those wishing to place ashes into a body of water in a container, the container should be biodegradable. A final note about scattering ashes is that ashes can seep into the water table depending on the location. Be sure to check with the proper authorities before doing so or before asking your relatives to do so.

Hydro Cremation (Alkaline hydrolysis)

Hydro cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a newer option. It’s currently available in around 18 states, with others pending.

The process uses water, potassium, sodium hydroxide, heat, and pressure, the same organic chemicals present in our stomachs naturally when we digest. So, in essence, the process of hydro cremation is the same as natural ground burial, except accelerated. The result is the production of a granular powder.

Hydro cremation is often subject to the same restrictions on scattering. More environmentally friendly than traditional burial, it’s still unclear if it’s green because the process requires natural gas to heat the water. The only emission into the environment from this process, however, is water.


Composting is the process of natural organic reduction that has been used by farmers for centuries. It’s currently growing in popularity as a means to dispose of human remains.

The method combines human remains with wood chips, bacteria, fungi, oxygen, and heat to create compost that, when completed, is no longer classified as human remains. It’s also completely clean soil (free from unnatural chemicals or substances) that can literally be used anywhere and for anything.

Composting is a green option that uses ⅛ of the energy of cremation. The process begins by filtering out unnatural elements, such as metals and pharmaceuticals, which might be in the body, and takes about a month to complete. On completion, there will be around a 55-gallon drum of usable compost, dirt, or soil to show for it.

The appeal of composting is the range of options there are to lay it since some states, like Washington state, for example, do not classify the compost as human remains. If you want to become a tree, for example, consider having your composted remains used to plant that tree.

In addition, because composting remains produces a significant amount of compost, you can donate to areas that need soil. Many facilities have programs where the family can donate all or a part of the compost to reforestation projects to aid in the rebuilding of our forest lands. Check with the laws of your state for restrictions.

Less expensive than a traditional burial, composting does come with time constraints that traditional burial does not; your loved ones will need to contact the facility handling the composting within 24 hours following your death.

Therefore, to take advantage of this option, it’s best to plan for it in advance and prepay, so all your loved ones have to do is place a call. Otherwise, they may miss the window of opportunity to bring your body to a composting facility.

Organ Donation and Anatomical Gifting

Another way to handle human remains is to donate your organs or body upon death. In general, people may donate their organs for the following reasons:

  • Transplantation: Organs, such as a kidney or corneas, are given to those needing them.
  • Therapy: Some therapies use cells to treat certain conditions. Liver cells, for example, can be used to treat cirrhosis in someone with liver disease.
  • Medical research: Researchers study body parts, including diseased body parts, to find new treatments.
  • Education: You can donate your body for educational purposes, for instance, to a medical school to train future medical providers.

A written expression will allow you to pick and choose your options. Or you can state that you forbid the donation of your organs and body against your wishes. In addition, you can record your opposition to autopsy.

For example, some religions prohibit autopsy from being performed. While there may not be a law to protect this right, if you note it in a written expression, which you can complete along with your estate plan, it’s more than likely the person you name to make decisions on your behalf will honor your wishes.

Less conventional options

If none of the more conventional methods of handling your remains are appealing, there are some less conventional options, such as:

  • Egg-shaped pods
  • Viking burial
  • Ferry system funeral
  • Coral reef restoration
  • The transformation of human remains into a cremation diamond


Given the problems or time constraints that some of the choices for the disposition of human remains raise, your best bet is to make your wishes known in advance. The idea is to leave as little up to chance as possible. Though you can’t control when you go, you can control where.

Elise Buie is a Seattle divorce and family lawyer and founder of Elise Buie Family Law Group, a law firm devoted to divorce and family law and estate planning. A champion for maintaining civility throughout the divorce process, Elise advocates for her clients and the best interests of their children, helping them move forward with dignity and from a position of strength.



Elise Buie, Esq.

Elise Buie is a Seattle-based family and divorce lawyer and founder of the ​Elise Buie Family Law Group​.