The tree of life is a metaphor that appears in many different areas of study from religion, to biology, to literature. However, thanks to two Italian designers the tree of life may soon no longer be limited to metaphor. Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel have designed a biodegradable burial pod in which the body of the deceased is placed in the fetal position inside the pod and a tree is planted over the pod. As the body decomposes it releases nutrients to the tree above. The designers envision cemeteries with markers and headstones replaced by trees designating the burial places of loved ones. They have also designed smaller pods for the burial of cremains.
The designers have run into legal trouble with their burial pod design in their native Italy, which forbids “natural burials.” However, there is a strong possibility that their design would be legal under many states’ statutes. Despite being a non-traditional burial method, the body or cremains are still placed inside a container and interred in the ground with no intention to disinter the remains at a later date. This is a key design element which would allow the burial pods to be legal in many parts of the United States.
Turning to North Carolina, in addition to donation, the state provides for two methods of disposition: burial or cremation. While this may seem limiting, “burial” is described as, “interment in any form, cremation and the transportation of the dead human body as necessary therefor.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.20(c). This is an incredibly broad definition of burial and as a result is inclusive of ideas such as burial pods. The only regulation on how a burial is to take place is that, “when final disposition of a human body entails interment, the top of the uppermost part of the . . . encasement shall be a minimum of 18 inches below the ground surface.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 65-77. When an individual is cremated, North Carolina law only demands that the cremains of multiple individuals not be comingled together or placed in the same closed container unless the individuals are of the same family. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.130. Burial pods designed to nourish trees are perfectly legal under these provisions as each set of cremains would receive their own pod and corresponding tree. Therefore, while on the surface the concept of a biodegradable burial pod designed to nourish a tree with the help of a decomposing human body may seem strange, it is highly likely that the design is legal under existing North Carolina law.