Death Care Alternatives
Natural burial and water cremation
By Terri Marshall
Paulo Arsandb | iStock

shes to ashes, dust to dust… tends to expend a lot of energy and chemicals when disposing of the deceased. Rachel Bernhardt has other ideas. The founder and owner of Flameless Cremation Services—an Anchorage business that bids beloved pets a final farewell with a mixture of potash and water—hopes to bring additional environmentally friendly burial options to the community.

“I worked with organ and tissue donation programs for many years, which taught me a lot about the intersection of healthcare and death care,” says Bernhardt. “That led to conversations with people about their feelings about death. It seemed like no one was particularly satisfied with the current burial and cremation processes. Although there is an illusion of choice, there really aren’t many choices currently available.”

Cremation Without Flame
An alternative to traditional cremation for pets, Flameless Cremation Services utilizes water cremation, or aquamation, which uses fluid to break down the body instead of heat.

“Conventional cremation uses lots of chemicals, energy, and plastic,” Bernhardt explains. “The output of flame cremation sends large particles of carbon into the air. With this process, everything is contained within the cremation vessel, which is more energy efficient and eco-friendly.”

Rachel Bernhardt headshot
Rachel Bernhardt

Flameless Cremation Services

The process takes place in her warehouse space in Anchorage. It begins with Bernhardt placing the deceased pet on a platform, which she lowers into a chamber with a chain pulley. The chamber is filled with 95 percent water and 5 percent alkaline chemicals, which are warmed and circulated for about eighteen hours. The remains are then dried and placed in a container for the pet’s family.

Bernhardt believes in transparency. “It is important that nothing happens behind closed doors,” she explains. “I don’t want anything to be scary. Families are welcome to come here and watch the process.”

When starting Flameless Cremation Services, Bernhardt thought she would be working directly with a lot of veterinary clinics by offering an alternative to traditional cremation practices. Instead, she says, “I am actually getting more traction with mobile veterinarians who go to homes to aid families with the end-of-life process for their pets.”

Recently, Bernhardt partnered with two other women-owned Alaska businesses to launch the Rainbow Bridge Sendoff package. The Ritual Bough, a credentialed death doula, and 2 Tails Veterinary Services, a mobile veterinarian, combined to provide at-home pet euthanasia, family guidance for home funerals or memorial ceremonies, and water cremation. “This package provides one point of contact for families [and] serves as a concierge in preparing for end-of-life situations for their animals,” Bernhardt explains. “We provide a compassionate option for pet owners and even deliver their animal’s ashes to their door if they choose not to leave home during this time.”

“It seemed like no one was particularly satisfied with the current burial and cremation processes. Although there is an illusion of choice, there really aren’t many choices currently available.”
Rachel Bernhardt, Founder and Owner, Flameless Cremation Services
Human Options
While currently dealing exclusively with animals, Flameless Creation Services aims to expand to human remains. Bernhardt hopes to eventually provide more options for Anchorage residents to consider for their burial, including the opening of a natural cemetery where green burial practices can be implemented.

“The loss of a family member and the dissatisfaction and unnatural strange feeling I encountered in that experience led me down a rabbit hole,” Bernhardt shares. “I understand the urge to be with the body of a loved one, to see them one last time, but I don’t understand why embalming the body and placing it in an elaborate casket for viewing is the answer.”

With green burials, the deceased are cared for with minimal impact on the environment.

  • Coffins are made from biodegradable materials such as cardboard or wood and free of materials such as finished lacquered wood and metal rails.
  • Cloth shrouds are made from non-bleached, undyed natural fibers to wrap the body.
  • Options for shallow graves to accelerate the decomposition.
  • Grave markers that are smaller, less obtrusive, and even biodegradable.

Green burial is meant to conserve natural resources, reduce carbon emissions, and preserve habitat.

Bernhardt is not alone in exploring more environmentally friendly burial options. In 2005, Joe Sehee founded the Green Burial Council in California to establish standards within the growing green burial movement. He brought together experts from the fields of conservation management, consumer affairs, law, restoration ecology, and sustainable landscaping. The council developed the first set of environmental standards for green cemeteries and for the funeral professionals and product manufacturers that support them.

Across the country, consumer preferences for funerals and memorialization are rapidly evolving. A 2023 consumer awareness and preferences report by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) revealed that 60 percent of those surveyed would be interested in exploring green funeral options because of the potential environmental benefits, cost savings, or other reasons. That number was up from 55.7 percent in 2021. NFDA is the world’s largest funeral service association, serving more than 20,000 members representing nearly 11,000 funeral homes in the United States and forty-nine other countries. At recent conventions, funeral service professionals learned how to address these consumer trends and provide more holistic modern services.

“I understand the urge to be with the body of a loved one, to see them one last time, but I don’t understand why embalming the body and placing it in an elaborate casket for viewing is the answer.”
Rachel Bernhardt
Founder and Owner
Flameless Cremation Services
two people walking through a park
Acknowledging that no single method of death care is right for everyone, Rachel Bernhardt facilitates the discussion of options at “Death Café” meetings she helps organize.

Glenn Highcove | iStock

Returned to Earth
Bernhardt seized an opportunity to participate in a natural burial at Herland Forest Natural Burial Cemetery in Wahkiacus, Washington. “I watched them digging graves by hand in preparation for a family,” she recalls. “We also helped them unload a vessel.”

Another funeral option used in Washington state is human composting, also known as natural organic reduction. In this process, the body is entombed in a capsule filled with alfalfa, straw, and wood chips along with bacteria favorable to consuming organic matter. “At Herland, a generic compost inducer—bacteria, fungi, enzymes, et cetera—is used,” Bernhardt explains. “The process takes over a month, and what is left is compost or humus; basically soil.”

The family can elect to have the end product returned to them or, in a Washington state conservation area, used to revitalize a forest.

To establish a similar natural burial cemetery in Alaska, Bernhardt and her business partners hope to acquire a piece of property from the Municipality of Anchorage. “Our hope is that the city will donate it to us, which would save taxpayers money in the long run since our project would alleviate pressure on the existing municipal cemetery,” she says. “If not, we will need to have a fundraiser and buy a parcel.”

She anticipates minimal development will be required to convert the property into a natural cemetery. “We would not be planting grass or taking trees out, so as not to disturb the existing ecosystem,” Bernhardt explains. “However, we would need to consider the size and necessary infrastructure to provide parking along with trails wide enough for people to carry a casket down.”

Bernhardt hopes Anchorage’s first natural cemetery will become a reality in the next two years.

Rachel Bernhardt on a ladder working with a quarter-ton a PET550 machine
Flameless Cremation Services uses a quarter-ton a PET550 machine manufactured by BioResponse Solutions, an Indiana company that also fabricates wastewater treatment hardware.

Potassium hydroxide solution breaks down a pet’s remains, which are returned to the client in a biodegradable urn.

Rachel Bernhardt

Rachel Bernhardt working with a quarter-ton a PET550 machine
Conversations About Death
While other cultures speak openly about death, the topic remains uncomfortable or even taboo for many people in Western culture. Bernhardt is challenging the taboo with a regular event at Z.J. Loussac Library.

“I participate in a local ‘Death Café’ held monthly at the local library,” she shares. “Anyone that wants to participate can come. We don’t have an agenda; we just sit and talk about wherever the conversation leads us.”

Everyone at the conversation is there to learn, Bernhardt stresses, yet no one is really there to teach. The purpose is to normalize conversations about death or dying. “Often people don’t want to talk about death and, by neglecting to plan, they leave the burden of choice on someone else. We’re all going to face death someday, and I would love to see us as a society move in the direction of open dialogues surrounding this subject.”

Attendees at the monthly Death Café span a wide range of ages and occupations. “Recently, a young woman in her early thirties who has a terminal illness started attending. She speaks so openly about her interactions with the medical community,” Bernhardt shares. “We also have up and coming funeral directors show up at some of the meetings who are interested and open to learning. I think it’s going to take the next generation of funeral directors to be fully onboard with other burial and cremation options, and I look forward to that happening.”