Transcend is pioneering “tree burial,” whereby a body is buried in such a way that as it naturally decomposes, it directly fuels the growth of a young tree planted in the soil above it. Currently, the model is solely focused on “pre-need” consumers (a death industry term to refer to people who are not at immediate high risk of dying), meaning that tree burials are not yet underway. At the moment, however, you can sign up as a founding Transcend member with a $100 contribution, which goes to Transcend’s tree-planting partner, One Tree Planted, to plant 100 trees in your name. Signing up is non-binding, but does locks you in for a tree burial at a rate of $8,500 (most funerals cost between $7,000 and $10,000) and a priority choice of tree species and placement once the first Transcend forests are established in 2023.
The idea for Transcend came after Kochmann learned about Capsula Mundi, an Italian design project involving an egg-shaped capsule into which human remains are placed and buried to become a tree. Inspired, Kochmann reached out to the company to see about planning for his own tree burial but learned that the design was only a prototype, and the only available offering was for a biodegradable urn, requiring cremation of the body before burial.
With tree burial, the body directly fuels the growth of a young tree planted in the soil above it.
While Kochmann is entrepreneurial by nature (he was employee number eight at Uber and launched its New York City office), the idea to create a version of what the designers at Capsula Mundi had not yet done wasn’t initially obvious to him. But a couple years after learning about Capsula Mundi, Kochmann happened upon research outlining how planting 1.2 trillion trees would benefit the climate. Around this time, he was also working on a large-scale land development project at a real estate firm in San Francisco, learning how to finance and scale land projects. Slowly but surely, it all “started sinking together,” says Kochmann. “I realized planting trees was a proactive action we could independently do for the climate, and death is something that affects every individual, and I had these regulatory and land-development skills and a spiritual passion for the topic—so I just needed to bring this business into existence.”
How tree burial from Transcend works, biologically speaking
Think of tree burial as a particular kind of green burial, which is a traditional burial without the use of any chemicals (like embalming fluid) and with a biodegradable coffin or shroud so as to not contaminate the Earth. With tree burial, though, the body in the ground also directly supplies nutrients to the roots of a tree planted just above it. This environmentally supportive process allows the buried person to live on as the tree itself.
A quick caveat: This is not the same thing as Natural Organic Reduction (aka human composting)—which is only legal in Washington, Vermont, Colorado, Oregon, and California. With that process, the body is treated with high levels of oxygen and heat and bones are crushed, as a means to accelerate the decomposition process and quickly turn the body into enriched soil.
With tree burial, the body isn’t altered in any way before it’s placed in the ground, says Kochmann. Instead, it’s just shrouded in biodegradable flax linen (just as with any green burial) and lowered into a three-and-a-half foot grave lined with “carbonaceous materials like locally up-sourced wood chips and hay,” says Kochmann. A layer of these materials also goes on top of the body to allow for heat and oxygenation, both of which help along the decomposition process. Then comes a layer of soil and on top of that, seven different types of ectomycorrhizal and endomycorrhizal fungi—aka a mishmash of mushrooms. On top of the mushrooms goes an adolescent tree “because it’s young enough to absorb the soil’s rich nutrients, but also has a base level of stability to be able to handle the flush of intensity that’s going to be coming from the body below,” says Kochmann.
The role of the mushrooms is just to beef up the root tendrils of the tree, so they reach further down into the soil and suck up all of the good nutrients from the body, adds Kochmann, who developed Transcend’s tree burial process with a team of scientists led by human decomposition expert Jennifer DeBruyn, PhD, associate professor of Biosystems Engineering & Soil Science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
On the list of nutrients to be gleaned from the body: phosphates, phosphorus, nitrates, nitrogen, and carbon, among others. “All of these things get taken up directly into the roots of the tree, while also strengthening it to withstand some of the negative stuff that gets produced by our bodies, such as ammonium gas and the high levels of alkalinity in the first year of decomposition,” says Kochmann. Though these elements of the body do not support the soil or tree growth, their organic nature allows them to all be decomposed over time by the soil’s microorganisms, according to research on the environmental safety of green burials. (And in case you’re wondering, the smell barrier for this process is a good two to three feet below the soil’s surface, according to Dr. DeBruyn.)
In this way, the supportive natural matter of the body becomes the tree over time, perhaps making it the most biologically accurate version ever of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
What to expect from a tree burial cemetery and funeral
Transcend expects to establish its first forest cemeteries in 2023 on tracts of deforested agricultural land within two hours of major metropolitan areas, says Kochmann. The company is currently in the process of vetting areas that can handle a diverse set of tree species and getting them appropriately zoned. (If someone were to sign up now and unexpectedly die sooner than a tree forest is available, however, Transcend will refer their family to the Green Burial Council to help them organize a regular green burial, without the tree component.) Once established, all Transcend forests will also be put into perpetual conservation easements so that they can never be cut down.
“You can decide if you want to be a live oak tree in Savannah, or optimize for being close to family in upstate New York and be, for example, an elm tree instead.” —Matthew Kochmann, founder and CEO of Transcend
Upon making a tree-burial reservation, you’ll also be able to customize the experience by tree or by region, given the fact that not all trees can be sustainably grown in all areas. “If you have this dream of becoming a live oak tree, for example, you’re not going to find one of those in the northeast part of this country,” says Kochmann. “So, you can decide if you want to be this dream tree and be buried in, say, Savannah, [Georgia] or optimize for being close to family in upstate New York and be, for example, an elm tree instead.”
Similar to a designated cemetery plot for a particular family, Transcend will also allow customers to reserve a family grove for tree burial, so that a family can eventually become its own cluster of neighboring trees. And the funeral offerings are just as customizable as those at a traditional funeral home.
In each forest, there will be a centralized facility—what Kochmann calls a non-denominational nature church—where a family can host a traditional funeral service of their design. From there, they’ll move into the forest, and people will be able to say some words grove-side (Kochmann’s play on graveside) ahead of Transcend’s burial and tree-planting ceremony.
Tree burial isn’t just carbon-neutral—it’s carbon-negative
Perhaps even less-discussed in America than death itself are the major environmental downsides of the things that happen afterward. According to the Green Burial Council, approximately 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (which is rich in toxins like formaldehyde), 20 million feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel are put into the ground each year in this country, interfering with the soil’s ecosystem. And while cremation was once posed as an eco solution to traditional burial, U.S. cremations alone are estimated to account for 360,000 metric tons of carbon emissions every year.
While green burial and human composting may be carbon-neutral—in that they don’t contribute to carbon emissions—tree burial from Transcend is actually carbon-negative, which is what gets Kochmann particularly revved up about its long-term impact on the environment. That is, by becoming a tree when you die, you’re working to negate some of the carbon emissions you’ve created in your lifetime, as the tree sequesters carbon from the air around it.
Transcend aims to extend that beneficial effect beyond a singular tree per person (which would just sequester about one ton of carbon by the time it reaches 40, compared to the 16 tons of carbon that a person in the United States generates, on average, each year). In partnership with reforestation nonprofit One Tree Planted, it plants 1,000 trees every time someone commits to a tree burial (and starts paying toward the $8,500 rate).
By committing to a tree burial down the line, for whenever death may arrive, Transcend members are also planning and paying for their own death. In this country, “only about 21 percent of people communicate their funeral plans and wishes to their family,” says Kochmann. This leaves nearly 80 percent of families stuck with the emotional and financial toll of figuring out how their loved one would have wanted to go and ensuring that happens, while they’re also processing their own grief.
Thinking about and planning for death in this fashion also reinforces the idea that death is not the end of life, so much as an inevitable part of it. And Transcend’s tree burial process is reflective of that principle, too. “Nature teaches us what death looks like in a biological sense, which is not a singular thing or moment, but just a constant process of transformation and transformation and transformation,” says Kochmann. “What tree burial does is help us identify less with our physical forms and more with the cyclical nature of life.”