The stunning rise of cremation reveals America’s changing idea of death

Pets are another matter. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in suburban Philadelphia is home to the state’s first alkaline hydrolysis machine, which resembles an oversize fish poacher. In four years, 90 pets have been reduced to a fine white powder similar to baking soda, beginning with a five-foot-long alligator named Sheldon.

Cemeteries are adapting to attract families interested in green alternatives, promoting them as a return to earlier practices. At West Laurel Hill, 258 people have pre-purchased space in the natural burial site, which was once the cemetery’s landfill site. In a century, the burial ground will be transformed into forest. Graves are hand-dug by shovel, rather than a gas-fueled backhoe loader. “People want to return to the earth in a very purposeful way,” says arboretum manager Aaron Greenberg.

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