“Which tree would you like to be?”

That is the question being asked by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, who have created a coffin allowing people to be buried in egg-shaped capsules attached to the roots of trees.

Citelli and Bretzel, see the new coffin as an alternative to most typical burials, which are expensive and consume natural resources. By placing what they call the “Capsula Mundi” underneath a tree of the person’s choosing, the designers hope to change how we think about traditional coffins.

“Capsula Mundi is made of biodegradable materials,” Citelli explained. “Inside, the body is placed in a fetal position, and a tree is planted above the burial. The plant will grow, indicating where it took place.”

As the body decays, the cells biodegrade and are released as nutrients into the soil, helping the tree grow.

Citelli and Bretzel have been working on the design of the tree pod for a decade, and produced a handcrafted prototype last year. They recently started a Kickstarter page to raise money for the industrial version of the coffin, which would make it easier to produce many of the pods at a lower cost.

Traditional burial methods usually require cutting down trees for coffins, mining rock for headstones and concrete barriers, and the production of chemicals like formaldehyde for embalming fluid.

According to the Green Burial Council, which sets standards and certification for conservation burials in the United States, almost 4 million acres of wood — enough to build roughly one third of all houses in Canada — are buried underground in caskets. A study among funeral industry workers found a link between formaldehyde exposure and rates of myeloid leukemia.

Bretzel says that instead of cutting down trees for burial and using dangerous chemicals, cemeteries could be planting trees, transforming rows of graves into natural forests.

“A tree takes between 10 and 40 years to reach maturity, while a coffin is of use for just three days,” he said. “We want to plant trees instead of cutting them down.”

The project follows a growing public interest in conservation or “green” burials. According to a 2015 survey of 70 U.S. cemeteries, 80 per cent of sites reported an increase in demand for conservation burials.

In Canada, burials are only allowed in registered cemeteries, and require approval from the provinces and from zoning regulators in most cities. There are only four natural burial sites in Canada: three in Ontario — Union Cemetery in Cobourg, Meadowvale in Brampton, and Duffin Meadows in Pickering — and one in Victoria, B.C. Two sites are pending in Hamilton and Winnipeg. By comparison, there are over 300 sites in the U.K.

Asa Goldman, a research analyst at Georgian College, surveyed 650 Canadians about their attitudes toward conservation burials, and found that 44 per cent of people thought that natural burial was an appealing option. People between 25 and 44 years old showed a higher interest than people 65 years and older.

In the survey, cost was the most important factor in determining people’s preferences.

“Some focus group participants expressed the opinion that, considering all the frills that are not part of natural burial, it should be a lower cost option,” Goldman noted.

Most “eco-coffins” cost between $500 and $1000, while most hardwood caskets cost around anywhere between $2000 and $10,000, depending on the material.

But for the designers of the new capsule coffin, the project is just as much about changing attitudes about death as it is about providing a sustainable or more affordable option.

“From a biological point of view, death is not the end but the beginning of a way back to nature: the body produces new elements through natural transformations,” Citelli and Bretzel wrote on their recent Kickstarter page.

“The tree marks a remembrance place and provides a permanent memory of the person. Taking care of it will build up a feeling of continuity and the whole community will benefit from this legacy.”