How to create an outdoor memorial service that is beautiful and eco-conscious.
Balloon releases have become an increasingly popular way to remember a loved one in recent decades. Friends and family gather together and attach messages to their loved one to colorful, helium-filled balloons. Then on cue, everyone releases their balloons, watching them fly to the heavens together.
It’s a tradition that many find uplifting and comforting. But there’s a dark side to balloon releases. Releasing a piece of plastic or latex into the air has consequences, every single time it’s done — because, of course, what goes up must come down, and then the balloons are litter. Balloons can catch on tree branches. They can land on power wires and cause outages. They can wrap around birds’ necks or legs and get caught on their beaks.
Most devastating are the balloons that fall into the ocean — which many do, even when they’re released hundreds of miles inland. They look so similar to jellyfish — a primary food of sea turtles — that the turtles eat them, causing injury and death. The ones that aren’t eaten by sea turtles become part of the ever-growing mass of plastic trash in the ocean.
Even latex balloons, touted as biodegradable, are a problem. They don’t break down quickly, allowing plenty of time for them to injure and kill wildlife — they’re the balloon type most frequently found in the stomachs of dead animals. And helium, which makes the balloons float away, is a nonrenewable resource that’s wasted when released via a balloon. There’s no kind of balloon release that’s environmentally friendly. Sky lanterns, seen as an alternative, are no less problematic; they also create litter that can harm wildlife, and they are a fire hazard.
So what can you do, instead of releasing balloons, to create a beautiful, meaningful tribute to a lost loved one? Here are ten eco-friendly alternatives to a memorial balloon release.
1. Float flowers on the water
A mass release of beautiful flowers in a stream, lake, or ocean will create a photo-worthy moment that’s a touching tribute to the departed. For maximum environmental friendliness, choose locally-grown flowers rather than imported ones. Friends and family can drop the flowers into the water from the shore or from a boat. Sometimes this tradition is combined with scattering of ashes.
Add an extra layer of meaning to this ritual by writing notes to your loved on quick-dissolve paper (such as rice paper) and releasing the notes into the water along with the flowers. They’ll float along for a bit before harmlessly dissolving. To be truly eco-friendly, you should choose a fully biodegradable ink, such as an ink made from algae, to write the messages.
2. Blow bubbles
One of the big appeals of a balloon release is seeing the balloons get smaller and smaller as they ascend upwards. You can replicate the effect in an eco-friendly way by blowing bubbles. One person blowing bubbles is fun, but get a crowd together, all blowing bubbles, and you can create a magical experience. For even more impact, add a few giant bubble wands to the mix.
3. Hold a candlelight vigil
The sight of dozens or hundreds of candles lit just after sunset is a memorable one, and you can commemorate your lost loved one this way. To make your candlelight vigil truly environmentally friendly, use candles made from beeswax or soy wax rather than the petroleum-based wax that’s common in the candle industry. You may also want to provide drip protectors for the candles. You can make these from recycled paper or cardboard by cutting out a circle and cutting an X in the middle to fit the candle through.
4. Write in the sand
Here’s a completely harmless and sustainable way to write an ephemeral message to a lost loved one: take a stick and write in the wet sand on the shore of a lake or ocean. This can be part of a larger memorial service on a beach, and everyone attending can write their words of love to the departed. The waves will wash them away, symbolically sending the message along.
5. Have a ceremonial bonfire
Gather loved ones together at dusk to light a bonfire in memory of a special person. Everyone can receive a piece of paper on which to write the message that they would have attached to a helium balloon. Everyone can then take turns placing their messages into the fire. As the notes burn, the rising flames and the sparks spiraling upward will offer the effect of sending the messages to the heavens. As with the flower release idea, it’s best to use a fully biodegradable ink for this, such as one made from algae.
6. Plant a tree
One way to create a lasting and environmentally-friendly memorial is to plant a tree, which will beautify the landscape and sequester carbon for years to come. Mourners can gather to plant a tree together — or a grove of trees, if space is available. Not everyone may be able to do the physical work involved with digging a hole and planting, so this may be a ritual that some participate in while others watch. Be sure to plant the tree(s) in a place that’s easy to access so they can be cared for as they grow.
Another option is to plant perennials, creating a memorial garden in a loved one’s honor. To benefit the Earth in addition to adding beauty, choose flowers that are native to your region as well as pollinator-friendly. Some favorites of bees and butterflies include butterfly weed, bee balm, coneflower, aster, and milkweed.
7. Plan a fundraiser
Instead of a visually striking memorial like a balloon release, you can create a lasting impact by organizing a memorial fundraiser for your loved one’s favorite cause. It could be a hike or 5k, a trivia night, a pancake breakfast, or any other favorite fundraising activity. Add a layer of environmental impact by choosing an organization that helps the Earth, like the Environmental Defense Fund or the Sierra Club Foundation. It’ll be an opportunity to gather with others who loved the deceased and& help out a worthy cause.
8. Write and plant a message on seed paper
Seed paper is a kind of paper you can buy or make that’s embedded with seeds, which grow once it’s placed on soil and kept watered. It might have wildflower seeds, or vegetables, or herbs. Gather friends and family to write their messages to the deceased on the seed paper. Then, you can plant them together in a place you’d like to beautify — or you can all take them home and plant them in your own private ceremonies. Here are instructions on how to make seed paper.
9. Release ladybugs
You might see a suggestion of releasing doves or butterflies in lieu of balloons. However, these are both problematic ceremonies that often result in cruel deaths of birds and butterflies. Butterflies sometimes arrive dead or too stunned to fly away and can be crushed in the aftermath of their release. Released doves may easily become prey to hawks or get hit by cars. But one way to do a safe release of a living thing is to release ladybugs to a garden.
Ladybugs offer natural pest control, making them a lovely and practical tribute to someone who loved to garden. They may not fly away in a symbolic heavenly flight like butterflies — ladybugs do tend to crawl out of their container rather than fly. But you can take comfort in knowing you’re not harming the bugs you’re releasing. It’s best to look for farmed ladybugs rather than wild-caught ones, if you can, and note that it’s best to release ladybugs at dusk and just after watering the garden. You can also choose to release green lacewings as an alternative beneficial insect.
10. Set a candle afloat (and reel it back in)
Another kind of candlelight vigil is one that takes place on the quiet waters of a stream, lake, or pond. A candle is set afloat in a boat or cup, shining as it drifts away. You can buy or make small wooden or paper boats, or you can place the candles in shallow bowls or cups. Here’s how this looks in a traditional Indian ceremony, and here’s a different approach used in Japan. For maximum eco-friendliness, attach a long string to each boat, so they can be reeled back in rather than left to litter the waterway.