By Glenn Ashton · 14 Feb 2012
The burden of an increasing global population forces us to reconsider how we deal with our dead. Our present system of burials and cremations is not only wasteful, it is unsustainable. Most of us now live in cities where space is at a premium. Using our limited land to house the dead is an anachronism. Incinerating dead bodies demands huge amounts of energy and releases serious pollutants.
Therefore, we not only need to tread more carefully on the earth when we are alive but we also need to reconsider how we dispose of our earthly remains. Welcome to the age of the green funeral.
Drive past any large cemetery and take note of the sprawling, abandoned open space. Few wander amongst the gravestones to absorb the relative quiet of this haven amidst the bustle of the city. Graveyards effectively become wastelands of the dead.
This is unsurprising. Most of us avoid graveyards except when compulsory. But why can we not turn the spaces where we memorialise our dead into something attractive? Imagine cemeteries being replaced by urban forests and woodlands. Instead of using energy-intensive ways to dispose of our earthly remains, we would achieve more by preserving rather than consuming our natural spaces and resources.
In shifting away from these patterns we need to actively question our infused cultural habits. To motivate change, consider some numbers: Globally nearly 60 million people die every year, 600 000 of them South Africans; In the US alone more than 100 000 tons of steel, a million tons of reinforced concrete, 2 500 tons of copper and brass and 70 000 cubic meters of timber (around 25 Olympic swimming pools full of wood) are used to bury the dead, each year. Add to this mix more than 3000 tons of formaldehyde contaminated embalming fluid, which disrupts natural biological processes and contaminates aquifers.
In India tradition dictates that around 50 million trees are felled annually for funeral pyres. Imagine reversing this and planting trees or preserving woodland, instead of burning or burying valuable timber. We simply cannot carry on like this and green funerals must be made culturally acceptable.
The growth in cremation in the early 20th century was driven by shortages of suitable burial grounds across England. Since then cremation has become widely accepted. Around 70% of people in the UK and Europe are cremated, with higher proportions in the east, reaching over 99% in Japan. Burial remains the method of choice in the USA but there too there is a rapid shift toward cremation.
Cremation requires significant amounts of energy – the equivalent energy of around 12 litres of petrol. More importantly it produces significant emissions including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals and particulates. About 16% of total mercury emissions in the UK are from crematoria. So while cremation reduces demand for burial land it is neither environmentally friendly nor sustainable.
Islam arguably has the lowest impact in how it disposes of the dead. Bodies are wrapped in a shroud and buried within 24 hours. No embalming is allowed and natural decay occurs. Yet even Muslim burial grounds are not attractive places but simply a consecrated area to dispose of the bodies of dearly departed.
A growing number of younger people now question how we should dispose of our bodies. Green burials have rapidly gained acceptance and this trend is becoming mainstream.
Originally green funerals were quite fringe. In the UK wicker coffins were used, the so-called “creak and leak” method of burial. Green coffins have since improved. Some are manufactured with recycled materials like newspaper or cardboard, others from particleboard using natural, biodegradable glues or resins. This trend has begun to catch on in the USA, Australia and Europe but is often retarded by restrictive local legislation.
Yet even green burial in conventional graveyards, at normal depths, is not truly sustainable. Urban land is expensive and overcrowded. The response has been a shift away from urban to rural burial sites in woodland or forest areas. In some, graves are shallow enough to ensure a rapid microbial breakdown of remains. In others, bodies are buried and a tree planted above, which can then be identified as a “memorial tree” and even marked as such.
Parks within and surrounding metropolitan areas could have areas set aside as woodland burial sites. This would assist in the preservation of open spaces to be enjoyed by all residents. The timber from these lots could even be harvested with new burial places being established between felled trees, contributing to the sustainable harvest of trees and timber.
Burial at sea also seems a good alternative – again we are simply choosing to return our bodies to the environment, to be recycled and reused by other species, as part of the chain of life of which we form an integral part. However sea burials remain opposed within most western countries. In Britain it is only permitted in three specific areas. In South Africa the process is mummified in red tape. There is no real reason that burial at sea cannot be formalised and become more readily accessible. The downside is the fuel and expense of burial at sea.
There are several other interesting options. One is called hydrolysis, which uses alkaline solutions to dissolve the body, which can then be reused as a nutrient source for trees or agriculture. This is similar to water burials, held in high esteem by Hindu and Buddhist devotees. Hydrolysis uses around 10% the energy of cremation and is becoming more widely permitted, mainly in Europe.
Another method is freeze-drying and then composting the remains, known as promession. This is permitted in Sweden and elsewhere and involves freezing the body in liquid nitrogen and then vibrating it into powder. The remains are placed into a cellulose or wooden box and buried, with a tree planted above it, as would happen in natural woodland burial. The major shortcoming to this is the energy needed to produce the liquid nitrogen, which has to be manufactured and then maintained at minus 177 degrees C.
A more ancient means of recycling is the so called sky burial, where a body is placed in an enclosure, open to birds of prey which then feed on the human remains. This method depends on local populations of vultures and fairly limited use of the facilities. Given the toxic load carried by most humans today this may not be a healthy option for the birds either.
Many people are squeamish about being recycled. The Christian burial liturgy cites “, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which invokes Genesis, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." Or as Joni Mitchell sang at Woodstock, “…we are stardust, we are golden, and we go to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Modern living has alienated us from our natural heritage. By active deliberation of how we dispose of our dead – and by extension ourselves - we are effectively reconsidering the very matter from which we are made and from which we must return. It is no longer acceptable to remove ourselves from the cycle of life, especially given our increasing human footprint on the world.
There is simply no rational, cultural or ethical reason why we should not return our earthly remains into the natural system, which has sustained each of us. I would certainly be quite happy to get back to the garden, in a manner of speaking!
Burial at Sea in Durban
When I was a local councillor for the ECOPEACE party I asked about burial at sea, the response was that bodies or parts could wash up on shore.
Another question for vulture kitchen sky burial as practiced by Indigenous Americans, Tibetans and Parsees was not taken seriously and simply ignored.
Very refreshing, thinking out of the coffin (box). Well done!!
Niel De Grasse Tyson said he would not mind being fed upon in the afterlife, by the same fauna and flora that once served to keep him alive.
Now that is a cool way of sharing your atoms with living things.
I hope the idea becomes entrenched as a daily reality.