This is going to be a post that is a little different than my other, but it was also requested, kind of. Some time ago I was asked in a Q&A if human bodies are compostable, and I thought it was an interesting question, but it also had a little ”I am asking for a friend” serial killer vibes (no offense). The answer to the Q&A was in short: no. And although the body is compostable, it would take a really long time in a home composting. However, it did make me think about the impact of our bodies, and death, in general. I would also really like to shoutout the YouTube channel Ask A Mortician, Caitlin makes amazing, funny, educational, and down-to-earth content about different aspects of death and also has tons of content about sustainability and the funeral industry. I got tons of inspiration and knowledge from her videos as well.
Around 60 million people die every year, and today, the two most commonly used methods of handling a deceased person are either burial or cremation. According to the United States Census Bureau, over 2.4 million Americans die every year. The National Funeral Directors Association found that the rate of burial funerals is 53% and 47% choose cremation in the United States in 2016. So let’s start by looking at what it takes to put a body in the ground
Burial: There are lots of preparations that go into a burial, the most obvious one of which is the casket, or the coffin. These are often made from a combination of wood, metal, and plastic. According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, conventional burials in the U.S. use 30 million pounds of hardwood, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete for burial vaults and caskets. The amount of wood needed to create caskets is equivalent to 4 million square acres of forest, which contains enough trees to sequester 65 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and, most of which is tropical and precious wood, which is the equivalent of a land area the size of New Jersey. The amount of wood used in casket-making could also supply the wood needed to build over 90,000 homes. 115 million tons of steel is used to make caskets. That is enough to build over 2000 empire state buildings. Most modern caskets do not decompose, let alone let the body inside decompose because the caskets actually often include a lining made from synthetic rubber or plastic.
Why is there a need for a lining between the dead body and the soil, dead bodies do not pose an environmental risk or health risk per se? The dead body in its natural state is rather harmless, the issue is often how we prepare our dead. Embalming is a very common practice in many countries, and for instance, in the US most people are embalmed even though in most cases there is not a legal obligation to do so. In Denmark, it is only mandatory to embalm a body if it is buried above the ground.
When embalming a corpse, you typically fill it with formaldehyde to avoid natural decomposition of the body, and formaldehyde is considered to be one of the top 10% most environmentally hazardous chemicals. In the US, embalming practices leak 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid into waterways and soil every single year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Not only is embalming fluid toxic, but the chemicals used to process and finish the wood for the caskets are also detrimental to the environment, to ecosystems, biodiversity, water systems, and to human health. We often have this idea of corpses rotting away in the earth, however, we wrap and process bodies to an extent where that is rarely the reality. Embalming stops the corpse from rotting but then we also put that corpse in a casket made from wood and metal, and with synthetic rubber linings on the inside, so our body is very unlikely to ever touch the dirt.
The casket also rarely goes into the ground itself, because in order to avoid cemeteries sinking in on themselves, every casket is buried in an underground secondary casket that supports the structure of the cemetery, so in reality, we never see the ground once we die – that is, if we go with a conventional graveside burial. However, more and more people are choosing cremation over burial.
Cremation: A new report by insurance firm Choice Mutual found 44% of Americans plan on being cremated, a 40% increase from the 1960s and Danish statistics show that in 2018 84% of deceased chose cremation. Cremation perks – direct cremation aka cremation without embalming, can be a way to cut back on carbon emissions, often bodies are burned in wooden caskets without metal, or in a cardboard box (which I honestly live for, dat simply life yo). But there are still the emissions to deal with. If a body is cremated and has been embalmed, the environmental impact is not insignificant. Formaldehyde will during cremation be suspended in the air with emissions and when it bonds with water, it will rain down, polluting water, soil, animals, and people. As a very recognized carcinogen, you really don’t water to be anywhere near a formaldehyde shower. The process of cremation also emits carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, and heavy metals into the atmosphere.
(picture borrowed from Ecoffins with permission)
The Future of Death // more sustainable options
Alkaline Hydrolysis: also referred to as flameless cremation or water cremation. Here you pressurize a body in a mixture of 95% and 5% potassium hydroxide and heat it to 365 degrees Fahrenheit. This will decompose a body in a couple of hours, separating the bone from the soft tissue. The waste is non-toxic and safe to flush down the sewer or can be used as fertilizer. It only uses 1/8th of the energy of flame cremation, 1/4th of the carbon footprint, it releases no mercury and heavy metal emissions and its water consumption is equivalent to 3 days of water-use if the person was alive. The carbon dioxide emissions are also much lower because the temperatures are nowhere near as high as with typical cremation, which requires temperatures like 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The bones are then dried and ground into a fine white powder that resembles ashes, and then you have the option of spreading them, keeping them, or burning them in an urn. It is still not a widespread method, but it could definitly be a part of a more sustainable funeral industry.
Body farms are a way of donating your body to science. At body farms, scientists and forensic anthropologists follow the body’s natural decomposition and make great discoveries that help the world of medicine, as well criminal science. There are also ways of donating your body to medical schools for research and training, this is an option chosen by 6% of Americans. It is definitely more sustainable in the way that you will be able to reuse, or upcycle your body and enable people to learn more about human anatomy and health. In relation to this, being an organ donor is a great thing to do, no matter what funeral you want to have. I have a card in my wallet that gives doctors the permission to use my organs in case I die, and I carry that with me everywhere, so even in the case of an untimely death, I would be able to do some good (this is not even a burial thing, I just think it is super important #upcycledatbody).
Natural burial: 4% of Americans chose a natural burial, which seems like such a weird term, because natural can mean a lot of things, and in this case what is meant by natural burial is a contrast to what we in the West have considered the norm for about 150 years. A natural burial does not involve embalming, or steel caskets, but is nothing short of a hole in the ground where the body can decompose. Naturally. In this case, corpses propose no threat to the environment or human health, as the toxic components of corpses are more so connected to the preparation of the corpse rather than the body in its natural state. One of the main differences here is oxygen. During a natural burial, there is plenty of oxygen flow to the body, which ensures decomposition, as the body becomes food for both flora and fauna, there is not much of that in most conventional burial traditions. Conservational burial: once you bury a body with conservational burial you cannot alter or tear up this particular natural area. As Caitlin from Ask A Mortician says, it is like chaining yourself to a tree post mortem.
– mushroom burial, this sustainable cotton suit is lined with mushroom spores that are specifically good at devouring tissue, they also absorb toxins from the body and distribute clean fertilizer to the plants and organisms around the body. They even have options for pets
– Recomposing, or body composting, is sadly not legal in a lot of places yet but the idea is that you can put the body into a circular composting system, like industrial organic recycling, where the remains will be broken down. Composting bodies release 80% fewer greenhouse gasses than conventional burial methods. This Swedish company submerges bodies in liquid nitrogen and smashes the brittle body into tiny pieces, then mixes them with water to make a composting agent that is then used to nourish a garden.
– Become a reef, mix your ashes with concrete, and creates structures that are designed to be habitable for the marine line. Over time, the coral will grow on the structure and you will become the foundation for an aquatic ecosystem
(picture borrowed from Capsula Mundi with permission)
– Become a tree, this Italian invention is an organic and biodegradable capsule in which a body is buried below a tree sapling. The nutrients from the body will make the tree grow and the trees will become the headstone (from https://www.capsulamundi.it/en). The Bios Urn is a compostable urn that also turns human remains into fertilizer for plants (from https://urnabios.com/urn/)
– Sustainable coffins and caskets, made from wicker, or cardboard. Using biodegradable and fair trade materials
(picture borrowed from Ecoffins with permission)
– Get some use out of your casket before you die. William Warren’s Shelves for Life is a shelf system that can be taken apart and put together as a coffin. This way the resources produced to make the coffin have had a much longer shelf life than most conventional coffins and caskets. It is kind of the same wastefulness that goes into buying gift wrapping one moment just to rip it apart from the next. This way you get a lot of wear out of it before it goes in the ground (even if you cannot buy this exact model, it is absolutely possible to DIY the designer actually encourages this)