Meeting The Green Reaper: How to Have an Eco Death

8 mins

Just because you’re dead, doesn’t mean you can’t be green. Nick Harding looks at the most ethical send offs where you can become part of a conservation reserve or even a tree

Death is, sadly, inevitable. Environmentalism is not. Some people can live in harmony with nature all their lives, but then undo all the good work when they depart, thanks to Western funeral rites that at worst are akin to toxic waste dumping.

Bodies are filled with poison, placed in resource-heavy hardwood and metal caskets and then placed in the ground, where they leak toxins into the earth for hundreds of years.

In recent years, however, things have begun to change and environmentalists and eco-minded funeral directors have started to look at alternatives to help people stay green when they fade to grey.

Across the world, cultures have very different death rites. Islamic death customs already score highly for environmental positivity. According to shariah, the body should be buried as soon as possible after death. This means no embalming, so no damaging preserving chemicals are used. Bodies are washed in water and buried in simple cloth shrouds, which are biodegradable. Burial, rather than cremation, means there are no emissions and graves are simple and not marked with stone and marble memorials.

Environmentally-Friendly Death

In other cultures, practices are even more basic and subsequently, more nature-friendly. During Tibetan sky burials, the bodies of the deceased are chopped up and left for vultures to scavenge on. Often several bodies are disposed of in one go.

In contrast, in the UK, Europe and US, it is standard practice to preserve bodies before sealing them into caskets and plunging them into the ground, or burning them. The entire process puts stress on the environment.

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Cemeteries may look green but the environmental impact is far from what it seems. Image: iStock

Burial requires cemeteries which take up land which is then landscaped, managed and irrigated, while cremation releases poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings. It is estimated that a single cremation has the environmental impact of a 500-mile car journey.

Cremation releases poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere including mercury emissions from dental fillings. It is estimated that a single cremation has the environmental impact of a 500-mile car journey

Even before the body is disposed of, the environmental damage begins. The practice of embalming is an unreported act of industrial pollution. The process involves pumping a cocktail of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin into the corpse to delay decomposition. In most Western countries, there is a delay between death and burial or cremation which can often extend to several weeks.

The chemicals used present a range of environmental and health risks. Formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen, and can be lethal if a person is exposed to high concentrations. Its fumes can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Phenol, similarly, can irritate or burn flesh and is toxic if ingested. Methyl alcohol and glycerin can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and throat. According to research, more than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are put into the ground along with dead bodies every year in the US. That’s enough to fill one and a quarter Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. In the face if these destructive practices, a new generation of forward thinking undertakers are questioning the funeral trade and offering greener alternatives.

Green Funerals 

Caitlin Doughty is at the forefront of this movement. She is a mortician, activist, and funeral industry commentator. She runs her own eco-friendly funeral business in Los Angeles and wants her body to be eaten by wild animals when she dies.

She explains that the funeral business is a multi-billion-dollar industry – 150,000 people die globally per day – with an economic model based on the principle of protection, sanitation and beautification of the corpse.

‘They’ll put in make-up, they’ll put it in a suit. They’ll inject dyes so the person looks a little more alive. Embalming is a cheat code providing the illusion that death and then decay are not the natural end for all organic life on this planet.

‘There is no question that our current methods of death are not particularly sustainable, what with our waste of resources and reliance on chemicals.’

Caitlin recently toured the globe to research her new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. In rural Indonesia, she watched a man clean and dress his grandfather’s mummified body, which had resided in the family home for two years. In La Paz, she met Bolivian ñatitas (cigarette-smoking, wish-granting human skulls), and in Tokyo she encountered the Japanese kotsuage ceremony, in which relatives use chopsticks to pluck their loved-ones’ bones from cremation ashes.

She argues that in addition to the adverse environmental costs of Western practices, they also negatively impact emotionally and psychologically on mourners. She believes that removing a body from a family straight after death and keeping it in a funeral parlour fosters a corrosive fear of death that hinders the ability to cope and mourn. By comparing customs around the world, she found that mourners responded to the death of a loved one best when they could help care for the deceased and participate in the process.

Nourishing Plant life

Thanks to Caitlin and people like her, pioneering new forms of burial and body disposal are being tested. One of the most radical is taking place at a ‘body farm’ operated by Western Carolina University in the USA. Here bodies donated to science are used to study the effects of decomposition. One of the projects being trialled is a facility where bodies are turned into compost. The process involves placing nitrogen-rich bodies inside mounds of carbon-rich material such as woodchips. With added moisture and extra nitrogen, microbial activity starts. Bacteria release enzymes that break down tissue into component parts and eventually a soil like substance is created that could be used to nourish plants.

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Your remains could be turned into compost or soil to nurture new plant life, including a tree. Image: Shutterstock

The project is driven by The Urban Death Project, a not-for-profit organisation headed by a board of scientists, environmentalists and radical funeral industry representatives. Ultimately the plan is to develop new Urban Death Facilities where bodies can be ‘recomposed’ in large numbers. Each facility would have a core into which families would ceremonially lay the shrouded bodies of their loved ones. Each core would hold around 30 bodies and each body would move down the core, gently composting, until, after several weeks, families could come back and collect their loved ones remains in the form of compost.

Eco Funerals

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Wicker coffins are a more environmentally-friendly choice than traditional caskets. Image: Shutterstock

If this a little too ‘Matrix’ for you (in the sci-fi movie dead bodies are harvested by machines to nourish new human slaves), more orthodox green burials are becoming increasingly commonplace. In these, bodies are laid to rest in woodland in environmentally-friendly, biodegradable caskets. Environmentally-friendly funerals were one of the major trends on display at the Asia Funeral and Cemetery Expo and Conference in Hong Kong in May this year.

Chinese businessman Alex Sun’s company, Shandong Ecoffin International, makes wicker and seagrass coffins. Natural burial in a biodegradable coffin reduces carbon emissions by 50 percent compared with traditional burials, according to the Natural Death Centre.

‘Eco funerals are a global trend,’ he said. ‘European customers already know about this product, while Asian customers are also interested in it and would love to learn more.’

In Asia, the funeral services market is worth about $62.6 billion a year, with China accounting for nearly half, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. And as the elderly population is projected to hit 923 million by 2050, the industry will grow, so eco-funerals could have a real impact on sustainability.

Green Urn

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Choose a bios urn and you can become a tree. Image: Bios Urn

If you are adamant about a cremation, you can always choose an environmentally conscious urn. Sustainable wooden ones are available or choose the Bios Urn, a biodegradable urn made from coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose that contains the seed of a tree. Once the remains have been placed in the urn, the whole thing can be planted. The seed germinated and begins to grow giving a new meaning to ‘life after death.’  Different seeds are available so you can even choose which tree you want to be.

Conservation Burials

Another trend that environmentalists hope will catch on are conservation burials where bodies are buried naturally in land set aside as a conservation reserve. The land is protected, and burial fees are used to fund conservation schemes such as wildlife protection. Currently there are only a handful of these sites in the world. At the Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, USA, bodies are buried and planted over with endangered native species. The park also protects coyotes and black bears. There are six similar sites in the US, two in the UK and several due to open in Australia.

‘Conservation cemeteries offer dedicated green space in urban and rural areas,’ explains Caitlin. ‘They offer a chance to reintroduce native plants and animals to a region, they offer public trails, places for spiritual practice, places for classes and events, places where nature and mourning meet.’

Although natural burial, recomposing and conservation cemeteries will not solve climate change, they will help people think more ethically about the physical legacy they leave on the planet they lived on. And that can only be a good thing.

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