In keeping with nature’s basic ‘waste becomes food’ design, when we die all our organic remains, and particularly our trace elements and nutrients, should ideally go back to the agricultural fields whence they came. Join us for part 2 of our Eco Funerals series.
In keeping with nature’s basic ‘waste becomes food’ design, when we die all our organic remains, and particularly our trace elements and nutrients, should ideally go back to the agricultural fields whence they came.
Exposing the toxicity of the current burial and cremation methods of disposing of human remains created quite a stir amongst our readers last week. So what shall we do? Let’s look at possible natural and non- or less toxic ways to deal with those we love when they move on:
All our lives we denude the richness of our soils. Would it not be wonderful to give back some and have our remains nourish the ecosystems that gave us life? But I don’t think we will anytime soon overcome the cultural strictures of eating a plate of potato chips or salad that was fertilised with the remains of a loved one (or anyone for that matter); although what a celebration of their lives this would be.
Sky burial feeds vultures
Sky burial – the practice of feeding human remains to vultures, which is a custom used in parts of Asia – is in fact a practice where a body’s nutrients are released back into nature in a useful format. But while ecologically appropriate, it may leave some readers gasping in horror.
Even if we did overcome the taboo of dispatching our loved ones in this manner, there are just too many of us for our small vulture populations to cope with – if in fact there are any vultures around. But, don’t despair yet; fortunately there are a number of more sustainable – and palatable – alternatives that are becoming popular.
Eco-burial promotes decomposition
Natural burial, also called eco-burial, is when the human body is laid to rest in a manner that promotes, rather than inhibits decomposition, thus allowing the body’s nutrients to return to the earth. The burial is usually undertaken in a so-called natural burial ground and those that are more environmentally attuned ensure that the site only contains vegetation indigenous to that area.
While this burial practice is embryonic in most countries, it is growing apace in Europe and the USA. In the UK, for example, there are now more than 200 natural burial grounds that already attract more than 10% of national burials. The deceased are typically laid to rest in shallow, hand-dug graves – obviating the need for diesel excavators – and are wrapped in shrouds or encased in caskets made from entirely organic materials. No tombstones are used. Instead, GPS technology, tiny plaques, simple wooden crosses or an indigenous plant mark the grave location.
The shallow burial – the depth depends on soil type – allows the human remains to decompose aerobically, thus minimising the generation of the greenhouse gas methane. And typically there is a policy of little or no grave or grounds maintenance to reduce negative environmental impacts – thus avoiding the use of chemicals, water and vehicles.
The shallow burial also means decomposition is rapid and the grave can be reused much sooner than in traditional burials, in this manner significantly reducing the pressure for more burial areas. Human ashes, following cremation, can also be scattered in natural burial grounds or be buried there in urns made from biodegradable materials.
Sea burial feeds ocean creatures
Sea burial may in certain cases also be an environmentally responsible option, particularly for coastal towns. The deceased person is wrapped in a shroud, weighted, and bequeathed to the oceanic depths for decomposition. However, there are a number of concerns to consider:
- Boats consume large quantities of dirty fuel and to have a steady stream of funeral boats heading out to sea would make every burial a high-pollution affair.
- Sailing boats may be an alternative, but could in rough weather leave many a guest clinging to the railing, green around the gills; or the funeral boat may be indefinitely becalmed due to lack of wind.
- Also, if our multitude were to be buried at sea, more than an occasional fisherman may snag a nasty surprise in their nets.
- That said it seems that sea burial may be an ecologically sensitive option in limited cases and if appropriately managed, possibly piggybacking off scheduled boat trips.
Then there are two further, rather innovative, alternatives that I would like to discuss: Resomation and Promession. They reduce pollution and alleviate the pressure for cemetery or natural burial land. And in the case of Promession, like natural burial, also allows nutrients to cycle back into nature.
Dissolving in the lye
Resomation is a recently developed process where the body, wrapped in a silk shroud, is dissolved in a vessel containing a strong alkaline solution consisting of approximately 95% water and 5% potash lye. This is potassium hydroxide – potassium is an abundantly available mineral and potash lye is also used in the manufacture of everyday products such as liquid soaps. The vessel is heated under pressure to avoid boiling and two to three hours later the body’s soft tissues are dissolved into a sterile solution. The only solid remains are a pure white powder from the bones, which is returned in an urn and can be buried or scattered as after cremation.
The liquid, which does not contain any human DNA, but only our basic building blocks – salts, sugars, small peptides and amino acids – can be safely returned to the water cycle.
Resomation also elegantly avoids the problem of mercury pollution from fillings, as these are easily removed afterwards.
While the production of potash lye and the heating process do require considerable energy, the carbon emissions for the Resomation process are four times lower than for cremation. Note that this compares just the two processes and does not include other emissions such as from the funeral procession vehicles or heating, cooling and lighting of buildings. Where available, renewable energy can be used to power the Resomator.
More than 1000 bodies have to date been resomated at the Mayo Clinic in the US and the procedure is now permitted in seven US states. The first commercial installation is in place in Florida and a further two installations are soon to be commissioned in Minnesota and Los Angeles. Numerous other states and countries are evaluating the technology.
Promession creates frozen dust
Promession is another new alternative and was developed by the Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak who has a deep appreciation of ecosystems and nutrient cycles. Her specific ambition was to develop a method for allowing human remains to nourish our soils, as was nature’s original design, while tackling the cemetery space problem.
In the Promession process, the human body, placed inside a plain wood coffin, is slowly frozen to a temperature of minus 18 °C. The temperature is then further reduced using liquid nitrogen until the body and coffin become so brittle they can be reduced to a frozen dust by vibration.
Once the frozen water has been removed in a special vacuum chamber, medical implants and amalgam fillings can be removed. What is left are 25 – 30 kilograms of organic powder for an average adult. This powder is then placed in a (second) biodegradable coffin, about half the size of a normal one, and they are then buried in a shallow grave.
In rare cases, Promessa advises cremation of the dust remains where the deceased was on a particular medication that may cause soil and water pollution.
The real elegance of the Promessa process is that within a year, depending on the coffin, soil type and moisture, the body is reduced to compost thus returning our remains to the soil.
One environmental concern is that the initial freezing and production of liquid nitrogen are energy intensive processes. But reportedly the greenhouse gas emissions related to these are lower than for cremation. The initial freezing can be powered by renewable energy. The Promessa process has been tested successfully on animal carcasses and the first Promator is now being completed in Sweden. It is being anticipated with growing international interest.
Dodgy substances in our bodies pollute earth
An additional concern that applies to all funeral practices relates to the undesirable substances that we carry in our bodies at the time of death and that are then released into the soil, water and air. These may include chemotherapy drugs or other non-biodegradable and harmful medication and manmade chemicals. While the compounds are virtually impossible to extract from our bodies, cremation (possibly after the Promessa process) may offer a solution in cases where the chemicals of concern can be rendered harmless by incineration.
It does seem that Promession and Resomation reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air, soil and water pollution, when compared to current practices. And like cremation (but without the massive pollution side effect) these two technologies could help reduce the demand for more cemetery space.
While some people may feel uncomfortable about being dissolved or frozen and shattered – it does sound a bit like being ‘processed’ – I find it far more appealing than being burnt or being buried in a manner that is polluting. My guess is that we will see a steep increase in demand for natural burials, Resomation and Promession. They allow for a cleaner, more ecologically caring and thus dignified transition into the afterlife.
Full life cycle analyses needed
That said I would nonetheless like to see further independent and comparative full life cycle analyses of the various eco-funeral processes to allow for a more objective and complete comparison amongst them.
What has become clear to me while researching this topic is that it is impossible to completely eliminate the environmental impact of a funeral. My personal preference – a note to my dear family and friends – would probably be for a shallow natural burial, if space constraints allow.
A further preference, since natural burial sites are typically located out of town, is to reduce travel-related emissions by only having close family attend the funeral. A memorial service could be held in town for other guests.
Infant industry needs building
Some of you may now want to rush out to plan your or someone else’s eco-funeral. But please hang on until the end of this article. A problem is that the eco-funeral industry is still in its infancy, and that the alternatives described above may not be available in many places. In their absence, there are nonetheless a number of things you can do – see ‘Funeral greening tips’ below.
There is no doubt, in most countries and regions much more needs to be done to expand our options for environmentally friendly funerals. As individuals we need to engage with local government and the funeral sector to encourage change.
Where this has not already been done, there would be merit for funeral directors’ associations and local governments to commission comprehensive studies on eco-burial options to speed up the process.
The time may also have come for natural death associations, such as the UK’s Natural Death Centre, to be established in countries where these do not exist. They can accelerate the change process by disseminating information and knowledge to the industry as well as the public, and by lobbying for more progressive national and local laws.
Reinventing how we operate as a society
As a society we are now entering an exciting period of transition, where we are realising the folly of our existing ways and are reinventing how we operate as a society. We are exchanging unsustainable values and behaviour patterns for more responsible and caring ones.
As part of this our polluting funeral practices are being redesigned too. While we don’t generally have much choice over how or when we die, we can choose a transition that most contributes to the flourishing of future life.
Funeral greening tips
- As a first option and where available, select natural burial, Promession or Resomation.
- Avoid cremation. If cremation is nonetheless chosen, select a crematorium that has installed after-burners and that uses gas, instead of dirtier-burning fossil fuels such as diesel or paraffin. Where possible, request to be cremated in a cardboard coffin or natural-fibre shroud on a simple wooden board. While there is apparently no technical constraint to doing this, outdated bylaws often still require a body to be cremated in a wooden coffin.
- If the ashes are to be kept in an urn, ensure it is made from locally sourced, sustainable material. Avoid rare woods and materials such as glass, ceramic and metal, which require high amounts of energy to produce.
- Identify cemeteries in your vicinity, which only contain indigenous plants, and minimise irrigation and use of chemicals. Ask to see the cemetery’s (or natural burial ground’s) environmental management plan to establish what procedures are in place to reduce electricity, fuel and water consumption, and reduce waste to landfill by recycling and composting.
- Also consider whether the cemetery, crematorium or natural burial ground offers customers certified carbon offsets for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the funeral.
- Request the removal of amalgam fillings and other potentially hazardous implants, such as pacemakers, prior to cremation or burial.
- Request to be buried as shallow as possible (special permission might be required) as this accelerates decomposition and reduces methane emissions. Consider lobbying for local bylaws to allow for shallower burial.
- Request to be buried in just a plain natural-fibre shroud, as is allowed with special permission in some areas. If you opt for a casket or coffin, use one made from natural, local and untreated materials and that is not varnished, glued or treated and does not contain artificial liners and metal or plastic handles. Increasingly, it is now possible to obtain coffins and urns made from more sustainable natural materials, such as wicker, banana sheaves and leaves, bamboo, potato starch and alien vegetation – and as almost always, locally sourced and produced are best. I am skeptical of recycled paper and cardboard coffins, as the recycled materials often contain toxic glue, ink and paper coating residues.
The Ecopod is made by hand from recycled newspapers and 100% mulberry pulp.
Willow coffins are also known as wicker/basket coffins. They’re made from the willow plant and are completely biodegradable.
- Do not use a tombstone, but rather use untreated, sustainably sourced wood, or mark the grave with local rocks and vegetation indigenous to that area.
- The emissions from the funeral procession vehicles are a major contributor to the environmental impact of a funeral. Encourage attendants to lift share or organise transport for guests.
- In some areas, one can request so-called ‘reduction burials’, where after 20 – 30 years the decomposed remains are carefully removed and reburied in the same grave to make space for other family members. This helps reduce space pressure.
By Robert Zipplies
Robert is a sustainability consultant, trainer, speaker and writer. He is the editor of the climate change book Bending the Curve.
Robert also offers ‘Be the Change’ courses for people ready to turn their concern about the state of the world into inspired action. The course challenges, motivates and equips participants with the tools and know-how to re-focus their lives and drive the positive change we all want to see in the world. Tailored Be the Change courses are also available for organisations.
Dying to Live – by Prof Roger Short, an Australian eco-burial enthusiast
I didn’t live to die,
By dying I could live,
If I became a tree.
Me? A tree?
Inspired by CO2,
I could cleanse the air,
And give oxygen to you.
So, after death,
I still could live and do some good.
Just think of me,
When you touch wood.
I will not be entombed,
Nor burnt to ash,
I want to live again!
So grant me this, my living wish …
Just bury me beneath a tree.
My roots and shoot and leaves,
Will help the lives of others,
And thus grant me a true eternity.
I will go back in time,
Before mankind was born,
Free from all care and strife,
Please grant me this … another life.