The way we deal with the dead has become unsustainable

Hyperaxion Jan 23, 2020

Faced with a lack of space and soil contamination, the funeral industry wants to find new techniques for dealing with the bodies of the deceased.

On average, 1.8 people die per second in the world. This means that, as you read these two sentences, 14 Earthlings breathe their last breaths. This rate seems small compared to the 4.3 inhabitants that the Earth gains every second, but it is difficult to speak of numbers when the dead person was a family member or dear friend. In times of global warming and economic crisis, however, the discussion of the practical terms related to the loss of someone is increasingly necessary, say researchers in the area.

Burying the dead alongside roads

Burying the dead alongside roads
John Ashton proposes that we bury the dead alongside roads. (Photo: Rui Vieira).

Among the researchers is the British John Ashton, former president of the UK School of Public Health. He made headlines in 2019 when he published an article suggesting that we start burying human bodies alongside roads. “European cemeteries are full, and we have nowhere else to bury our dead”, he reinforces. For him, the solution is practical and effective. “My argument is that by burying people where homes and commercial buildings cannot be built, not only will we provide a solution to the shortage of cemeteries, but we will also help to combat global warming.”

It’s a waste of resources

The way we deal with our dead today is problematic for the environment in many ways. First, as Ashton says, the lack of space for burials is an issue to be considered. Second is the waste of resources. According to a survey by the Irish Times newspaper, in an area of 40 thousand square meters, we ended up burying enough wood to build 40 average houses. To top it off, coffin wood, in most cases, is coated with products that are harmful to nature – not to mention formaldehyde, a substance used to preserve bodies.

Cremation is also inefficient

Cremation is inefficient
Cremation is inefficient.

When it comes to cremation, the facts are also worrying. The time taken to turn a body to ashes varies depending on the size of the deceased, but considering an average of 75 minutes per process, 285 kilowatt-hours of gas and 15 kilowatt-hours of electricity are used – which is equivalent, according to data from The Guardian, the total energy that a British spends at home each month.

Besides, carbon emissions must be considered when cremating. Katrina Spade, director of Recompose, explains that the gases that come out of the corpses are not harmful, but highlights that for the disposal of just one body, an average of 106 liters of fuel is required, and the burning releases 245 kilograms of CO2 – equivalent to the decomposition 350 kilograms of garbage.

Other materials, such as mercury, are extremely harmful both to nature and to funeral professionals. Robert Connolly explains in the book Over Your Dead Body that 60% of the pollution caused by this metal in the United Kingdom comes from dental prostheses vaporized with the remains.

Damage beyond life

Body conservation techniques are not ecological alternatives either. The processes, which replace body fluids with a mixture of water and formaldehyde, delay the decomposition of the corpse and make it more presentable. According to the World Health Organization, unless someone dies of a contagious disease – such as Ebola – the fresh corpse is no longer “dangerous” for the living.

On the other hand, formaldehyde does offer a risk. In 2009, the UN classified this substance as a carcinogen and, in 2015, a study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry pointed out that those who work with this product are four times more likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also, bodies preserved with chemicals are a problem for the soil, as they can leak and contaminate even groundwater.

The practice of preserving bodies

The practice of preserving bodies
The Egyptians believed in life after death and invented mummification to preserve the body until the spirit could return.

The origins of the practice of preserving bodies date back to Ancient Egypt, but the techniques used today are inspired by the Civil War period (1861-1865). During the conflict, Thomas Holmes – the father of the modern funeral industry – arranged for family members of the combatants to be able to see the corpses in good condition after long trips.

American mortician Caitlin Doughty, famous for sharing her daily life on social media and books, explains in Confessions of the Crematorium (DarkSide) that the spread of these methods has distanced people from death. The practice turned a ritual into a homemade product: before, both the preparation of the deceased and the funeral were performed by the family members themselves.

Facing death

“Life and death are two sides of the same coin.”

Death is a taboo. If years ago witnessing a birth was only for health professionals, today the birth of a baby is widely registered and has the family in the waiting room. The practice, for Gisela Adissi, president of Sincep, shows a way to also face death naturally. “When we pretend it doesn’t exist, the process becomes even more difficult. It is essential to put this matter on the table. Life and death are two sides of the same coin.”

Your body, your rules

“Show me how a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical accuracy the tenderness and piety of its people, its respect for the laws of the land and its loyalty to high ideals.” The quote is attributed to William Gladstone (1809 -1898), former British Prime Minister. It is not known whether he even uttered these words, but the fact is that they have become a mantra for anyone studying the subject.

Like the former ruler, Adissi points out that avoiding dealing with death is also drowning out sadness, a feeling intrinsic to human beings. “We cannot continue to reinforce the idea that to succeed is to be happy all the time, as it does not exist.” For her, a much healthier example of mourning is that practiced in the Tana Toraja region, in Indonesia.

There the corpses are embalmed, but the burial only happens when the family raises enough money for a dignified ritual – which can take years. During this period, the deceased loved one has his clothes changed, his meals served and even “sleeps” in bed with relatives. Ma’nene, as tradition is called, is not only a form of respect but also a way of gradually saying goodbye to those who have left.

Different places, different practices

In Japan, where 99% of the dead are cremated – not before a wake of days -, family members engage in a ritual called Kotsuage: they gather around the remaining bones of the cremation process and place them in a box. It is a way to honor the dead. In the West, after being subjected to high temperatures, the remains pass through the “cremulator”, a device that turns residual bones into powder.

To write his most recent book, For All Eternity (DarkSide), Doughty traveled the planet to understand rituals like these. In an interview, he tells how the fact of leaving Western reality opened his eyes. “I concluded that if a culture does something to improve its experience with death, I cannot be arrogant and think that the way we do it here is the ‘most correct’.”

Indeed, sleeping in the same bed as your grandfather’s corpse for 12 years may not be the general idea of healthy mourning, but it is essential to consider possibilities other than the current. “We are seeing a positive change in the funeral market. People no longer identify with rituals, as the distance and narrative of a wake no longer make sense to them, ”says Adissi.

What alternatives do we have?

After years of working with terminally ill patients, palliative care specialist Steven Pantilat of the University of California has realized that treating death as an essentially biological issue is far from ideal. “We need to discuss grieving so that we can live our lives in the best possible way and provide funeral rituals that involve us psychologically and spiritually”, says the doctor.

It is precisely in this line of thought that alternatives to conventional cremation and burial have emerged.


Aquamation, an ecological alternative to cremation and burial.

An already tested practice is aquamation, whose technical name is alkaline hydrolysis. The method consists of placing the corpse in a pressurized chamber filled with water and potassium hydroxide, increasing the temperature to approximately 160 ° C. The procedure speeds up natural decomposition and, at the end of the process, only greenish water and bone powder remain.

Becoming a tree

The capsules of the Italian project Capsula Mundi, which aims to transform cemeteries into forests.

Another idea, this one for burials, is Capsula Mundi, developed in Italy. The project consists of transforming the remains into a kind of cocoon that must be buried with seeds to become a tree. The complete proposal has not yet left the paper, but the company already offers a biodegradable urn, which must be filled with cremation ashes and, only then, buried with seeds. In this case, the environmental damage resulting from cremation still exists – and the ashes are not effectively transformed into nutrients for the plant, as they are basically composed of carbon, already abundant in the soil. “The point is not to buy a biodegradable urn, but to help the idea to gain space,” explains Anna Citelli, from Capsula Mundi.

Turning the remains into plant food

Another ecological method under development is Promession. Created by the Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, it consists of a burial done in the most natural way possible, without using substances to preserve the corpse, in a land that facilitates the decomposition so that the nutrients are returned to nature.

In fact, from the beginning to the end of this reading, 2,376 people must have already died in the world – and what will happen to the body of each of them says more about who is staying than about who is gone.

Donate your body to science

Donate your body to science
A viable alternative is to donate your body to science. (Photo: 123RF).

Health students and researchers need corpses for dissection and experimentation.

A viable alternative for those who do not want to be buried or cremated in a traditional way is to donate their bodies to science. As Andrea Oxley, vice president of the Brazilian Society of Anatomy, explains, corpses are important both for the development of research and for the training of health professionals. “It is essential that the person expresses the desire to donate his body while still alive so that the family can authorize the donation when he dies”, warns the specialist.

She also points out that being an organ donor does not preclude the delivery of other remains to research institutes. “The only corpses that cannot be donated are those of victims of violent deaths or infectious diseases.”


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