With our massively consuming, wasteful and self-indulgent time spent on earth, our death should give the planet a momentary pause in celebration of the carbon footprint that will no longer be plaguing the earth. But with our equally demanding funeral and post-life preparations, our death may just top off a wasteful life led with another human need put before the planets.
As much as our lifestyles like to reject it, we are organic organisms so our bodies should harmlessly degrade into the earth to become part of the cycle of life and death as nutrients for new growth. But the way in which we swaddle, bury, and burn our mortal binds has incredible impact on the environment. Even funerals with their massive injection into the cut flower industry, are culpable in the colossal use of pesticides and chemicals that scourge the earth.
Traditional burials are an industry in themselves, responsible for a catalogue of obtrusive, unnecessary, and expensive services to immortalise, at least until the end of the funeral, our earthly substance. Ultimately, a body will decompose, right along with swathes of toxic chemicals and pollutants that are an inherent part of our ritualistic death culture straight into the nearest water source.
Embalming, as a standard industry practice, involves massive amounts of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to preserve the body until it gets to the ground. With no environmental or health benefits, it is purely for show, particularly with open-casket funerals. Once the coffin lid is shut and later degraded into the ground, this chemical has the potential to leak into the ground. The coffin, typically made from a luxurious solid wood heavily lacquered in varnish and more formaldehyde resin which enter into the ground along with the embalming liquid. Even a life led with an attempt to reduce unnecessary resource use is not virtuous in death.
As we lose more and more of our land space to account for our booming population and encroaching cities, even the land designated for burials is no longer a sustainable option. In 2013 a survey of towns and counties indicated that within the next couple decades we’ll have no room left in the cemetery. Even now across the country, carparks and greenfield land, that could have been used to grow crops in preparation for future food shortages, is having to be dug up to make way for our dearly departed. Despite 77% of people in 2017 opting for cremation over burial, new policies are becoming imperative to allow for grave re-use; to remove the remains from graves over 75 years old, dig a bigger pit, pop them back in and put new coffins on top.
There are no environmental sins expunged from choosing cremation. Having to run at 760-1150 degrees Celcius for up to 75 minutes, turning to ashes and dust requires 110 litres of fuel, 285-kilowatt hours of gas, 15 kWh of electricity and releases 240kg of carbon dioxide per cremation – roughly the same amount of energy use as a living person for a week. To top it all off, the lifestyles we chose in our living moments may just have the last word, as in a final moment of environmental defiance the burning of metals from old dental fillings is responsible for 16% of the UK’s entire mercury pollution.
Whether we chose a life led more simply or attempt in our last mortal milestone to repent our ecological moments of transgression, there is an opportunity for environmental atonement in death. To return our corporeal material to the earth naturally like all other organisms on the planet without horrifying our grieving family and friends, biological and degradable caskets made from untreated wood, reeds and even cardboard that break down quickly into harmless compounds that are naturally reabsorbed into the soil. Without the unnecessary use of embalming fluid – though organic ones are an option – these bio-based alternatives can offer a toxic-free transition into the great beyond. Green burials are available that minimise the impact of death without disturbing the natural land. Sites dedicated to these burials are vast forests instead of carved out flatlands that are intimately manicured between tombstones, instead allowing your earthly remains to be recycled into new living things.
If these aren’t your style, there are more distinctive ways to leave your mark on this world beyond a chemical trail leaching through the soil. Solar powered crematoriums offer a less energy intensive departure and mean your ashes can be stored in an urn that holds the seeds of a tree, to leave your loved ones a living marker of your time on earth. But if your style was more ostentatious, try being launched into sea to become organic fish food (though there’s a waiting list for this and just 3 sites in the UK that are licensed), or a flameless chemical cremation known as a resomation by getting dissolved in an alkaline solution which uses only 90 kW-hr of electricity.
While these extravagant ways to go may not be the most thriving industry, traditional burials along with their rituals are dropping in popularity. While those currently burying loved ones of past generations may not be feeling the environmental pressure and are still duty-bound to conventional internments, younger generations will develop new, more sustainable and less expensive departure practices. Our perception of what is necessary is changing on a daily basis in a world fraught with the threat of resource scarcity and atmospheric changes. Products are changing, lifestyles are adapting, and power-grids are shifting. In this new order of things that puts environmental sanctity above tradition, who’s to say a big box in a field of others, or ritualistically burning the deceased is the best way to honour those no-longer physically here? While the concept of a literal forest of your ancestors may sound like the beginning of a nightmare, its preferable to the real world horror story of a climatically induced apocalypse that may just be right around the corner.