SOME PEOPLE worry about what, quite literally, they’re going to leave behind—and how they can help the environment with their final decision. They ask, What are the greenest options for the body after death?
Creative solutions—especially some recent ones such as body farms—decrease burdens on the environment that are imposed by the traditional options of embalming and burial, even cremation, while sometimes contributing to scientific research.
Among the drawbacks of traditional methods: embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, a potential carcinogen, with some 800,000 gallons buried each year in the US. And burial usually involves wood and other casket materials, as well as real estate—maintaining cemetery lawns usually requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as vast quantities of water.
Cremation may be the first step in many greener options, but it has environmental drawbacks. For incineration, using combinations of natural gas and electricity, fuel consumption is estimated at around 20 gallons to create sufficiently high temperatures (1600 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit) for the two to four hours per body. Cremation also releases chemicals—carbon and sulfur—and fine soot, as well as heavy metals such as mercury from dental fillings, into the environment. Indeed, the most environmentally sound cremation might be an open-air pyre using a wood casket, which is carbon-neutral and is the most-requested “fantasy funeral” at The Green Funeral Company in England.
(For those choosing cremation, there are many rules on scattering ashes: For example, controlled public lands such as city parks, as well as inland waters, require permits. Cremation Solutions advises, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” because “there are no ‘scattering ashes police’ in any state . . . no health, safety or environmental issues to be concerned about.”)
Resomation (also known as green cremation, bio-cremation, flameless cremation, dissolution and “the fire-to-water method) uses water and potassium hydroxide to liquefy the body, called liquefaction or alkaline hydrolysis. Water heated to around 350 degrees makes resomation less energy intensive than traditional cremation, and teeth fillings can be removed before the remaining sterile liquid is dumped into local wastewater systems.
Alternative disposition of ashes focusing more on sentiment than environment include “memorial diamonds,” made by pressurizing ashes or hair to create a “forever keepsake,” and ashes used in vinyl compression to create an LP of a favorite song.
For a final underwater solution, Georgia-based Eternal Reefs combines human cremains—crushed bone—with concrete to make heavy orbs that help support and rebuild reefs. Back on land, there are also biodegradable urns, known as “bio urns” or “living urns,” made of coconuts and other soil nutrients, that break down in months compared with conventional containers that take years to deteriorate. And burlap sacks containing ashes can be interred almost anywhere—woods, fields and, recently, specially designated urban locations.
Ashes can also be mixed with seeds or be buried close to a tree to spur healthy growth and development. To avoid incineration entirely, whole bodies buried in sacks or “pods” alongside trees provide more nourishment than ashes.
Freeze-drying, using a process called promession, immerses the body in liquid nitrogen to make it brittle, followed by vibrations that shake it apart, after which fillings can be removed. The powdered remains are buried in a shallow grave where, mixed with oxygen and water, they form what the inventors call “perfect compost.” Ashes can also be shot into space by companies like Celetis Memorial Spaceflights.
A post-life choice that preserves the body is mummification, offered by religious organizations such as Summum. And plastination, developed to preserve organ specimens for education purposes, can now be done on whole bodies “posed as if frozen in the midst of their everyday activities,” according to LiveScience. “Body Worlds” exhibits plastinated bodies, and thousands have signed up to donate their bodies to The Institute for Plastination.
Greener alternatives for traditional burials include embalming fluids made of essential oils, and caskets made of biodegradable materials such as bamboo, paper, cardboard, wool, banana leaf, willow and cedar.
The most completely natural options are tree burial and sky burial. Tree burial involves placing bodies high in a tree or entombed in the trunk to keep them away from animals. Sky burial, also known as “exposure” and practiced in countries such as Tibet, relies on vultures to take care of the remains, based on the spiritual belief that bodies should serve a useful purpose after death.
“Body farms” in the US, while very green, are created for research on body decomposition and other forensic issues by anthropologists, law enforcement and others. The Freeman Ranch in Texas has 16 acres of land with cages where dead people are laid out naked to decompose—70 bodies at a recent count.
Recent innovations in body donation make it possible to arrange for a combination of options—such as donation of organs followed by that of the cadaver, along with final disposition—through organizations like Science Care. Coordination can be important because less than 1 percent of hospital deaths meet the criteria for organ donation, and because some whole-body researchers don’t accept bodies that have already been used for organ donation.
Science Care will redirect bodies initially offered for organ donation to medical schools and scientists and others in “desperate need of whole-body donations to further their research, training and development.” In the DMV (the DC/Maryland/Virginia metropolitan area), Science Care’s final disposition of the body can be arranged via pre-registration only in Virginia, but not in Maryland, DC, Pennsylvania or Delaware, where each step (donation of organs, donation of whole body and choice of final disposition) must be arranged independently by your survivors.
(But bodies donated to medicine—both organs for transplant and whole bodies for research—must also be assigned a disposal option following medical use.)
People are encouraged to discuss body disposal preferences in advance with those who will survive them, although some may not be eager or even willing to listen. Many survivors, too, will have trouble accepting choices such as sky burial and open pyres.
Written requests can also be helpful. But in the end there’s only so much one can ask of loved ones—at least until the environment becomes more fragile, or researchers more demanding, to provide clearer reasons for accepting what once appeared distasteful.
Every Tuesday in this space, Mary Carpenter reports on health issues of interest to 21st-century women.