OPINIONS

The days of the dead

With Halloween just around the corner, storefronts, lawn ornaments, and general décor have adjusted to reflect our temporary obsession with creepy-crawlies, scary monsters, and death.

The latter topic is something that we – college and graduate students generally in the prime of our lives – rarely think about. Then, last weekend, while standing at the counter of a BBQ joint, I encountered a particularly graphic rendition of a severed hand. Since I’m a relatively recent convert to vegetarianism, I appreciated the appetite killer, and, much later, the musings it engendered about the fate of our bodies post-mortem.

Of the friends and family I’ve lost, almost everyone has had their remains handled in one of two ways: cremation, or a “traditional” funeral, complete with embalming and a hefty casket. They’ve been entombed in picturesque cemeteries, or scattered to the winds in places that they loved.

Recently, however, the “greenwashing” that’s turned many of us on to local, organic produce and given corporations a major marketing facelift has turned up in funeral homes, as well. But what exactly is a “green burial,” or a “green cremation?”

It seems that the common idea behind both is to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental damage of traditional methods. It takes carbon dioxide-releasing energy (usually from methane gas) to cremate human remains. And the embalming process, used to preserve the deceased for viewing and burial, requires formaldehyde, a known carcinogen toxic both to funeral home workers, and to the environment surrounding graveyards. In this country, we go through 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid – the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool more than 8 feet deep – each year. Additionally, cemeteries in the United States annually inter 1.6 million tons of concrete and 104,000 tons of steel alongside the bodies they bury. And many use some unsavory pesticides and herbicides to maintain their pristine grounds.

By contrast, the United States Green Burial Council advocates for simpler methods – avoiding any preservatives in the preparation of the body (which may necessitate a speedier funeral), eschewing decomposition-resistant containment, and generally facilitating the return of the body to the earth. In many respects, these “natural burial” methods represent a return to the way humans have handled death for the majority of our species’ existence – only in relatively modern times have we resorted to elaborate contrivances to preserve the physical form of the deceased. (Of course, there are notable cultural exceptions, like the Egyptians.)

Then there’s so-called “green cremation,” or “resomation.” The process is straightforward enough: rather than burning the body to ash, heated potassium hydroxide is used to dissolve away the soft tissues. (The bones are ground and returned to the family of the deceased.) While the process is said to release a fraction of the greenhouse gases of regular cremation, I can’t help but wonder about the downstream environmental effects of the concentrated base solution, which is washed into the sewage system after the body has been dissolved. The first green crematoriums have only come online in the past few months, however, so I’m sure we’ll hear more about their environmental impacts if and when they catch on.

All in all, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to the “greening” of death.

As an ecologist, I’m trained to think of humans – indeed, all living things – as temporary amalgamations of raw materials that are part of global cycles much larger and longer-lasting than our corporeal forms. I like to imagine that some of my calcium was once precipitated by a coral, that some of my oxygen once also nourished a Tyrannosaur, and that, after my death, the energy and nutrients trapped in my chemical bonds will temporarily boost the growth of a tiny microbial food web. If to be “green” in death means to minimize the barriers between me and this natural recycling, then I’m all in favor.

Of course, what happens to our bodies after death – good or bad for the environment – represents only a small fraction of the impact we’ve had over the course of our lives. You can’t make up for a lifetime of Hummer driving (or, in my case, of cross-country flights) by going green in the afterlife. But perhaps thinking about our shared ultimate fate – demise and decomposition – will remind us of our fundamental interconnectedness with the most basic cycles of life on this planet, and motivate us to protect and maintain them. Ashes to ashes, ocean to ocean, dust to dust.
Holly welcomes reader feedback and Halloween costume ideas at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).