With every wake or funeral I attend, I become more uncomfortable with the way we bury and remember our dead. In North America anyway, there are two main ways that bodies are prepared for burial – embalming and cremation.
When a body is embalmed, bodily fluids are removed and replaced with a formaldehyde-based chemical solution that delays decomposition. Then, the body is dressed and cosmetically prepared by styling the hair and applying make-up. On the other hand, when a body is cremated, it is incinerated in a chamber heated to 1000°C. The remaining ashes are then collected and ground into a fine powder.
Neither of these processes are at all safe for the environment – formaldehyde is a proven carcinogen and fossil fuels are burned to heat cremation chambers. To make matters worse, the prepared remains are then placed in metal, wood or stone boxes and buried underground or in a mausoleum. The amount of resources – money, material and land – that are poured into modern burials is absolutely ridiculous. Please don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the need to honour our dead, but there must be better ways to do so.
Every organism produces and consumes nutrients in order to live. When it dies, and decays, the organism’s nutrients are released into its surroundings. Humans are no exception. Unfortunately, the modern practices of burial and cremation do not allow our nutrients to be returned to the environment. In cremation, nutrients are consumed by fire, while in modern burial, the casket and burial vault prevent most nutrients from being released into the soil. If we were instead buried in a simple shroud or wooden casket – as we were in the past – we would effectively be recycled into the earth.
So why did we move away from this method? As far as I can gather, there are three main reasons: it was thought that modern caskets were aesthetically superior, would protect against grave robbers and would protect soil and groundwater quality near cemeteries. I believe that only one of these – the protection of soil and groundwater quality – may be a legitimate reason for supporting modern burial in this day in age. However, The World Health Organization has found that even with modern burial methods, soil and groundwater around cemeteries is contaminated. In fact, the formaldehyde in embalming fluid and the metals in modern caskets arguably pose a greater risk to soil and groundwater quality than the products of natural decomposition. Further study is required to know for sure.
Researchers at the University of Western Carolina are conducting this research as part of their Urban Death Project. They are researching the effects of “recomposition” – their system that transforms bodies into soil through natural decomposition. The whole process would look something like this:
When a person dies, their body is transported to a morgue for refrigeration. It is kept there until funeral and/or burial plans can be made. The body is then placed in a simple shroud or wooden casket and transported to the “recomposition” site. My vision for the “recomposition” site (the Urban Death Project has yet to release a rendering) looks something like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. The burial ground (above) is separated from a public park (below) by a retaining wall marked with the names of all those buried there. Over time, the bodies become a part of the soil which is used to grow memorial gardens.
Hopefully, the Urban Death Project’s testing is successful and these “recomposition” sites are deployed by the time I “go” because, in my opinion, the existing options aren’t working for anyone – living or dead.