These days many people are making the effort to live more environmentally friendly lives, but can a person die a more environmentally friendly death? As it turns out, the answer is yes. In the United States, about half of all deaths still find their way into the system of traditional funerals and burials. A body is embalmed, enclosed in an elaborate and polished hardwood or metal casket, and interred in a cement-lined grave in a multi-acre facility full of similarly disposed remains. It’s become so enshrined in American culture that it remains the default of what many people envision happening after the death of themselves or a loved one.
The problems with this system become evident when you begin to consider the cumulative effect of centuries of similar burial practices. As the world population grows, land becomes an ever more precious resource. Acres needed to grow the food required to support the living are instead set aside for the single-use purpose of housing the dead. In the United States, the equivalent of around 1 million acres is currently used for cemeteries.
On top of space considerations, we also have to think about the impact of processing and preparing bodies to remain permanently at rest. Embalming chemicals have been found in water sources near gravesites 100 years after burial, and while embalming slows the natural decomposition process a great deal, it cannot prevent it forever. Eventually, bacteria will break down the chemicals used, and the body will begin to decay. Burial also consumes natural resources. Each body requires nearly 2 tons of materials for traditional interment, from the embalming fluid to the casket to the grave lining. In the US alone, each year we use 30 million board feet of hardwoods; almost 3,000 tons of copper and bronze; more than 100,000 tons of steel; and 1.6 mil tons of concrete for conventional burials.
For a long time, cremation was the only available alternative for the disposal of human remains, and it does have a smaller impact on the environment than burial. It takes approximately 2 SUV tanks worth of fuel to create and sustain the temperatures necessary to reduce a human body to ash, but the resulting material is sterile, with no harmful or beneficial impact on the environment. Some have raised concerns about the potential release of toxins such as mercury during burning, but modern filtration systems address these issues.
Today, newer means of disposal are being developed and introduced. Alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, uses a solution of water and lye to reduce a body to a material similar to what is produced by traditional cremation. Unfortunately, the process uses around 300 gallons of water per body, which in a time of increasing water shortages might be cause for concern.
Recently developed in Washington state, re-composition is a method by which heat-loving microbes are used to transform human remains into soil. It requires only the microbes, the addition of compost material like sawdust, and a specialized environment to work. Washington’s legislature is currently considering a bill which would make re-composition a legal disposal method within the state, but the process is new and still not available anywhere else. It will also likely be introduced at a relatively higher cost than direct cremation, which remains one of the least expensive end-of-life options available today.
In the end, everyone has to make a choice about how they want to leave this world. Some may take comfort in the tradition and permanence of symbols such as headstones and gravesites, but others may decide that the impact they want to leave behind is less a matter of granite or concrete and more a matter of creating a lasting legacy.
For these people, the chance to make the world a better place is the driving motivation behind innovation in practices and current alternative end-of-life choices such as body donation. By donating organs for transplant, an individual can immediately save a life, but donating a whole body for medical research allows a person to potentially participate in the scientific breakthroughs that might cure a disease or create a new device or procedure that could go on to save thousands of lives in the future. Body donors have the choice to give to a university program or to one of the many entities around the country who accept donations for medical and scientific research.
No matter which option they choose, however, reputable organizations like MedCure, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, urge people to look for accreditation from a national overseeing body like the American Associate of Tissue Banks (AATB). This ensures that the donor’s body will be cared for by a company which is audited and required to abide by the highest industry standards for operational and ethical procedures. These groups will also return the donor’s cremated remains to family or loved ones after the completion of the research they helped to advance.
Caring for the environment is about leaving the world a better place than you found it, and with body donation, people get the change to do something beneficial to both the planet and to the people and societies who call it home.