I am going to interrupt the series on food production to present a timely entry on the topic of ‘Natural/Green Burials’. A recent death of a loved one has forced me to think more in depth about the question of what to do with the deceased’s body in an environmentally friendly manner.
I have long been of the opinion that the modern system of burials in the West are both unsustainable and environmentally degrading.
The traditional process of burial requires the body to be heavily saturated in chemicals, and buried in expensively and chemically veneered coffins. Both of these objects will eventually begin to leech their toxic wastes into the ground soil, where it will and does poison the soil, ground water, and living organisms around the land. Additionally, with an exploding population, the space that would be required to bury every body in one of these caskets with even a moderately sized plot is astronomical. More land will be taken up by cemeteries than by farmland in the next two hundred years if we continue on with traditional burials, and the dangerous effects of the toxins will be amplified greatly. Whatever happened to a simple “from whence we came, we shall return” philosophy?
Upon death, the body naturally begins its return to the earth by decomposition, an active process of anaerobic bacteria. In the West, open caskets often requires embalmed fluids to be pumped into the body through arterial injection, to slow the decomposition and allow mourners to see the body in a state more akin to the living. I personally find the practice absurd for its intentions of preserving that which no longer is, but it is common in the West and historically – as seen in the famous Egyptian mummies, and the Han dynasty in China.
The actual process of preparing a corpse for viewing involves applying disinfectants and germicides to the body. The body is then embalmed with a variety of chemicals. Embalming arose as a more common practice in the West during the American Civil War – with the increased incidents of loved ones dying far from home, methods of embalming advanced as bodies were required to be sent long distances for burial. Formaldehyde, the popularly known embalming chemical, was discovered in 1867 by the German chemist August Wilhelm Von Hofmann, and has been widely employed since.
Embalming fluid is first injected in the veins, then internal fluids are removed and replaced with embalming fluids, and finally fluids are injected both above and below the skin. The chemicals involve a large variety of preservatives, sanitizers, disinfectants, and additives – primarily formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, ethanol and humectants. All of these chemicals are designed to retard decomposition, which is in complete opposition to the natural breakdown process.
After the body is clothed, heavy amounts of creams, makeup and powders are applied in order to make the deceased appear living. Occasionally hypodermic bleaching agents, such as phenol based cauterants are injected prior to the makeup. All of these chemicals accumulate and eventually seep into the ground.
Now, moving on to the coffin. Most caskets sold contain stamped steel, chipboard (that requires environmentally unfriendly glue to hold the pieces together), and toxic veneers. Additionally, some of the more high-end coffins employ exotic or endangered woods that naturally retard decomposition, but the harvesting of these woods is a practice that leads to degradation of forests and exploitations of other countries natural resources. These chemicals eventually leak into the ground, while the original steel structure of the coffin takes unnecessarily long times to break down.
Finally, the cemeteries themselves require vast amounts of space for what will be an infinitely increasing amount of bodies, and are full of tombstones and concrete vaults. It is illogical to presume that there will be enough space on the planet for all bodies of for seeable human continuation to be buried. Considering that the average burial plot size is 1.2 X 3 metres (not even taking into consideration the exponentially rising amount of obese adults that require up to almost twice the width of an average burial plot), for every person on the planet alive right now to have a plot of land, that would require alone 25 000 square kilometers of land composed entirely of uninterrupted burial plots. This doesn’t include exponential increasing amounts of people being born every year, or the cemeteries that already contain billions of bodies across the land. Do we really want to have this much land dedicated to just corpses?
Cremation is a historically common alternative, especially in places like India, where there is simply no space for graveyards. Cremation, while saving on space and chemicals, has been called into question for not being the ‘ultimate’ environmentally friendly response. It can require high amounts of fuel to burn the human body, and although environmental initiatives to offset this have been put into the place, the human body can release many chemicals while being burned (including mercury from fillings), causing some air pollution. It is still more environmentally friendly and more space-saving than traditional burials, and can be especially useful for transporting loved ones to distant places they may have wished to have been laid to rest, rather than transporting the entire corpse.
If we really need a place to commemorate the lives of our loved ones publicly and locally, there is a new alternative that is actually just a return to a natural and biologically consistent system of biological breakdown, known as ‘Green’ or ‘Natural’ burials. It’s simply placing the chemically untreated body in a biodegradable, local wood coffin or organic cotton shroud, and placing the body in the ground in designated eco-burial sites. Instead of tombstones, native trees are often planted instead, preserving the ecology of the area while ensuring the body of the loved one returns to the earth as nature intended in a safe and sustainable environment. It’s actually very cheaper, and more hands on – the family can participate to any degree they want in the actual burial process. This method encourages land preservation, restores wildlife and promotes a healthy habitat, while saving quite a lot of money. Plots can costs upwards of $4,000 dollars, not including the embalming costs or coffins (additionally around $2000-$300), whereas green burials can be as low as $700 for a plot.
I am fully supportive of this initiative, as I find the funerary industry to be one which capitalizes monetarily on people’s grief and necessity for short term-solutions, as well as being environmentally damaging. So why don’t you consider cremation or a green burial, and discuss these options with your loved ones, both in the case of your death or theirs. It is environmentally, pocket-wise, and religiously friendly to all.
I personally hope my inevitable departure to be minimal in terms of both financial and environmental impact, and hope those loved ones of mine reading this now know where I’d like these old bones to break down!
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
- Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”
More information can be found here:
A list of regulations for green burials in Canada can be found here: