Burial / Death / Degradation / Environment / Organic / Toxic

On Death and Dying

Cycle of LifeI 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:



8 thoughts on “On Death and Dying

  1. The Masai believe that burials are injurious to the earth. After saying goodbye, they used to haul a deceased family member to the edge of the village and leave them there for the hyenas and jackals to recycle. That’s really walking light ecologically!

    You didn’t mention museums of medical schools as destinations for mortal remains. It is in fact a very limited degree of immortality–being studied over posterity by scientists not yet born or shaping the education of some healer who will practice medicine for decades–but it is the only form in our power to bequeath!

    • Excellent points. Urban density and lack of carnivorous mammals around here may make that tough unfortunately. I’ve always liked the Yerpa Sky Burial (they chop up limbs and let the vultures have their way in the Himalayas).

      Also, thanks for mentioning the medical school. It definitely would be of great assistance in our understanding of the natural world to have more cadavers for medical and scientific research.

  2. You lost some zeros there: 25,000,000 km sq right? (3.6 m sq X 6.8 billion people alive today / 1000 m in a km). That’s all of Russia plus China. Or 2.5 Canadas. Or 36 Texas’, for us spatially challenged Americans. How does that make sense… when do we start double-burying people? Or maybe the real question is what’s the half-life on human body decomposition?

    Or just save it for the theorists– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial

  3. I enjoyed reading your article and thinking about this topic.

    I live with cats, and they are more carnivorous than I am. I’ve long wanted to have my deceased remains put through a grinder for cat food, but the legal probability of fulfilling that desire is a difficult matter. So I’m leaning the other way toward my love of ritual with a plan for a burning kayak put out to sea with an intact, untreated body. Sort of a mini-viking funeral, plus, the fish get fed.

    • Thanks Mikey – If the cats will be happy, why not! There is a tradition in Tibet, where bodies are taken up to the mountains, and the limbs are cut off and fed to the vultures. Same idea.

      And I do like the burning-at-sea options. Just maybe get a wooden one, so those plastic chemicals don’t harm our pretty oceans 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s