Calling all corpses: Commentary on a greener burial

Calling all corpses: Commentary on a greener burial

Toxic embalming fluids can seep into the ground in traditional burial.

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There are more than 7 billion people on earth. Each and every one of them is going to die — eventually.

As a definitive rule of nature, human beings (yes, this includes you) are creatures bound by a certain degree of non-permanence. Despite the cloud of fear and anxiousness that surrounds it, death is as naturally a part of the cycle of life as birth. As far as the living are concerned, the real threats of death have nothing to do with fire and brimstone.

The funeral industry, like many other industries, has made massive contributions to the pollution of our planet. The true terror of the great beyond is that it’s actually killing the environment. The world which we living people must occupy has become overburdened by millions upon millions of our dead – more specifically by how we’ve chosen to deal with our dead. Traditionally, the American funeral industry has presented us with two options for laying our loved ones to rest: burial or cremation.

It may come as a surprise to the less ‘death-conscious’ of us, but burial is not as simple as shoving a body in the ground. The practice of embalming removes the natural bodily fluids from a corpse and replacing them with toxic, carcinogenic embalming liquids has become a matter of course in the industry. Funeral directors often lead grieving families to believe that embalming is the safest, most loving, most respectful way to care for a loved one after death. They rarely let on that a cadaver in its natural state is not a biohazard, nor do they inform that the United States is one of the only countries in the world to routinely embalm their dead.

As a result of these misconceptions hundreds of millions of people are led to believe there is no choice about embalming, and so each year Americans pump some five million gallons of poisonous phenol, formaldehyde, and glutaraldehyde deep into the earth. This means that there’s enough hazardous liquid to fill more than one Olympic swimming pool leaking from caskets all across the country and draining itself straight into our groundwater and underground ecosystems.

Cremation is no better. Although it’s seen as the harmless, cost-efficient alternative to burial, cremation is only marginally less detrimental to the environment. Cremation, rather self-explanatorily, is the process of burning bodies. In this process crematories must release carbon dioxide. There’s no getting around it. Sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and many more hazardous atmospheric pollutants are simply an inextricable part of cremation.

So what is a mere mortal to do when there seems to be no real environmentally friendly way to die?  Enter alkaline hydrolysis cremation, the new kid on the block. Alkaline hydrolysis also known as water cremation or resomation, may be one of the greenest innovations ever to reach the funeral industry. It’s a low cost, low waste, method of body disposal that follows a relatively simple procedure:

Step One: Your body is placed in a pressure chamber along with a mixture of either water and liquid lye or potassium hydroxide, then the chamber is heated to 320 degrees Fahrenheit, and the contents are left for 3 to 6 hours.

Step Two: After the contents of the chamber has been allowed to cool, the liquid (which at this point will mostly consist of liquefied tissue and water) will be drained. What will be left behind is ashy-white processed bone matter.

Step Three: Remaining bones are put through a cremulator machine which grinds them to a fine powder that will later be placed in a new container and presented to the deceased’s family.

This whole process is reported to use less water than a family of four uses in a few hours, and compared to cremation or burial, its resource use is nearly null. What’s more, the end product is almost identical to ashes we see as a result of cremation. The family can be presented with the remains of their loved one to do with what they please, just like in cremation. The ashes produced by alkaline hydrolysis may be kept in a urn, buried or even released in a spot that held emotional significance for the deceased.  

Despite the monumental potential for the widespread use of alkaline hydrolysis, its low cost, and the fact that it’s the foremost “green” method of body disposal, it’s only been legalized in some parts of Canada and at least 14 states.

The funeral industry is, at the end of the day, an industry like any other. It currently runs on high waste, high prices, and high profit. Alkaline hydrolysis is posed to rock the industry in a big way. Lobbyists for the funeral industry worry that alkaline hydrolysis could potentially cause dramatic decreases in exorbitant “funeral frills” like luxury coffins lined with velvet, or cosmetic embalmings.

There is also the matter of uninformed decision makers: Legislators who have chosen to vote for the suppression of alkaline hydrolysis because they’re simply uncomfortable with it. A board of embalmers and funeral directors in Ohio, for example, called their colleague, Jeff Edwards, “immoral and unprofessional” for practicing alkaline hydrolysis on his own clients with the families’ consent, according to court documents. Even in traditionally progressive states, there are retrograde opinions about it.  When a bill to legalize it in California failed in 2010 and then again in 2013, it wasn’t because there was a substantive reason to oppose alkaline hydrolysis. It was because the California Catholic Conference campaigned against it, demanding that senate members vote “no” to legalization on the grounds that Alkaline Hydrolysis “does not appear to respectfully treat human remains.”

Just like in the 1900s when the rise of cremation was met with controversy and outrage, opposers of alkaline hydrolysis may simply be afraid of the unknown. However, as citizens, it is our duty to demand knowledgeable and unbiased decisions from our legislators. It’s ridiculous that the corpse of a former eco-warrior could be harming the environment posthumously because their state does not provide the option of a green death. It’s up to us to demand changes in legislation, changes that go beyond just alkaline hydrolysis. We should have the option of a natural burial if we want to, and insist that funeral directors keep embalming toxins out of our bodies. It’s up to us to take agency over our deaths and make sure that they reflect the lives we led.

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