Landfill of the Dead
In nature, the death of a living organism is simply a step in the circle of life. However, in the course of human civilization, it has gone from a simple act of nutrient recycling to a custom that has garnered considerable social and cultural significance. Different cultures developed their unique ways of saying farewell to dead, like burial, cremation, immurement, and mummification. And with time these rituals have evolved notably from their rudimentary form. In their current state, traditional funeral rites have a serious impact on the environment.
Conventional burials exploit and entrap many natural resources like wood, steel, copper, bronze, and concrete. The amount of wood used for coffins each year equals 4 million square miles of forest1, which can sequester nearly 65 million tons of carbon every year. Furthermore, the casket manufacturing process and transport have additional carbon footprint attached to them2. Additionally, the widely undertaken practice of embalming is responsible for introducing carcinogenic compounds like formaldehyde, phenol, and disinfectant into the environment2. They leach into the ground, contaminating soil and groundwater resources in the vicinity. Long term exposure to these chemicals can cause serious health issues like lung damage, brain damage and cancer.
Moreover, the land requirements of burial are making it more and more disadvantageous choice. Currently, 4,300 square miles of land is being used as graveyards worldwide. Each year around 42 more square miles will need to be added to satisfy the demand. Thus, it is evident that it is crucial to find the right alternatives to the burial’s conventional form.
Cremation, another prominently used funeral practice, though thought to be more eco-friendly than traditional burial, has its own drawbacks. Cremation of a human body needs a temperature of 1400-1800 Fahrenheit2–3. Achieving and maintaining this temperature for at least 60-90 minutes2–3, requires fuel. The burning of fuel and human remains, release greenhouse gas like CO2, CO, NOx and SOx3. In addition to these, toxic gases such as HCl, HF, mercury vapour, and other carcinogenic compounds are also released during the cremation process3. The mercury vapour released during cremation is especially hazardous. Its exposure can lead to developmental disorders, as well as nervous system, lung and kidney damage2. Consequently, cremation too has no longer remained a wise choice for funeral rights.
Fortunately, more eco-friendly choices of funeral rites such as Mushroom burial, recomposting, green burial, sky burial and aquamation4–6 are available for selection. Unfortunately, most of these methods are not likely to be accepted by people widely. Green burial and aquamation, however, have the potential to become conventional methods in the future. Green burial is the same as a traditional burial but without the use of embalming fluids, cement plot or wooden caskets6. This takes care of most of the problems associated with conventional burial. Aquamation, also known as water cremation, refers to use of alkaline hydrolysis to dissolve the body6. The CO2 released during this process is a fifth of the emissions associated with traditional cremation and is consequently a much more eco-friendly method than conventional burial or cremation.
By creating more awareness, we can definitely influence people to make better choices. Although people’s individual choice can make a difference, considering recent events, it is evident that a more systemic change is needed to impart more significant change. The Covid-19 crisis overwhelmed our funeral system and left hundreds of bodies piled up without proper burial. And even though it is dire to assume so, the likelihood of us facing another similar pandemic in the future is high. Therefore, governments and international organizations need to put new policies and guidelines in place to keep us from turning this earth into a vast landfill of the dead.
- Safe Passage Urns. (2018). Environmental Impact of Burial Funerals, What Funeral Homes Don’t Want You To Know. [online] Available at: https://safepassageurns.com/blogs/blog/environmental-impact-of-burial-funerals.
- com. (2011). SevenPonds.com | After Death | Environmental Impact of Death. [online] Available at: https://www.sevenponds.com/after-death/environmental-impact-of-death.
- CALGARY CO-OPERATIVE MEMORIAL SOCIETY. (2020). Effect of cremation on environment. [online] Available at: https://www.calgarymemorial.com/effect-of-cremation-on-environment.html.
- Palus, S. (2014). How to Be Eco-Friendly When You’re Dead. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/how-to-be-eco-friendly-when-youre-dead/382120/.
- Kalia, A. (2019). A greener way to go: what’s the most eco-friendly way to dispose of a body? The Guardian. [online] 9 Jul. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/09/greener-way-to-go-eco-friendly-way-dispose-of-body-burial-cremation.
- mentalfloss.com. (2018). 7 Eco-Friendly Options for Your Body After Death. [online] Available at: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/513564/7-eco-friendly-options-your-body-after-death.