Monday, November 16, 2009

Eco-Friendly Burial

Everyone seems focused on "Going Green" these days, and the world of burial practices is no different.

I always just assumed that cremation was an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional embalming and casket burial. I have learned researching this topic that there are actually several more natural alternatives out there.

Let's talk ecology first. There are two aspects to consider in an eco-friendly burial; first the process itself shouldn't harm, pollute or tax earth's resources and second true eco-friendliness would allow the body itself to provide benefit to the earth as it biodegrades.

The touted benefits for cremation are that it takes up less land and eliminates the need for embalming. The entire purpose of embalming is to retard decomposition and prohibits the body's breakdown. Of note, according to Wikipedia, each year in the US we bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid!

The downsides for cremation are that the actual process of burning releases pollutants into the atmosphere, including mercury from fillings, and that it uses a tremendous amount of energy.

So the alternatives? There is a growing movement for true natural burials. Unlike traditional burials, the body is not embalmed, biodegradable caskets are used and the depth of burial is much more shallow. Biodegradable caskets can be anything from recycled paper, like the picture up top, to woven products like sea grass, willow or bamboo. Scattered in the US are cemeteries specializing in natural burial grounds. Often in these cemeteries there is the option for planting trees over the graveside and headstones are engraved natural stone that lies flush to the ground.

A similar process to cremation, without the same high energy use is Resomation. This developing format uses water and potassium hydroxide at high temperatures to dissolve the body. The end result is a white colored dust returned to the family and a green/brown liquid rich with peptides and amino acids that can be recycled into nature.

There is yet another possibility on the horizon for the eco-friendly patron called Promession. With this process the body is frozen in liquid nitrogen, shattered with vibrations, and freeze dried to remove water. Next a magnetic field is introduced to remove anything metal. The remains are placed in a corn starch coffin and buried. The body is essentially compost in 6-12 months, much quicker than the natural burial process. Also, unlike cremation, in which only inert materials remain, promession allows for organic material that provides nutrients for living things.

My hunch is that these next decades will bring even more options for the eco-friendly consumer. For more exploration related to this topic check out this 11 min video on natural burial by Mark Harris, and this interesting article on NPR "To Casket or Not to Casket"

4 Responses to “Eco-Friendly Burial”

Christian Sinclair, MD said...
November 16, 2009 at 7:53 PM

Great post Amy. I had recently heard about Resomation. I would be interested to hear from someone who has debated these options.

GOOD Magazine created a very interesting video about 'The Business of Death' which I blogged about here back in November 2007.


Drew Rosielle MD said...
November 17, 2009 at 7:38 PM

Resomation: yikes. Reminds me of La Femme Nikita (you know what scene I'm talking about). I have to admit that to me eco-burial always seemed like it should be 'dig a shallow grave, toss me in (chemical free), plant a tree.' that appeals to me.

"The end result is a white colored dust returned to the family and a green/brown liquid rich with peptides and amino acids." All I can think of is Soylent Green.

I vote let the worms do it in their own time.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
December 7, 2009 at 7:08 AM

Saw this article on Reuters out of Canada. I did not realize there was religious opposition to the chemical forms.


Drew Rosielle MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Resomation: yikes. Reminds me of La Femme Nikita (you know what scene I'm talking about). I have to admit that to me eco-burial always seemed like it should be 'dig a shallow grave, toss me in (chemical free), plant a tree.' that appeals to me.

"The end result is a white colored dust returned to the family and a green/brown liquid rich with peptides and amino acids." All I can think of is Soylent Green.

I vote let the worms do it in their own time.