How You Can Make Your Death More Environmental Friendly

February 12th 2015

Alicia Lutes

Everybody dies — and that number is only growing. By 2040, the National Center for Health Statistics predicts the number of deaths in the United States will double in size (here's lookin' at you, Baby Boomers), with an expected number of deaths per year to hover around 5 million. And while the circle of life is inevitable and ultimately a good thing, the way in which we deal with bodies after death is highly ecologically detrimental. Maybe it's time for the US to look at greener pastures — literally and metaphorically.

What's the Real Cost of Death?

Planning and preparing a funeral is an unnecessary financial burden when you look at the facts. According to the Federal Trade Commission, funerals are one of the most expensive purchases anyone in America will ever make. The average one costs between $7,500 - $10,000 per person. Which is pretty absurd when you consider it happens after you're even around to appreciate it. With Americans already in dire economic straits these days, is it really fair to pay for the privilege of sullying the Earth's ecosystem as you go gently into the night?

Is Cremation a Good Option?

Sorry, folks — this one is pretty bad, too. Cremation uses large quantities of fossil fuels in order to burn the bodies, contributing to our global carbon emissions problem. And the act of cremating a human body also releases large quantities of atmospheric mercury (from dental fillings) that have been known to have negative neurological, immunological, heart, and reproductive health effects.

Not only that, but the spreading of ashes itself puts various nutrients and other substances into the environment. Until someone decides to change their process, cremation won't be on the nice list of "ways to get rid of your body" any time soon.

OK, So How is Burying People Tough on the Earth?

Death practices in America, by the rest of the world's standards, involve a lot of chemicals. From preservatives and disinfectants to embalming fluid itself, when Americans put bodies into the ground we love to preserve them — entombing, enshrining, and/or burying in personalized boxed-out spaces, putting a whole litany of bio-accumulating elements — like formaldehyde — into the ground, contaminating it.

And the consequences of putting all that stuff into the ground aren't something we should shake a stick at: formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and as carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization.

But still we use it. When a human gets embalmed, their arteries and other body cavities are pumped with the stuff. Meaning we bury 3.5 gallons of a known carcinogen into the ground with each human. That's enough that — were it, say, dumped into the water or discarded — would result in a nice little fine from the EPA. Multiply that be the 2 million bodies buried each year in the U.S. and you can understand the gravity of the situation: all 7 million gallons of it.

It's Not Just New Procedures, Either

But that's just the new stuff. Back in the old days they used arsenic to preserve bodies for burial and — guess what? Carl Hauge, the chief hydrogeologist for the California Department of Water Resources has said that the stuff — that very deadly and poisonous stuff — has been showing up in groundwater in some areas, with many experts believing cemeteries to be and at least partial culprit.

And, did you know the EPA lists casket manufacturers as one of the top 50 hazardous waste generators thanks to their use of chemicals like methyl and xylene. And what's worse is the only added benefit of all these chemicals? Slowing down what's already inevitable: decomposition.

Honestly: what's the point of it all?

So What are Our Options?

Green burials — sometimes called natural burials — are becoming more and more popular as the years go on. Forgoing the traditional embalming route, there are several: from simply using biodegradable and organic embalming materials. And if you're afraid that bacteria and viruses contained in the human body would make their way to our drinking water — think again. Many of these bacteria and viruses die (or become inert) within hours or days of a person dying, with almost all traces of them gone within 5 years. It takes years for germs to make their way through the many, many feet of rock and soil that separate a dead body from a water source.

One Swedish company, Promessa, will freeze your body with liquid nitrogen before pulverizing it, removing any metals and other contaminants in the process. Afterwards, the bodies are buried in the ground in a biodegradable coffin where it can go forth and provide nutrients for the plant life growing around it.

In the U.K. natural bodies have become increasingly popular, with over 300 natural burial grounds having been opened in the country in recent years. Here people are not embalmed but instead placed in biodegradable coffins, often marked with a tree or other vegetation to serve as a "living memorial."

And in many countries throughout the world, it is not uncommon to leave the body out to be eaten by animals. In Tibet, for example, the dead are placed upon a hill for vultures to eat. And there's probably nothing more ecological than having your body consumed by another animal. 

As we hurtle ever onward towards our inevitable demise, these questions are important to discuss. The circle of life is real, and our need to be ecologically kinder to our home planet even more pressing — so why wouldn't we try to green up the afterlife, eh?

And just because nothing is more effective than an infographic — here's a little visual perspective on the real issues with American funerals. Via Qeepr:

the environmental effects of funerals