The Green Afterlife
You might be trying to live a more eco-friendly life.
But have you thought about your death?
Natural burial is a term used to describe the burial of human remains where the burial area creates habitat for wildlife or preserves existing habitat (woodland, species rich meadows, orchards, aquatic, sustainably managed farmland etc.) which are rich in flora and fauna. Where a funeral precedes such burial, it would seek to minimise environmental impact by prohibiting embalming and, where a coffin is used, ensuring that this be made of natural, biodegradable materials.
Ken West (2010)
Natural burial is the practice of returning a deceased person’s body to the earth in as natural a way as possible. This is usually done in a cemetery especially set aside for this kind of burial, and there is almost always an emphasis on conservation and restoration of the natural landscape. The body is buried three feet under the ground, rather than six feet, to allow for adequate oxygen flow for the natural decomposition process. Clothes, shrouds and coffins must all be biodegradable. It is the most eco-friendly body disposal method available in the UK, but it is not the only option worldwide and new green technology may enable more people to make eco-friendly choices.
One such green option is water cremation: the practice of submerging a body in an alkaline solution to reduce it to skeletal remains that can then be ground into ashes.
The lack of poetics involved with this method may have contributed to its relative lack of success in replacing flame cremation. Its association with methods of body disposal used by professional criminals has not helped either.
An interesting case study in the optics of eco-death is body composting. In 2019, the process made international news when it was legalised in Washington, USA. Far from tossing a dead body into your garden waste bin, the process of ‘recomposition’ is the product of years of research and planning by its founder, Katrina Spade.
The company, Recompose, claim the process speeds up natural organic reduction of a body into nutrient rich soil, which can take months or years depending on the environment, to just 30 days. It has been declared an urban alternative to natural burial: in more densely populated areas, natural burial is less accessible.
Though the new practice has been met with a lot of support, inevitably there has also been some controversy.
Katrina Spade is not the first to attempt to make composting a socially acceptable form of body disposal.
In 2001 a company called Promessa was founded by biologist-entrepreneur Susanne Wiigh-Masak (Roach, Stiff, 2003). This was somewhat more technologically ambitious than Spade’s method, looking to patent a method of freeze drying a body and breaking it into small chunks via exposing it to high intensity vibration. The family would then take home the remains, mixed with soil, to scatter as an eco-friendly equivalent to ashes, all whilst protecting the body’s place in the nutrient cycle.
Though there has been much support for Wiigh-Masak’s ideas, almost twenty years later, the company has not yet been successful in gaining the patent.
While there is a growing movement backing eco-friendly death practices, they often face negative reactions, especially those that embrace new technology. Anything alien to convention could be perceived as improper or disrespectful.
If you'd like to find out more about the environmental footprint of the funeral industry, watch my animation on the topic below!
‘To a certain extent of course, dignity is in the packaging. When you get right down to it, there is no dignified way to go, be it decomposition, incineration, dissection, tissue digestion, or composting. They’re all, bottom-line, a little disagreeable. It takes the careful application of a well considered euphemism - burial, cremation, anatomical gift giving, water reduction, ecological funeral - to bring it to the point of acceptance.’
Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003