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Flushing Grandma Down the Drain?

Water Cremation, Natural Burial, and Other Green Death Alternatives

Silvia Crac

Staff Writer

Photo via The Order of the Good Death.

When thinking of the funeral industry, our first thought does not typically drift to its carbon footprint. The average person is usually aware of the two main body disposition practices in the Western world: embalming or cremation. Embalming is when the bodily fluids of the recently deceased are flushed out and replaced with a preservative fluid mostly composed of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Cremation is when a deceased loved one is placed into a furnace-like chamber called a retort to be reduced to ashes. While both practices certainly have their merits, the carbon footprint left by them cannot be ignored. As such, some funeral homes have begun offering a wider range of options for their eco-conscious clients in compliance with local funerary laws.

It’s precisely these corpse disposal alternatives that eco-death activists are passionate about. TalkDeath, a non-profit organization raising awareness about death consciousness, outlines the serious environmental effects that both cremation and embalming can have in their popular infographic that made the rounds on social media. Cemeteries are estimated to take up almost one and a half million acres of land, underneath which bodies are buried with nearly 4 million gallons of highly toxic and cancer-causing embalming fluid.

In fact, embalming fluid is so toxic due to its high concentration of formaldehyde that embalmers must wear protective gear and work in a well-ventilated room. Because of these dangers, embalmers are at a much higher risk of developing leukaemia and are four times as likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a deadly and incurable illness.

The caskets used by funeral homes for viewings and burials also amount to nearly 150 million board feet of hardwood (that’s enough wood to go around the entire Earth 1.14 times) and 13,000 tons of steel each year. The fact that the mining and deforestation required to accomplish all this could be so easily avoided is, understandably, very frustrating to green death activists and enthusiasts.

Cremation isn’t any better; in fact, some might argue that it’s worse. Much like for a burial, bodies that are prepared for cremation are often embalmed beforehand for viewing by the family and friends of the deceased. As a by-product of cremation, formaldehyde fumes are released into the atmosphere where they bind with molecules of water and ultimately rain down on the local community—an uncomfortable thought at best, now that we know the dangers of formaldehyde.

But even if the body isn’t embalmed, we’re not out of the woods yet. National Geographic reports that 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced with every single cremation. Other emissions include carbon monoxide, mercury from dental implants and fillers, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, as well as other heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Annually, carbon dioxide emissions by crematory retorts reach 360,000 tons. For reference, a car would emit that much CO2 if it drove to the Sun and back five times.

If you’re like me, all this information is incredibly distressing, but what can we do about it? Thankfully, science is way ahead of us, and innovative funeral homes have pioneered new, more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional funeral practices. Some of the most enticing include alkaline hydrolysis, natural burial, conservation burial, and natural organic reduction.

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or water cremation, is exactly what it sounds like. The body is put in a pressurized container where a mixture of 95% water and 5% lye accelerates the natural decomposition processes, reducing the corpse to soft bone within a few hours. The human broth (for lack of a better term) is flushed down the drain, much like how bodily fluids are disposed of during the normal embalming process. The bones are then pulverized in a cremulator, like after a traditional cremation, and given to the family.

Natural burial is like traditional burial, except the body is not embalmed. It is buried in a biodegradable burial shroud, usually made of unbleached cotton or bamboo cloth, and is left to its own beautiful decomposing devices. Conservation burial takes this one step further, as, through an agreement with the local government, the land around the burial site is protected from development and exploitation for as long as the body remains there.

Natural organic reduction, or human composting, is the new kid on the block. Here, the body is placed in a tank containing straw and other plant materials, wherein it will decompose. The resulting compost is left for the family to use as they please—maybe even to grow a garden from Grandma!

The major challenge now is getting these alternatives legalized. So, what can you do to help? The best option is to petition your local governments, and, when the issues are inevitably brought up by the provincial government, go out and vote.



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