This may really irk all of you who recycle plastic and paper, conserve electricity by turning off the lights, drive hybrid cars and use cloth shopping bags: When you die, your burial process could nearly negate your green legacy.
Death has serious environmental downsides. But funerary folks are developing techniques to allow human remains to go quietly into that dark grave.
The problem with human bodies is that they’re full of chemicals in life that turn into pollution in death. And there are the emissions. Take cremation. As New Scientist‘s Helen Knight points out, a typical cremation requires fuel to get the heat to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and, she writes, can result in about 330 pounds (150 kilos) of CO2 emissions. Although I’m sure that CO2 amount must vary widely, this all gets worse: Dental fillings that go through the process can even cause mercury to be released in the exhaust gases. I know. It’s unpleasant on so many levels.
Several alternatives to traditional cremation are gaining support, especially with environmentally-minded boomers. The “resomation” process is a type of alkaline hydrolysis that involves putting a body in a water chamber along with sodium or potassium hydroxide (lye) and then heating it to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This decomposes a body within three hours and is basically a speedy version of what would happen naturally in the ground. It’s less expensive than standard cremation and produces far less CO2. The resulting ashes are bright white.
Deceased animals in the veterinary and pharma worlds have been using bio-cremation for a while now, but it’s not widely legal for use on deceased human beings. Minnesota and Florida currently allow the process and New Hampshire did briefly before banning the process until legislators could better evaluate it. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that a new bill heading for California’s state assembly would make this bio-cremation legal there.
Beyond resomation, there’s cryogenic cremation, which sounds like something from Star Wars. A company called Cryomation in the United Kingdom developed a technique in partnership with scientists at the University of Hertfordshire that they’re planning to test this fall. Their process uses liquid nitrogen to make the body brittle, it’s then “fragmented,” metal parts are removed, and the remains are freeze dried to remove moisture. According to Cryomation, there are no emissions from the process. In addition, burying the remains turns them into loam within six months to a year.
Knight quotes forensic archeologist Ian Hanson from Bournemouth University, who wonders if society is ready for “our mortal remains to be utilised as fertiliser, or harrowed into crop fields.” If it’s a decision that the person made before dying and it doesn’t violate any laws or put the living at risk, I think we are ready. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Death is a dialogue between / The spirit and the dust.”