What happens when we die? I’m not talking about religion or metaphysics, but the nuts and bolts of funeral preparation. What is embalming? What is required for cremation? What are coffins made of, and why are they so expensive? And the big question: how does my death affect our planet? Decomposition is a gross and messy–but natural–aspect of life, to which anyone with a compost pile in their backyard can attest. So why are we obsessed with preserving our dead bodies? We embalm our dead, place them in steel-lined coffins and lower them into concrete-lined burial vaults. There they will stay; decaying slowly, despite the formaldehyde, but forever entombed in concrete and steel.
My question is… what’s the point? What’s the point of an expensive casket, a burial vault and allowing your body to be pumped full of carcinogenic chemicals? Many people have differing ideas about what happens to our consciousness when we die, but very few world-views speculate that we stay in our body. So what is stopping us, as a culture, from allowing our bodies to decay naturally and return to the earth? Is it fear? Fear of death, fear of change, fear of worms playing pinochle on your snout?
I think that allowing a dead body to decompose naturally is the last beneficial act we can give to this planet. I don’t think anyone would argue that human beings, over the course of our time here, have royally screwed up Earth. Why add to the mess? The chemicals that funeral directors pump into dead bodies are proven carcinogens that will leech into the soil. The kicker is that these chemicals won’t prevent decomposition; they just delay it for a while. Not to mention the issues of overpopulation and the finite amount of space on the surface of the earth. The more space we take up with concrete-lined burial vaults, the less space we’ll have to live, grow food and build cities and towns. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between the years 1997 and 2001, “2.2 million acres were lost to [cemetery] development” (Source)
“But wait!” you’re saying, “what about cremation? That saves space, and many people decide to scatter their ashes, so they’re still returning to the earth!” Spiritually, yes, scattering ashes is a way to return to the earth. But physically, ashes cannot decompose and they cannot contribute to the planet the way natural decomposition does. Not to mention the fact that the gases released as a body is cremated include (but are not limited to) nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulate matter (in other words, pieces of Great-Aunt Ruth mixed with soot). Nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide should be familiar substances: they make up car exhaust. The studies have already been done about the role of car exhaust in air pollution, but I’m sad to say that cremation contributes the same chemicals into the air.
So what can we do about it? Well for starters, we can elect to be interred in what is called a “green funeral” or “natural burial.” Bodies that are buried in a green funeral are not embalmed (eliminating the risk of formaldehyde and related chemicals leeching into the soil). They are buried in a simple shroud–often made of cotton or another biodegradable fabric–or in a simple cardboard or wooden casket. Green burials take place in specific cemeteries and graves are often marked with a tree or shrub instead of a tombstone. In a world where we are choked by chemicals whenever we walk down the street, do you really want the legacy you leave on this earth to be more pollution? Just something to think about.