Those who decide on embalming and burial because they’re traditionally the most common and respectful ways of handling the dead, don’t really consider what the embalming process requires or the long-term negative impact on the environment.
Embalming became popular during the the Civil War, but it’s time to start thinking about newer ways of disposing of bodies that require fewer chemicals and less waste, and are more environmentally friendly. Rather than accepting embalming or burial as an expected procedure, thinking about other ways the body can be treated after death is important.
The act of embalming a body is a “physically violent one” and untreated blood is pushed out of the body as embalming fluid is pumped through the vascular system and flushed down a drain, said Dean Fisher, director of the UCLA Donated Body Program to Wired Magazine.
Embalming fluid is a chemical cocktail of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol and glycerin.
Decomposition is delayed by this process, but as buried bodies will eventually decompose; more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are buried every year, according to SevenPonds, a website that promotes healthy attitudes towards death.
This doesn’t include the amount of wood and other materials used for caskets.
Burials in the U.S. use about 30 million feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete, according to the Berkeley Planning Journal.
Embalming is accepted as the norm because no one wants to think about their own funeral more than necessary, but death cannot be avoided forever.
Cremation is an alternative option to burial, but there are many other creative, eco-friendly methods to determine one’s final resting place.
One method is called alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, which was legalized by Governor Jerry Brown last October and will become available in 2020.
This process uses water and lye to dissolve the body into a liquid state in about three to four hours, leaving just the bones to be ground into a fine powder.
While the thought of liquidizing the body and becoming a syrupy residue seems a bit morbid, it’s not far from what happens naturally.
“If you were to bury a body in soil, all we’re doing is we’re speeding that up, we’re adding heat to that,” said Fisher in an interview with KQED.
Alkaline hydrolysis also doesn’t dissolve prosthetics, implants or mercury in teeth like cremation does, which stops pollutants from escaping into the air.
Another method that is gaining traction is being buried organically in either burial pods or biodegradable urns, which are put into the ground and will turn people’s remains into a tree.
Unlike traditionally being buried in a wooden or cement casket, burial pods are egg-shaped biodegradable caskets that will dissolve in the ground over time, minimizing the amount of waste put into the Earth.
The pods are made from a biopolymer that allows natural decomposition of the capsule and the organic matter to turn into minerals, providing the soil with nutrients to support the growth of a tree where the person is buried.
Over many years, cemeteries could eventually become forests.
While not globally legal yet (only available in the U.S. and Canada), it has sparked interest among the public, and petitions are making rounds in an attempt to legalize burial pods.
Some can argue the way people are buried should be based entirely on preference. People want to have control over their own bodies while they’re still alive, so choosing what happens to their body after death should be no different.
This argument is entirely true, but it is important to consider the bigger picture and how every person who chooses a more environmentally-friendly option will be helping the Earth and create a long-term impact rather than be fixated on spending the rest of eternity in a box.