The greening of dying

Did you know that pondering death and burial might help create happy thoughts? The British Psychological Society shows us that thoughts of death turn to joy. It seems that we are so afraid of terror and of our own mortality that we’ve developed a natural tendency to quickly turn to comforting thoughts.

“Death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts,” the researchers said. “Moreover, this occurs immediately and outside of awareness”.

Moving along, happily or not, here are some of the issues and choices ahead that deal with our death and how we will manage our corpse. I hope it’s a lot of fun to read along.

Ash from resomation of the bodyBoil your body? Among other new entries, Resomation Ltd is a British company offering an eco-friendly alternative to cremation that boils bodies into dust. In the process, called resomation, the body is encased in a silk coffin and submerged in water mixed in an alkaline potassium hydroxide, heated to 302 degrees and rapidly reduced to white dust. [story]

A grave concern Around the world, there’s pressure on conventional burial methods from more than its $7,000-15,000 price compared to $600-800 for cremation or for the new process of ‘boiling’. Often unresponsive commercial or church monopolies, conventional cemeteries have severe problems such as the endless maintenance costs, increasing demand for land, and heavy pollution. A pollution-reducing niche is emerging in the $15 billion annual market providing caskets without plastics, foam, vinyl or metal. Regulations are increasing to help eliminate more than 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete used yearly for unnecessary concrete vaults, to encourage chemical-free clothing, and to limit unnecessary and carcinogenic embalming fluid.

New standards seek to impose limits on the removal of tree cover, limit structures for memorials, visitors and parking, lower water pollution from degrading coffins and vaults, reducing the use of machinery, herbicides, fertilizer and the leaching of embalming fluid. To help free land, grave re-use after 50-100 years is being considered as well as designs that increase grave site congestion or the use of vertical coffins, [youtube:]

Heavy concrete vaults surrounding a casket were originally developed to thwart grave robbers in order to regulate a black market for cadavers. Embalming became necessary before refrigeration was common. Neither practice is necessary today and seldom required by law.

Cremation ovenCremation pollution In case you were wondering, there are over 100 pounds of emissions during cremation including particulates, carbon gases, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, cadmium, mercury, lead and dioxins. New emission and carbon-reducing equipment standards for cremation ovens may be completed by 2010. Plus the human body is about 95% water which must be evaporated into steam at 212 degrees before burning the remainder into ash at 1800 – 2000 degrees using about 400 cubic feet of natural gas over two hours or more. For the 25% of Americans that choose cremation, three to nine pounds of bone and ash fragments remain for disposal such as casting into a concrete marine reef. For $500, a ‘symbolic portion’ of ashes in a lipstick-size canister can be launched into space. At these ticket rates, an entire body might cost $50 million!

Bio-degradable coffinOwls and Orchids Princess Diana promoted the idea of woodland burial, an emerging alternative to conventional lawn graves and cremation. Woodland or wildflower cemeteries use biodegradable coffins in graves that will forever mingle with birds, bats, insects, lichens and trees. Requiring much less maintenance, pushing up daisies in woodland cemeteries can be in “vastly more interesting places than many parks, with a wildlife value that possibly exceeds that of many nature preserves.” [eco-cementary wiki]

Biodegradable coffins are arriving in the market. SeatllePI offers a story about the trend featuring a recycled paper coffin, the Ecopod, sold in the US by the Natural Burial Co. [please notice their new URL at] The Green Burial Council is a nonprofit that is pioneering new ethical and environmentally sustainable practices, and seeking”to use the burial process as a means of facilitating the acquisition, restoration and stewardship of natural areas” to create a permanent Conservation Burial Ground. There’s a list on their website of “approved providers” expanding to 25 states, plus assistance for home funerals and burial on private land.

NPR has posted a podast by Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. Green Burial Portal The Natural Burial Co-operative, Center for Natural Burial is vigorously retrieving data and posting trends about natural burial. A map hack points to operating and proposed natural sites in both the USA and Canada. Their report on conventional burial reveals an important consideration: “The whole operation will take less than a week and cost your heirs and family more than the price of a new car.”

A ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground will contain enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nearly a thousand tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of concrete for vaults. Across North America enough metal is diverted into coffin and vault production each year to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete is used to build a two-lane highway from Toronto to Montreal… and back again.

Redwoods and Ravens The SF Chronicle has an article about progress in Marin County, California, where there’s a new back-to-nature movement for the dead. One of the pioneers of green burial sites in the US, Tyler Cassity of Forever Fernwood sees gre en graves located wherever appropriate space can be found – under greenbelts, wilderness and parklands – using GPS and the Web to locate graves, check on maintenance and provide a memorial in a digital age.

Update: Promessa in Sweden is offering new options in Corpseware and ecological dying.

The corpse is frozen in liquid nitrogen. The very brittle body is vibrated into powder and buried in a corn-starch casket to safely decompose within 6-12 months.

 MindHacks posted to a social history of death and dying with links to the BBC’s Thinking Allowed.

Not interested in any of these choices?
If legal in your region, you can sell your body to science.
Use the Cadaver Calculator to learn what your carcass is worth.