While most people do not care to think about it, death is waiting for all of us. And while it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter what happens to our bodies when we’re through using them, to many people it does matter.
In western society, people are traditionally buried or cremated. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Recently, however, some new methods for treating the dead have come up, and these will be looked at as well.
The typical burial has the body embalmed, filled with preservatives. Then the corpse is placed in a large, heavy coffin, often lined with metal.
There are approximately 22,500 cemeteries across the United States, which bury approximately 3 million litres of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals. The buried caskets contain over 90,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods. Cremation and burial vaults contain over 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel. For the most part, bodies encased in these heavy-weight caskets and tombs take a long time to decompose, and so whatever value the bodies have as organic material is often wasted.
A single corpse cremation expends approximately 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity on average, the energy equal to one person’s energy usage for an entire month. Also, the exhaust from crematories contains nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrofluoric acid (HF), hydrochloric acid (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP). Emissions from crematoria contribute 0.2% of the global emission of dioxins and furans. These emissions are actually more of an environmental concern than the energy use.
That being said, though, the amount of non-renewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the Moon and back… each year. Despite that, when you include the maintenance costs of a cemetery, cremation actually comes in about 10% greener.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the more traditional burial methods. Natural burial consists of not embalming the body, and interring it in the ground with only a shroud or a sustainably-produced casket. The body decays much more rapidly, and doesn’t release any hazardous chemicals. The natural burial grounds themselves are more like wooded parks than conventional cemeteries, and are managed and tended in a more sustainable fashion.
Resomation is a new idea, similar to traditional cremation, but with less of an environmental footprint. In this process, the body is placed onto a sliding rack and enters a sterile, controlled, air- and water-tight chamber. Heated to 80 degrees Celsius, and pressurized, an alkaline water bath dissolves the body, leaving just the bones behind. These remains are very brittle to the touch, and readily collapse into a pile of white dust.
This process is not energy neutral, however. Energy is used to heat and cool the contents of the resomator. The remnant product is water that is much less alkaline than the fluid was originally, and safe to enter the wastewater stream. This is where the resomator is likely to prove unpopular to some, as the bodies are basically just flushed down the drain.
Freezing in Liquid Nitrogen
Another unusual treatment for a corpse is to freeze it in liquid nitrogen, not to preserve like in the case of cryonics, but to remove all the water. The bodies then crumble into a fine organic dust. The dust can then be put into a biodegradable container, perhaps in a natural cemetery, where the container can decompose and the organic dust with it.
One last thing you can do, however, before consigning your remains to one of the above methods, is to donate your body to science or medicine. That way, it can continue to contribute to the well-being of many others well after your death. After all, as environmentalists, we are trying to make the world a better place not just for us, but for everyone and everything around us.