The climate-conscious corpse (part 2)

“He spake well that said that graves are the footprints of angels.”

-Henry Wordsworth Longfellow

In part 1 we learned, with the help of my polymath friend Joe Skulan, that shuffling off one’s mortal coil to a deep, coal-forming wetland would probably be the best way to ensure that one’s final greenhouse gas footprint was as small as possible. It goes without saying, though, that a bog burial would not be the most practical, or culturally acceptable, option for most Americans. Besides, wetlands have enough problems as it is.

The symbolically elegant but physically messy sky burial, wherein the remains of the departed are carried up to a great height for the vultures and other scavenging animals to break down and recycle — a practice common in Tibet and a few other Asian countries — would probably have to be ruled out for the same reason.

Although the U.S. Government does not restrict full-body burial at sea to U.S. military personnel or infamous terrorists — under certain guidelines anyone may take their eternal rest at the bottom of the ocean for free — the climatological costs, in the form of fossil-fuel emissions, would be steep unless one lived close to the coast and owned a large sailboat.

We also learned in part 1 that the modern conventional funeral and burial is very likely the worst choice for the climate-conscious corpse. A fossil fuel-intense (pardon the pun) undertaking from the start, conventional body preparation and burial sends vast amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over a span of decades. Although I did not elaborate in part 1, the conventional route is also environmentally harmful in a host of other ways. For one thing, it turns carbon-sequestering green space into well-manicured toxic waste sites that require a staggering amount of fossil fuel to maintain, and consumes enormous amounts of other natural resources. Using statistics from reliable sources including the Casket and Funeral Association of America, the Cremation Association of North America, the Rainforest Action Network and the Pre-Posthumous Society, one writer estimated that every year the 22,500 cemeteries in the U.S. bury approximately 827,060 gallons of fossil fuel-derived embalming fluid, 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and over 30 million board feet of hardwoods. Burial vaults consume 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete with 14,000 tons of steel.


There has to be a better way.

Furthermore, cremations have only a marginally smaller carbon footprint and environmental impact than conventional modern burials due to the amount of fossil fuels used and resulting greenhouse-gas and -particulate pollution. A few funeral homes have started to offer packages that include carbon offsets, but personal offsetting is a concept struggling to gain traction even among committed environmentalists.

At least the way it is done in the West, cremation is a fundamentally industrial process, rendering a natural resource (the nutrients that make up a human body) almost useless to the biosphere.

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The climate-conscious corpse (part 1)

“God made death so we’d know when to stop.”

-Steven Stiles


“First, it’s not a matter of if your body will produce greenhouse gases, but when and over what length of time. At one extreme, burning will release all of the greenhouse gasses immediately. At the other extreme, putting your body in a coal-forming wetland might delay the release by many millions of years. Since the problem is anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the delayed release option would be the best option for addressing your concerns, since presumably anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions won’t be a problem a few million, or even a few thousand years from now. That suggests that your best option would be to tie weights to your body and sink it deep in a cold bog (it would be best to first open up your abdominal and thoracic cavities, and also open your stomach, intestines and heart, so that there are no gas-trapping cavities that could potentially make you float).”

I miss my chats with my friend Joe Skulan. We used to talk a lot more about all manner of things twenty five years ago, before we both started families and moved away from Madison. One day back then, Joe asked me to help him prepare the fossil skeleton of a prehistoric saber-toothed cat that he wanted to mount and display at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum. I had exactly zero paleontological knowledge or experience, but I agreed to give it a try because I liked hanging around Joe, who was and is endlessly interesting, and because I had enjoyed the introductory geology class I took in college. Joe was a patient and forgiving teacher, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the painstaking but exciting hands-on work and the dusty, specimen-filled museum.

The following spring, in 1988, I noticed on my walks to the museum that the grass never turned green. That summer Yellowstone National Park burned up, the Amazon rain forest was ablaze, and a little-known NASA scientist by the name of James Hansen told a Senate panel that the greenhouse effect was “changing our climate now.” The decade had already seen the four hottest years on record. I stayed on as a museum volunteer for a couple of years and got to help dig up, prepare and display the fossilized remains of several other fascinating creatures. I also got to hang out with lots of other bearded and braided folk who enjoyed drinking beer and telling stories almost as much as finding and working on old bones. I remember a conversation or two about global warming, but, like Congress, none of us did much of anything about it.

These days Joe and I don’t often see one another, but we do swap an occasional email or Facebook message. Now, as back in the ’80s, our exchanges can be a bit lopsided. That’s not because Joe is not a good listener – he is – but because he’s a polymath and generous with his knowledge. I ask lots of questions, Joe answers at length. He has degrees in biology, geology, paleontology and geochemistry and a better-than-working understanding of several other fields, including literature, art and religion. Joe also happens to be one of the most humble and hilarious guys I know. I’ve learned a lot from him, little of it having to do with paleontology.

When I decided to write about the “coolest” or most climate-friendly ways to deal with one’s mortal remains (I’ll try to avoid the term “dispose of”), I decided to contact Joe, who is back at the UW again – this time as a curator and researcher – to see if he could recommend an expert or two who could answer some technical questions for me. I knew Joe would be able to shine some light on the subject himself. What I did not know was that he would be able to answer almost all of my questions.

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The hope cycle

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”

-Ben Franklin


I was not raised Roman Catholic or brought up in a faith tradition of any sort. Nevertheless, one Lenten season about a decade ago I gave up something significant – for good.

What I gave up was hope, but that is not the only irony in this tale, because I hold a Catholic Archbishop responsible for the fact. It was Oscar Romero’s words, printed in the program of a Protestant church I happened to attend one Sunday all those years ago, that lodged themselves in my head and heart:

“…if you need to feel hope you are courting despair, and if you court despair you’ll stop working. So try to wean yourself from this need to have hope. Try to have faith instead, to do what you can, and stop worrying about whether or not you’re effective. Worry about what is possible for you to do, which is always greater than you imagine.”

So it is more accurate to say that I gave up chasing hope or, as that secular saint Ben Franklin would put it, living by it. Granted, the kind of hope Romero was probably talking about may be more potent stuff than the hope in which most of us trade. I gather from a friend who is a clergyman that scriptural hope was the assurance of prophesy fulfilled, and elevated to covenant status. In most branches of Christianity hope was, and still is, understood to be one of the fruits of the spirit. (This same friend was quick to point out that the “every-time-I-think-about-what-I-gave-up-I’ll-think-of-what-Jesus-did-for-me-and-be-grateful” conception of Lent does not come close to touching the true depth of the season. That version of Lent, I confess, had infected even my mostly unchurched mind. Lent is not about the individual believer, my friend told me; it’s about meaningful corporate action.)

At some level, however, hope is hope, and it can be a great bulwark against anxiety. As a fretter descended from long lines of worrywarts on both my mother’s and father’s side, I am both predisposed to and well schooled in the ancient art of anxiety. Growing up during the Cold War didn’t exactly help matters. Neither did the combination of poverty and parenthood in early adulthood or almost two decades in a rocky marriage. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve anxiety, or they chase members of the opposite sex, but I had seen how those strategies had played out in the lives of several relatives and friends. So I turned to chasing hope.

By the time I came across Romero’s words I had become a veritable hope hound, able to sniff out the faintest whiff of it in the rubble of just about any tragedy. I took pride in my ability to detect the thinnest rays of light in the deepest, gloomiest abyss. Terrorist bombing in the Middle East with dozens maimed and killed? Maybe the news footage of bloodied children screaming for their lost parents would melt the terrorists’ hearts, I’d think. Perhaps one of the bombers might even seek out the surviving victims of the attack, ask for their forgiveness and work with other bombers for reconciliation and healing.

You see how far gone I was: if there was a Pollyanna Association, I could have been its national director, or at least the president of the Wisconsin chapter of Wishful Thinkers Anonymous.

This sort of hope hunting lessened my anxiety in the short run but did not do much to address the sources of my fear, as you will have discovered if you have been similarly afflicted. If one does not limit exposure to the news, those sources are ever present. And like any medicine taken for too long or in too large a dose, hope can become a poison, leaving a body and a mind much more vulnerable to real threats. Chasing hope, as Romero says, is courting despair. Not to mention cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression.

Is there a point at which hope becomes a form of denial, too? It is easy to become so focused on the positive that you become blind to the negatives–negatives that can kill. As we’ve seen with the way Congress and many state legislatures have responded to the climate crisis, denial can become a cancer on the body politic, too.

Chase pie in the sky, and you just might die.

Chase pie in the sky and you just might die.

But there is denial and then there is denial. The denial that has sprung from the seeds of doubt that the oil and gas industry has sown in the halls of power (and fertilized with torrents of campaign cash) has grown like kudzu. This has made it nearly impossible to get meaningful climate or clean-energy legislation passed, or international agreements inked and ratified.

And then there is the kind of denial that infects ordinary and otherwise enlightened, caring people – the kind of denial that comes from chasing hope. People waiting around for hope to fill them up are people who are not pressuring the political leaders who are being brainwashed, badgered and bribed by the dirty-energy lobby on a daily basis. This kind of denial may be an even bigger drag on the movement to slow climate change than the denial spread by the oil, coal and gas profiteers.

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