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.

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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.

Dissolve & drain, or freeze, shake & sprinkle

Other processes — also industrial — have been developed that allow for the recycling of at least some of those nutrients back into nature. One of those processes, resomation, involves placing a corpse in a chamber containing a potassium hydroxide solution (about 95 percent water and 5 percent potash lye). Heat is applied under high pressure until soft tissue dissolves and most bone is broken down, usually in about three hours, leaving behind only a sterile liquid and bone ash. As with cremation, the ash can be placed in and urn and saved or buried. The liquid remains, which contain no DNA but only the basic building blocks of life – salts, sugars, peptides and amino acids – can be safely disposed of down the drain. This process has the added benefit of keeping amalgam fillings and medical implants from contaminating the environment, since they are not dissolved by the lye. Although legal in a few states (Wisconsin is not one of them), the yuck factor has led to pushback from the public in at least one state where resomation has been introduced. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota has used a resomation machine successfully for several years.

Potassium is an abundant mineral, but mining it and turning it into potash lye does employ the use of fossil fuels. The resomation unit itself needs considerable electricity to operate, but since there is no combustion of any fuel (or flesh), renewable energy could, potentially, be used to power it.

Promession, developed by a Swedish biologist seeking to find a way to allow human remains to nourish soils as well as address the problem of limited cemetery space, also requires a large machine and considerable energy. The greenhouse gas emissions related to this process, however, are lower than that of cremation. This stands to reason, since, as with resomation, there is no direct combustion. Instead, bodies are slowly cooled to a temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius. Liquid nitrogen is then applied to quickly reduce the temperature further to the point where the body becomes so brittle that it can be reduced to dust with mechanical vibration. Next, water is removed in a special vacuum chamber. The organic powder left behind after amalgam fillings and medical implants are removed can then be placed in a small container and buried in a shallow grave, or, presumably, scattered over the soil like compost.

A more natural path

There is a much simpler way to return the stuff of life to the earth, one that does not involve large machines or industrial processes, and that also doesn’t contribute in any significant way to the destabilization of the climate. It is a model I think most people would agree is considerably more dignified and respectful than any of the options I have so far described. Furthermore, it is both practical and surprisingly affordable. If not yet (or rather, not yet again) socially acceptable, it is slowly and quietly becoming so.

Natural or green burial allows bodies to decompose naturally in shallow graves. Most natural burial cemeteries permit only simple wooden or wicker caskets, or biodegradable shrouds. Embalming is also not allowed at certified natural cemeteries because of the toxic nature of the chemicals used and because, as Kevin Corrado, resident coordinator at Natural Path Sanctuary in rural Verona, Wisconsin says, it is almost never necessary. Chemical embalming is required by law only the in the rare case of a highly contagious disease.

Touring Natural Path Sanctuary — an offshoot of the not-for-profit Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability — is not that different from a hike through a state or county park. A fairly hands-off approach to land management currently prevails there, which means invasive species are generally not controlled (Kevin does remove wild parsnip and poison ivy in some areas for the safety of visitors). While NPS is not a true conservation burial ground as defined by the Green Burial Council, Corrado says that a recent plant survey revealed that 120 of the 183 species of plants on the property are native to the state. Landscaping at NPS consists only of a mown path through woods and meadows and a few simple wooden markers delineating general burial areas.

Kevin Corrado giving a tour at Natural Path Sanctuary

Kevin Corrado giving a tour at Natural Path Sanctuary

Burial depth is critical. As friend Joe points out, the deeper the burial the slower the decomposition. Because green cemeteries typically bury no more than four feet deep, the transition from flesh and bone to humus is almost always swift, allowing the dead to nourish carbon-sequestering soils, plants, shrubs and trees almost immediately. Within a few years, bones are all that remain.

Joe again: “At more than 7 feet there is essentially no decomposition. Soil and moisture are important too, because they determine how far down oxygen can penetrate. The sandier and drier the soil, the faster the decomposition and the deeper you have to go to stop it (unless the soil is so dry that your body dehydrates to a mummy, but we’re talking Wisconsin so that isn’t a consideration).”

But mummification can and does occur at depths below 7 feet, even in (currently) temperate climates like ours, and even outside of deep bogs.

Joe explains: “What happens is that aerobic bacteria consume every trace of oxygen and convert the fat in your body to adipocere, or mortuary wax,” says Joe. “Adipocere can not be degraded by any known metabolic pathway, so that once your body is coated and impregnated with it, it is extremely difficult for any bacteria, even anaerobic bacteria, to attack it. You become a soap mummy, which is a closed system, and any bacteria that made it into you before the adipocere formed will quickly become poisoned by their own accumulated waste.”

A small amount of methane would be produced in this process, admits Joe, but it would almost certainly have less greenhouse potential than the much larger amount of CO2 emitted by cremation, and it would be spread out over a much longer time period.

So while deep burial may be optimal as far as greenhouse gas emissions, who really wants to become a soap mummy? For my money, give me good old fashioned decay any day.

Corrado told me that although he is often asked to describe the ecological benefits of natural burial over cremation — the myth of green cremation persists even in the relatively eco-conscious environs of Madison, Wisconsin — in the talks he gives to the public, he has yet to be asked about natural burial’s climatological impacts relative to conventional end-of-life options. Questions about the financial footprint of a green burial are much more common, he says.

Of course prices will vary from provider to provider and region to region, but generally natural burial costs significantly less than a conventional burial. Unlike when buying a hybrid car, you pay no premium for taking the more environmentally responsible route to the hereafter. Corrado says that a $2,500 voluntary donation to the Farley Center entitles the donor to an option to purchase a burial lot (or grave), which costs $1,000. That breaks down to $800 for the lot itself (fair-market value) and $200 for the costs associated with opening and closing the grave (family members may hand-dig and fill graves if they prefer), as well as the maintenance of records required by law. Compare that to the $4,000-6000 funeral homes typically charge for their conventional services (embalming, caskets, visitations, transporting the deceased, and sometimes the funeral service itself.). On top of those costs, Corrado told me, a family can expect to pay about that same amount again for the services of a conventional cemetery. These figures from TheFuneral Site.com bear this out.

A freshly dug grave at Natural Path Sanctuary

A freshly dug (shallow) grave at Natural Path Sanctuary

Some final thoughts on final footprints

I first met Corrado at a 350.org meeting in Madison several years ago and know that his commitment to slowing climate change runs much deeper than any professional interest he might have. Figuratively and literally, Kevin has put his body where his beliefs are. Kevin and his wife Susan, who serves as the Farley Center’s facilitator, were the first legacy donors to the Farley Center, purchasing options to buy burial lots at NPS even though they know that, with grown children living out of state, they may not end up being buried at NPS. When I asked Kevin to talk about his personal convictions and about how climate fits into the larger mission of the Farley Center to promote peace, justice and sustainability, he told me, “Well, it’s kind of the ultimate survival issue out there.”

Corrado says that ecological justice is a term frequently on the lips of Gene Farley, a family physician who with his late wife Linda (also a family physician) once owned the property that became the Farley Center. When Linda died in 2009, she was buried on the land that now comprises Natural Path Sanctuary. Even before their mother’s death, Gene and Linda’s sons wanted the property that their parents told them they would someday inherit to continue to further the causes their parents worked so tirelessly to promote throughout their lives. In the same vein, Corrado, a medical social worker by training, says that personal values have to be about how we would live, yes, but also about how we handle our deaths.

“Ultimately we hope there will be a focus on an overarching ethic.”

Which is another way of saying our final footprints are measured in more than just pounds of greenhouse gas. Rather, our final footprint is really the legacy we leave to future generations. And most of that legacy can only be built while we’re alive.

 

Ultimately, final footprints are measured in more than pounds of CO2 or CH4

Ultimately, final footprints are measured in more than pounds of CO2 or CH4

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Nice post, Rick. I wasn’t aware of the Natural Path Sanctuary, though I’ve been following green burial. I am curious about one thing; your first paragraphs express concern for the land that cemeteries take up, yet a green cemetery still takes land up for burial. Does it make a difference that the land is a nature preserve?

  2. Thanks, Ann. Sure, a natural burial ground takes up land, but it also takes up, and sequesters, far more carbon than a conventional cemetery. The less land is disturbed, the more carbon it sequesters, generally.

    Not sure you want this much technical detail, but here’s what Joe, the scientist friend I interviewed, had to say in response to a question I posed to him about how long carbon (especially the carbon that makes up much of a human body) stays locked in soils: “There is a lot of predictably contradictory information on residence time of C in soil. Estimates range from less than a year to over 1000 years. Climate has a lot to do with it– the warmer, the shorter the residence time. Unfortunately, in this respect Wisconsin is more similar to the tropics than to the poles. Depth of burial also matters. I found this in an article about residence time in temperate forests:

    ‘Temperate forests of North America are thought to be significant sinks of atmospheric CO2 . We developed a below-ground carbon (C) budget for well-drained soils in Harvard Forest Massachusetts, an ecosystem that is storing C. Measurements of carbon and radiocarbon (14C) inventory were used to determine the turnover time and maximum rate of CO 2 production from heterotrophic respiration of three fractions of soil organic matter (SOM): recognizable litter fragments (L), humified low density material (H), and high density or mineral-associated organic matter (M). Turnover times in all fractions increased with soil depth and were 2–5 years for recognizable leaf litter, 5–10 years for root litter, 40-100+ years for low density humified material and >100 years for carbon associated with minerals. These turnover times represent the time carbon resides in the plant + soil system, and may underestimate actual decomposition rates if carbon resides for several years in living root, plant or woody material’.” (http://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/sites/harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/files/publications/pdfs/Gaudinski_Biogeochem_2000.pdf)