Can Death be Sustainable?

A case study

Few people like to dwell on the subject of death, but it’s up there alongside taxes with life’s inevitabilities. But, consider it we must, for the sake of the environment.

At some point in our primordial past the dead were left to the scavenging dogs, the vultures, the flies, and the microbes. There were no ritual burials, no funeral pyres, no floating out to sea on a burning boat. Ida and her cousins certainly didn’t worry about the dead when they were looking for their next meal.

The tombs and torment came much later in our evolution with the advent of self-awareness and imagination, with the recognition of our mortality, the pain of mourning, and the ensuing spirituality that led whole civilisations to build resurrection machines for the dead, whether pyramid shaped, touting beautiful minarets or dreaming spires.

Meanwhile, with all this dying – around 60 million people every year (about 1% of the population) – there’s the environment to consider. Think about it, cremations in the West commonly use vast quantities of fossil fuels to get things up to temperature. They release toxic fumes containing mercury from dental amalgams, for instance, and what of all those tropical hard woods used for the coffins? Admittedly, some users opt for a slightly “greener” departure with more sustainable materials for their casket.

But consider the poor undertaker…and specifically State of Grace, a family-directed funeral business, in Auckland, New Zealand. By August 2007, Deborah Cairns and Fran Reilly had been running the business for just a year but had already won a regional sustainable business award for their efforts to reduce, or even avoid, the use of embalming chemicals and to offer natural product and sustainable alternatives to traditional coffin materials. They’re even driving to find a satisfactory alternative to the big old traditional hearse, although the Toyota Previa has not yet proved popular with mourners.

“Right now we are desperately trying to find premises,” Reilly reveals in a case study report in the IJSSM. “We’re overflowing in my garage at home and into the hallway – there are caskets everywhere.” I’m glad they qualified exactly what was overflowing in the hallway. The case study goes on to discuss the development of their alternative “home funeral” business where there are no sombre undertakers in dark suits to take the body and return with an embalmed version for the perusal of family and friends.

But aside from the improved personal service the company offers, we must consider the environmental ethics of death.

We must do so, according to Eva Collins of the University of Waikato and colleagues at Auckland University of Technology, who carried out the case study. The statistics are quite shocking: each year, the US’s 22500 cemeteries buried more than 3 million litres of embalming fluid, used almost 1.5m tonnes of reinforced concrete and nearly 13000 tonnes of steel for vaults. Buried 82000 tonnes of steel, 2500 tonnes of copper and bronze, and more than 10 million metres of hardwood board for caskets.

Coffins treated with wood preservatives take decades to decompose, whereas untreated pine breaks down within ten years, and compostable coffins even quicker, obviously. Embalmed bodies take about 60 years to return “dust to dust” and while they do so there is the real possibility that chemicals will leach into soil and groundwater.

As an afterthought it occurred to me that those leached chemicals wouldn’t necessarily be from the body itself. There are the non-natural components of a modern cadaver to consider – prosthetic metal and alloy implants, electronic implants that might contain heavy metals, arsenic and other elements, dental fillings containing mercury and other metals. Moreover, as we move into the age of more and more bionic technology, this issue will only increase, perhaps to the point where WEEE regulations have to be implemented on dead bodies. Indeed, recycling could be the greenest approach to death yet.

There are also the clothes and jewellry a person might be buried with and their various accompaniments. You can be sure that many people are buried with their iPhones and other devices and in the past there will be thousands of gadgets buried that had nickel-cadmium batteries.

Research Blogging IconEva Collins, Kate Kearins, & Helen Tregidga (2009). Exiting in a State of Grace: can death be sustainable? Int. J. Sustainable Strategic Management, 1 (3), 258-284

22 thoughts on “Can Death be Sustainable?”

  1. That’s a very interesting point. I’m sorry the original blog post, which was based on reporting a specific study didn’t address the issue you raise. But, certainly the pros and cons of life extension without QoL need to be discussed as does the bizarre possibility of raising the life expectancy of humanity interminably…

  2. What about the dying process? Can that be handled in a sustainable way?

    Is nursing homes, and billions of dollars in medical services to extend life just a little bit longer, not always extending quality of life, just the living itself, really sustainable? Or practical?

    Currently there is an intentional community in Costa Rica forming to tackle this very problem. How do we die in a sustainable, and personally rewarding way?

    Hoped this article would look at the personal side of death rather than just the monetary side of it. What does death look like in a sustainable world? Does it include biometric devices? (such as my pacemaker?) Or should we even have those if in the long run they may prove harmful to the environment etc?

  3. Interesting thoughts Ahmad. By the way I corrected the typos in your comment and broke it into more readable paragraphs.

    Yes, you’re right, to suggest that we avoid being distracted by gimmicks. The original post about death and its environmental impact was not a gimmick, however, there are serious issues as outlined above regarding waste and materials. Yes, chemical leaching from buried remains is probably minimal.

    However, the idyllic idea of everyone opting for a simple self-sufficient life is a pipedream. There are likely to be ten billion people within the next couple of decades, they cannot possibly all live such a life. Moreover, a lot of people don’t want to live a simple life, they like the complexities of the industrialized world.

    But, even those that have a choice face problems such as malaria, famine, flood, earthquakes, AIDS, arsenic poisoning, and countless other essentially natural problems that no amount of spiritualism can counter.

    Science and technology do not offer perfect answers and certainly some of our modern problems have arisen because of the greed of those who wield them, but abandoning understanding, rational thought, and logic in favour of some Utopian dream is not going to feed the world or address the problems of disease, climate change and imminent major water shortages.

  4. Being a chemist and understanding the chemistry and leaching of chemicals from dead bodies, it is perhaps one trillionth of the cause of environmental effects due to our modern way of life under capitalist systems.

    Only simple living can reduce this pollution to 10%. Maybe a new idea for research, yet these are only gimmicks as we are neither united nor seriously thinking of the real causes of concerns to the life of future generations.

    See the life run of a self sufficient family in an Indian village. They will be causing no environmental issues, rather using their own wastes. Why are we closing our eyes to the real threats. Perhaps we think them insurmountable due to corporate gangsterism. Actually every one of us wants a happy life for him at present, so we feel, let us forget the future, who knows, what, how and where things will be.

    Next will see and bear for themselves. We feel that science will surmount the present problems and make the future safe. I heavily believe that science is creating and keep on creating more issues and concerns and instead of solving these the threat will be increasing to a stage of self dissolution of mankind. Mankind has been made and is becoming too selfish with scientific development of modern amenities, we are forced to leave our spiritual side slowly that the feeling of its loss is being lost. Our direction to destruction is proceeding without noticing it.

    So, I plead that we should not be lost in gimmicks but unite & combine to upfront the real issues of modern amenities, and change our life to simplicity where nature plays more role than science in our lives.

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  6. @August It’s not the leaching of embalming fluid that’s the chemical problem! The embalming issue is to do with the huge volumes of embalming fluid that have to be manufactured in the first place, which uses energy and petroleum reserves, which are then buried or cremated. We’re not concerned with “pollution” from embalming fluid.

    As to removing components. I suspect that’s not something that undertakers would do on a deadline, ripping out hip replacements, metal cranial plates and the like is going to mean a lot of patching up above and beyond…but that was my allusion to the WEEE regulations.

  7. In the spirit of Shurkin’s comment: Muslims too just wash the bodies and use a plain cloth shroud, no embalming, no accompaniments.

  8. Sure, to a point, but are these folk who are concerned with embalming fluid even doing anything to strip the cadaver of implanted electronics, fillings*, etc.? It just seemed odd to worry about embalming fluid if there’s no indication that it is potentially a problem (again, I might be wrong –perhaps there’s something in there of great concern). Our own metabolism knows how to deal with formaldehyde and bacteria in the soil should do a much better job as long as concentrations are at a manageable level (i.e. any concentration likely to be attained from leachate from an embalmed cadaver). I don’t know about glutaraldehyde but it can’t be much different than that.

    * And are amalgam fillings even a problem under burial conditions? Do they do anything at all to raise toxic mercury compound concentrations above background levels?

  9. @August There are the non-natural components of a modern cadaver to consider – prosthetic metal and alloy implants, electronic implants that might contain heavy metals, arsenic and other elements, dental fillings containing mercury and other metals…

    Then there are the clothes and jewellry a person might be buried with and various accompaniments. I am sure there are lots of people that have been buried with their iPods, mobile phones, and other devices over the years, some of those will have nickel-cadmium batteries and such. If someone was murdered there may be unrecovered lead bullets, arsenic, or even these days radioactive materials…

    It’s not all about the flesh and blood these days…

  10. Is leaching into the groundwater of embalming chemicals a real problem? The main chemicals would probably be formaldehyde and, apparently, glutaraldehyde. I would not think that they would last very long as they travel through soil.

  11. Joel Shurkin commented via Facebook:

    “Or you can die Jewish. We forbid embalming and the rule is plain wooden coffin. We still have to work on the hearse issue…and no cremation. we die green.”

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