New life after death

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Written by: Abby Wayte

The awful truth is that the very last thing most of us will do to this planet is poison it. After death, it is a common for humans to choose burial or cremation as a form of disposal in funeral practices. While these practices follow decades of tradition and religion, we must question how environmentally sustainable this is for our earth.

Today, 30% of New Zealanders and 50% of Americans choose conventional burial[1][2][3]. Conventional burial begins with embodying, where bodily fluid is drained and replaced with a mixture that is designed to preserve the corpse and give it a ‘life-like glow’. Then as you know, bodies are buried in a casket, in a concrete lying grave in a cemetery. In American cemeteries alone, there is enough metal to build the golden gate bridge, enough wood to build 18,000 single family homes, and enough formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde and methanol body fluid to fill 8 Olympic size swimming pools[4]. This really makes you think, doesn’t it?

What about cremation? Although cremation may seem like a greener and more sustainable form of disposition, it in fact completely inhibits any chance we have to give back to the mother nature after death. Cremation is a significant contributor to climate change through air pollution, as its high energy intensive processes turn a human’s body and bones into ash. American human cremation rates emit a staggering 55,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually[5]. This is the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide produced by 7,500 average houses in a year2.

Is it right to call myself an environmentalist if I was to choose either of these options? I began researching into natural burials and environmentally sustainable alternatives, only to discover what’s known as ‘livestock mortality composting’. Livestock mortality composting has been practiced by farmers and agricultures for decades[6]. The process involves an animal which is high in nitrogen being covered with co-composting material that is high in carbon[7]. With a natural breeze and moisture provided by rain, all that will remain in a matter of months is nutrient rich compositing soil. This soil can then be used to create new life in many different forms.

This all seemed so simple to me. If this was happening to livestock, why could humans not be following these practices? Microbes and bacteria are magical creatures who break down molecules into smaller molecules and atoms, which can be incorporated into new molecules. All we’d need to do is create the right environment and let nature follow its course. All we’d need to do is welcome microbes and bacteria in with open arms and allow them to recycle us back into nature.

When I die, I want to be gentle to this planet. After all, this planet supported our living bodies throughout our lifetime. When I die, decompose me.

[1] Urns for Ashes. (2008). International Cremation Statistics 2008. The Cremation Society of Great Britain.

[2]  NFDA. (2011). Trends and Statistics. National Funeral Directors Association.

[3]  CANA. (2010). Industry Statistical Information. Cremation Association of North America.

[4] Loewe, E. (2019). The Last Thing We Ever Do Is Unsustainable. This Woman Wants to Change That.

[5] Nebhut, A. (2016). Culture and Carbon and Cremation, Oh My!.

[6] Payne, J. (2019). What Is Animal Composting? Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Community.

[7] Bass, T. (2017). Livestock Mortality Composting: For Large and Small Operations In The Semi-Arid West.