I recently watched a documentary where I saw footage of a sperm whale, just having given up the ghost of its 70 year life, gracefully sinking to the inky bottom. While the Richard Attenborough-like narrator described how the great body would become fish food for a year, it dawned on me that I can’t think of a better way to go.
I’ve a pal up in the north of Malaysia who owns a fleet of fishing boats. Though he’s okay with weighting me down it’s the red tape that’ll keep me on land. Red tape and current attitudes to death, of course.
Did you know that Canada cremates 165,000 bodies each year, which comes to 66% of all their deceased? Massive China dwarfs that figure with 4.7 million cremations per annum (50% of their dead). France records 200,000 cremations (34% and rising), Germany 470,000 (55%), Japan 1.3 million (99%, understandable at 350 people per sq/km), South Korea 205,000 (77%), Thailand 351,000 (80%), the UK 436,000 (75%), and the USA 1,2 million (46%). That’s a lot of fire, stink and smoke.
Research in South Australia suggests that a conventional burial creates 39kgs of carbon while cremation creates 160kgs. Plus there’s the complicated and expensive refractory oven materials required to withstand temperatures of 900°C, and the fuel to make all these thousands of fires per day go. The situation is so serious it prompted researcher Lisa Friedman to ask ‘could South Asia be contributing to climate change in death as well as in life?’
Seven million people are burned every year on pyres typically constructed of 550 kilograms of wood plus a few kilograms of biological and synthetic materials including cow dung, rice grains, vermilion powder, camphor and clarified butter. Together these are responsible for a large chunk of light-absorbing aerosol known as brown carbon.
A corpse takes as much as six hours to burn away. Researchers Chakrabarty and Pervez found that the emissions from funeral pyres were the equivalent of about 23 percent of the total carbonaceous aerosol mass produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and 10 percent of the emissions produced by biofuels in India. Significant were the high levels of black carbon, a substance now ranked as ‘the second-largest man-made contributor to global warming’.
‘If you stop this, you will be doing a lot for the environment’ noted Prof Chakrabarty.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In the UK there are now about 200 woodland burial sites offering families an alternative to cemeteries or crematoria. These sites are left unmarked or instead are marked by the planting of a tree or wild flowers. Any coffin used must be made from a fully biodegradable material such as cardboard or wicker, or even a cloth or drape.
Sandy Sullivan invented and markets body disposal by Resomation, a process in which water and an alkali base reduce the body to ash and recyclable water in roughly the same time it takes to conventionally cremate.
Italian company Capsula Mundi (and others) now offer a burial pod. Here a body is secreted inside the roots of a tree to be, providing food for the sapling as it slowly grows tall. The Promessa process, for me the Ferrari to take us back into star dust, is a technique to freeze-dry bodies, making (says inventor and biologist Sussane Wiigh-Masak) a perfect compost.
The idea of recycling ourselves isn’t new. Tibetans and Zoroastrians (Iran mainly) have always believed the body should be put to good use; in days past some would feed their dead to the birds of prey.
These are serious times for our wonderful and delicate planet. Thinking of new ways to bury is one way to help reverse climate change, and the right kind of thinking to take us into a bold new future. At present it’s tradition and religion that turns the natural and inevitable end of one’s life into an event strangled by dogma. It’s time to put our thinking caps on.
Within the next 30 years we need 10 billion acres planted with 200 trees each, a certainty for humanity’s continued survival. I understand that getting a burial at sea might be a touch complicated. No worries. I’d be happy to take my last sleep in the roots of a tree, thanking my host for the oxygen I was gifted during my lifetime. I’m not the fussy type. I don’t have to be in a park, a sidewalk shade tree is a grand partner for me.
 ‘…just 50 or so non-navy sea burials are granted each year’ in the UK … http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2005/oct/18/ethicalmoney.climatechange
 ‘Businesses in the area have laid numerous complaints about a stomach-churning stench from the site’ … http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/cape-town-crematorium-causing-a-big-stink
 ‘A burning question: the climate impact of 7 million funeral pyres in India and Nepal’ … by Lisa Friedman http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059989543
 The region in India of their research is unspecified.
 Ibid … … Lisa Friedman
 Ibid … Lisa Friedman