Death: The Standard Options
Tell it to me straight, Doc; what are my options?
Well, to be perfectly frank, you don’t have any. You’re going to die.
Everyone else is too so there’s no sense stressing over it. Trust me, you won’t miss out.
You do however have some options as to what happens to your body afterwards. To the best our knowledge you won’t need it anymore, but we like to think of ourselves as a decent society so we tend to get your consent before we draw a mustache on your mortal frame.
The two most common options people choose from are:
- Going out in a blaze of glory (cremation), or;
- Slowly pickling in a bath of your own bodily fluids in a box underground (burial), traditionally in the same spot of dirt as your family, so if your dad died before you, you get an eternity of his fermenting odours rising up to greet you: eternal dad farts.
Tough choice you say? Allow me to make it tougher. The caveats that come with these options are that neither of them are particularly environmentally sustainable.
Cremation is hugely inefficient, especially when using a traditional funeral pyre instead of a crematorium. A single pyre usually takes 300-400 kilograms of wood, which results in around 60 million trees being consumed by this industry each year. While a cremator uses about 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 12kWh of electricity to operate at 760-1150 C for 75 minutes. Turning your body to ash costs about as much energy as your domestic energy demands in a month. There’s also the greenhouse emissions such a burn off spouts into the atmosphere and the traces of mercury that come from dead people’s fillings going up in smoke, estimated to be responsible for about 16% of the UK’s mercury pollution.
Burials aren’t much better either. Sales-folk in the funeral industry have been capitalising on the vanity and hypochondria of wealth western society for some time now, and thus we’ve been pumping bodies full of embalming fluid, under the misconceived notion that it is required by law, and then wondering why the ground we put them in is unhealthy years later. Despite what some funeral homes would have you believe, in most countries formaldehyde-based embalming fluid is only required in cases where the individual died of infectious disease, is to be ‘buried’ in an above ground vault, must be kept for extended periods or transported long distances or overseas. Despite the fact that embalming is largely optional and also carcinogenic it is predicted that over 800 000 gallons of embalming fluid ends up in U.S soil every year. We’ve been disposing of our dead by filling the ground with bodies that aren’t actually disposing of themselves. Further to that the Centre for Natural Burial in America calculated that for every 10 acres of cemetery there is nearly 1000 tons of casket steel, 20 000 tons of concrete for vaults and enough wood to build more than 40 homes. Combine that with skyrocketing populations and cityscape expansion outwards; we’re rapidly running out of holes in the ground to put people.
The tight squeeze on the planet is drawing more people to cremation which is bringing down our already sparse forests and choking up our already smoggy atmosphere so a growing need for more sustainable options is pressing. In the absence of clever options, we’ll once again be faced with the consequences of unregulated treatment of the dead on a massive scale, and the health risks they can pose (that’s right we’re looking at you 1340s England!).