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.

Soon. Source: Flickr
Soon. Source: Flickr

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:

  1. Going out in a blaze of glory (cremation), or;
  2. 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.

Source: Flickr
Funeral pyre. Source: Flickr


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.

Mercury poisoning is bad, people.

Source: Flickr
Another expensive box. Source: Flickr


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!).

6 Responses to “Death: The Standard Options”

  1. Julian Carlin says:

    An interesting third option (which is admittedly far far worse for the environment) is cryonics, where immediately upon death you get your blood replaced with antifreeze and your entire body is cooled down such that various decay processes no longer happen. The hope being that far-flung medical technology will be able to bring you back! A way too detailed explainer can be found here, but it’s surprisingly not as crazy as it sounds:

  2. Sophia Ren says:

    Very interesting article! Back in my country, many people choose to undergo cremation and be buried under a tree or deep in the sea (huge population + people are accepting different formats of a funeral).

  3. Kellen Lowrie says:

    All the more reason to donate your body to science!

    Wonderful article. I’m loving all the posts that are getting me to think about the impact of things I’ve never considered before.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting article. It’s important to consider not just the impact people have when they are alive!

  5. Ehlana Tompsett says:

    Thanks for the comment. I honestly have no idea why it’s doing that with the formatting but thank you for the heads up!
    If it brings you any comfort I’ll be doing another blog shortly on the more environmentally friendly alternatives to burial and cremation. There’s some really interesting ideas out there that I’m excited to write about.

  6. Ellen Rochelmeyer says:

    Great article Ehlana! Easy read and well written (love the matter-of-fact voice and the dry humour). I have never before considered the environmental impacts of how we manage the dead. Something to think about for when my time comes. P.S something rather weird is going on with the formatting of your post (both in the feed and the post page).