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