Green Iowa AmeriCorps
Green Burial and Ham.
⚠️Warning: This blog contains content that readers might find upsetting. Death.
You may be wondering why I want to talk about death. I don’t. It’s probably my least favorite subject to talk about. What happens to someone’s body after death has become quite taboo in American culture, which is a far cry from 150 years ago. I can write about how other cultures deal with death and the bodies of the deceased, but that’s not why I’m writing this (this is a reminder for me to stay on track, not you, you guys are doing great). How did American culture go from families taking care of their deceased loved ones to a completely hands-off approach when dealing with the dead? I’m not going to delve into that either but I will say that because of this hands-off approach, we’ve taken a step back from the reality of what happens to our body after death. We’ve been taught to think that dead bodies are unsanitary, that only funeral homes should handle the deceased and sadly enough, we’ve been made to think that conventional burial and cremation are our best and only options. I am not a mortician or a funeral director, I am just someone who hopes that in death, my corpse can give to the environment rather than take from it. In this blog, I will talk about the environmental costs of conventional burial and cremation and discuss the advancing world of greener final dispositions.
*The questions I asked but left unanswered are interesting topics and I’ll put links at the end for those interested.
Let's move on to something just as depressing but less taboo; the effects that traditional burial and cremation have on the environment. The more obvious issue with conventional burials is the amount of raw materials that are used. On a yearly basis, the U.S. uses 100,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 30 million board feet of hardwood for conventional burials (Harker, 2012). Am I the only one who has never heard of the board feet measurement before? I wanted to get a grasp on just how much wood that is. A 2,000 square foot house uses an average of 12,600 board feet (The House Designers, n.d.), so the amount of wood that’s used annually for coffins could build 2,381 houses. Along with the raw materials, chemicals also get buried with the body. Embalming fluid is a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents (World of Chemicals, n.d.). From Mary Woodsen of Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve in Newfield, New York, over four million gallons of embalming fluid, 827,060 gallons of which are formaldehyde and methanol, are used annually in the U.S. Formaldehyde is a very toxic chemical which the Center of Disease Control (CDC) has warned can cause cancer and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) places extensive safety regulations and guidelines when being used for embalming.
It’s almost as if it’s not safe. While the embalming fluid slows the body's natural decaying process down, eventually that body will decompose and embalming fluid can leak from the casket and enter into the soil and water. Chemicals used in the productions of the caskets, such as sealers, preservatives, and varnishes also leak in the soil (Spongberg and Becks, 2000). Lets not forget that the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in the constant upkeep of cemetery lawns can negatively impact on the environment.
As our world population has topped the eight billion mark, urban living spaces are running out, as is the space for the dead. Many urban centers are dealing with the issue of lack of burial space; some countries have even started renting burial plots to deal with this issue. Greece rents plots for three years, the Netherlands leases for 10 to 20 years and Germany 15 to 20 years (Ferraz, 2018). Some places have even resorted to digging up remains just to bury them deeper then putting newer graves on top. While the issues of burial space are still minimal in the U.S., there are some states that could end up running out of space (Perfect Memorials, n.d.). It’s also worth mentioning that cemeteries take up land that could be used in a more efficient manner. In urban areas where housing and recreational space is doesn’t meet the demand for the population, cemeteries can be seen as a “waste of space.’’ At the beginning of the 1800’s, some cemeteries were used as parks, where people could enjoy nature while reflecting on death. The attitude changed in the mid-twentieth centuries when park-lawn cemeteries switched to the current, memorial lawn type cemeteries (Public History of Cemeteries, n.d.). Ideas do circle back around; today, cities like Berlin have already started to convert old cemeteries to parks and playgrounds (Estrin, 2016) and urban centers in the U.S. might not be far behind (Tang, 2019).
Cremation was always thought of as the more “environmentally friendly” option compared to burial but that may not be the case. 2015 was the first year that the cremation rate surpassed the burial rate in the U.S (NFDA, 2020). Cremation in the U.S. takes place inside crematoriums where fossil fuels are used to heat up the cremation chambers to 1,200-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Crematoriums release carbon monoxide, soot and carbon dioxide into the air. While crematoriums do have filtration systems, these systems do not stop the release of carbon dioxide. One cremation can release up to 600 pounds of carbon dioxide or 360,000 metric tons annually (Little, 2019). The “ash” that is left after a cremation is not ash at all, they are the calcified bone fragments left after the incineration process. The cremated remains or cremains are then pulverized into smaller pieces. These cremains are primarily phosphate, calcium, sulfate, and potassium and are void of all organic matter. Although it's been all over social media the last few years, contrary to popular belief, cremains are not beneficial to plant and soil health. “Human ashes also have a very high pH level, which can be toxic to many plants because it prevents the natural release of beneficial nutrients within the soil,” (Bios, n.d.). Biodegradable urns, that advertise they can turn cremains into a tree, only slow down the negative effects of the ashes until the seedling is established. While scattering your loved ones ashes may not directly impact the soil, it’s not beneficial as some have led us to believe.
Four years ago I read the book “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” by Caitlin Doughty. The book not only talks about how other cultures view and celebrate death, but how a few movements in the U.S. were going against the grain when it came to final dispositions. This was the first time I had heard about greener, more eco-friendly end of life options and I have been interested ever since. Now I want to dive into the more eco-friendly options that are becoming more prevalent in the U.S.
Aquamation goes by many names: green cremation, bio cremation, resomation, water cremations and its scientific name, alkaline hydrolysis. Aquamation is similar to cremation but it is a more environmentally friendly method that uses, you guessed it, water. Alkaline hydrolysis is the same decomposition process your body would undergo if it was naturally buried in the soil, but at a much faster rate. Aquamation uses a mixture of water and an alkali solution, potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide to break down organic matter (Aquamation, n.d.). The chamber that holds the body is pressurized. The mixture is heated to 150 degrees Celsius and after some time, the body tissue is liquified and drained, leaving only the bones. This liquid is referred to as effluent and it’s a sterile mix of amino acids and peptides that contains no DNA or tissue and is safe to dispose of in the regular drain. The bones then go through a rinse for another 20 minutes at 120 degrees Celsius (Kremer, 2017). The bones are then pulverized to “ash” using a cremulator, just like during a cremation. Aquamation only uses 10% of the energy that cremation uses, it burns no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gasses (Oster, 2022). There are places in Iowa where pets can be aquamated but no places for humans yet.
Sidenote - The ashes from aquamation are just as toxic to plants as the remains from cremation so it's pertinent to be mindful of where they are being spread.
Green Burial - According to the Green Burial Council, Green Burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. This means no embalming, no vaults, and the use of biodegradable caskets, containers or urns. Green burials can be done on natural burial grounds, hybrid cemeteries and conservation burial grounds. Green burials can also occur on personal property but laws regarding the deceased and final disposition vary from state to state. Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina was the first modern green cemetery in the United States, opening its land to green burials in 1998. I specifically said modern since all burials and cemeteries before 1860 were technically “green.”. Today, there are 368 cemeteries or burial grounds that claim to have a natural burial option (New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education). The point of a green burial is to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. Most bodies are buried in some sort of compostable shrouds or blanket and buried 3 to 4 feet below the surface. Burying bodies closer to the surface allows for greater oxygen flow, higher temperatures and soil microbes to efficiently aid in the decomposition process (Webster, n.d.). While there is no evidence that a decaying body poses a public health risk, most green burial spaces are located in natural spaces where plant life and soil microbes are available to aid in the decomposition process.
Remember that book I mentioned earlier? One chapter that I really liked talked about Katrina Spade, a researcher working at Western Carolina University with their Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST). FOREST is a human decomposition research facility for studying forensic anthropology and human decomposition. Also known as a “body farm”, there are seven locations in the U.S. where forensic science students study human decomposition, mainly to aid in the advancements of the criminal justice system. Katrina Spade was at FOREST to learn the best method for human composition. She started the Urban Death Project in 2014 and Recompose in 2017, with the intent of composting bodies into soil. Fast forward to 2023, I learned that in 2018, Recompose filed for a patent on their method of recomposition (Spade and Bernstein, 2017) and according to their website they are a “licensed green funeral home offering human composting to transform your loved one's body into soil,” ( Recompose is the first human composting funeral home in the world. Human composting or NOR (natural organic reduction) primarily uses microbes, along with bacteria, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water, and temperature to break down the body on a molecular level. According to Recompose.com, the body is put into a vessel (vessel in a vessel, get it?) of wood chips, straw and alfalfa for 30 days. Staff rotate the vessel at multiple points throughout the process to assure maximum aeration and decomposition. The soil is then removed from the vessel, safety tested and left to cure for two to four weeks. The soil can then be taken home by the family to use on plants or donate it to conservation efforts. Soil is a finite resource we tend to take for granted and we often underestimate the ecological impact healthy soil has on the environment. Soil provides the basis for a healthy ecosystem, from filtering water, carbon sequestration, providing the foundation for plant life thus the foundation of all life.
I wanted to write about this subject because I want people to know there are more than just two methods of final disposition. I know culturally, death is not something many people jump at the opportunity to talk about but informed decisions require being informed. If I want to make a positive impact on the environment in life, I certainly don’t want to negatively impact it in death. While some greener options are more environmentally friendly than others, the increased availability of all of them ensures that, perhaps in death, we might give back more than we take. “The breakdown of organic matter is an essential component in the cycle that allows the death of one organism to nurture the life of another.”
REFERENCES AND OTHER INFORMATIVE WEBSITES
Aquamation. (n.d.). Our Process. Retrieved from: https://aquamationinfo.com/process/
Bernstein, O., and Spade, K. (2017, July 25). Pubchem Patent Summary for US-2020207675-A1, System and method for recomposition of the dead. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/patent/US-2020207675-A1
Bios. (n.d.). Why Planting your Ashes Directly under a Tree will not work and How the Bios Urn solves the problem. Retrieved from: https://urnabios.com/why-directly-planting-in-cremation-ashes-directly-will-not-work/
Doughty, C. (2017). From here to eternity: traveling the world to find the good death. W.W. Norton Company; New York, New York.
Estrin, D. (2016, August 8). Berlin's graveyards are being converted for use by the living. The World. Retrieved from: https://theworld.org/stories/2016-08-08/berlins-graveyards-are-being-converted-use-living
Ferraz, R. (2018, July 18.). Cemetery Overcrowding is Leading Europe to Recycle Burial Plots. Talk Death. Retrieved from https://www.talkdeath.com/cemetery-overcrowding-leading-europe-recycle-burial-plots/
Funeral Consumers Alliance. (2023). Home Page. https://funerals.org/
Green Burial Council. (2023). Home Page. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org
Harker, A. (2012). Landscapes of the Dead: an Argument for Conservation Burial. Berkeley Planning Journal, 25(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/BP325111923 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7br0d6c3
The House Designers. (n.d.). How Many Trees Does it Take to Build a House? Retrieved from https://www.thehousedesigners.com/articles/how-many-trees-does-it-take-to-build-a-house.asp#:~:text=House%20Construction&text=To%20keep%20it%20simple%20and,a%202%2C000%20square%20foot%20home.
Kim, M. (n.d.). How Cremation Works. How Stuff Works. Retrieved from: https://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation.htm
Kremer, W. (2017, May 22). Dissolving the Dead. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/dissolving_the_dead
Little, B. (2019, November 5). The environmental toll of cremating the dead. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/is-cremation-environmentally-friendly-heres-the-science
National Funeral Directors Association. (2020, July 6). 2020 Cremation & Burial Projects Cremation Rate of 87% by 2040. Retrieved from: https://nfda.org/news/in-the-news/nfda-news/id/5223/2020-cremation-burial-projects-cremation-rate-of-87-by-2040#:~:text=In%202015%2C%20when%20the%20national,U.S.%20cremation%20rate%20might%20go.
New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education. (n.d.). Green Burial Cemeteries in the US and Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.nhfuneral.org/green-burial-cemeteries-in-the-us-and-canada.html
The Order of the Good Death. (2023). Home Page. https://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/
Oster, L. (2022, July 27). Could Water Cremation Become the New American Way of Death? Smithsonian Magazine; Digital. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/could-water-cremation-become-the-new-american-way-of-death-180980479/
Perfect Memorials. (n.d.). Will the U.S. Eventually Run Out of Space for Cemeteries? Retrieved from: https://perfectmemorials.com/guides/running-out-of-cemetery-space
Public History of Cemeteries. (n.d.). The Public History of Cemeteries. Retrieved from: https://publichistoryofcemeteries.org/cemeteries-as-parks/
Recompose. (2023). Home Page. https://recompose.life/
Spongberg, A., and Becks, P. (2000). Inorganic Soil Contamination from Cemetery Leachate. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution; 117(313-327). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005186919370
Tang, J. (2019, January 9). Cemeteries use a lot of space and are terrible for the environment. Is there a better way? The Greater Washington. Retrieved from https://ggwash.org/view/70300/burial-culture-and-the-issues-with-using-so-much-space-for-cemeteries
Webster, L. (n.d.). Green Burial Council Publications. Green Burial Council. Retrieved from: https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/science_green_burial.html#:~:text=Burial%20at%203%2D4%20feet,in%20to%20aid%20the%20process.
Woodsen, M. (n.d.). Disposition Statistics. Green Burial Council, Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve; Newfield, New York. Retrieved from https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/media_packet.html
World of Chemicals. (n.d.). What are Embalming Chemicals? Retrieved from https://www.worldofchemicals.com/719/chemistry-articles/what-are-embalming-chemicals.html
About the Author
As sarcastic as she is adorable, Rachel always enjoys a good laugh. After spending 21 years working at Wal-Mart, she decided it was better late than never to go back to school. She joined AmeriCorps to gain experience and to help pay for her education. She is currently taking classes at Kirkwood with plans to study Environmental Science at the University of Northern Iowa. She lives with her wife, Amy, in Cedar Rapids. They have 3 dogs, Beto, Chimi, Bambi, and one foster dog, Oscar.