An Environmentally More Gentle Disposition of the Deceased – update

PATRICIA REMY – Interest in “green” burials and methods of disposition of the deceased has continued to rise. The Greenzine reported on this topic twice recently: in December 2022 with The Ecological Disposition of the Deceased and in September of the same year with Aquamation.

Because of increasing environmental awareness, methods which were unconventional up until 10 or 15 years ago have become more widely available and preferred. As Boomers plan their parents’ and their own funerals, it is important to keep up to date.

In the following, the Greenzine reviews a brochure published by death curious from Parting Stone. This company, based in New Mexico, has developed a new and environmentally friendly way of compacting human remains (www.partingstone.com). It is not the intention of the Greenzine to advertise for or promote Parting Stone, because it offers only one of a number of ecologically based methods of disposition. However, in their Guide the company publishes facts and figures which may be of interest to those considering ecological disposition; the extensive brochure is reviewed for that purpose. The Guide is divided into thematic sections which this review summarizes.

  1. Traditional burial, which involves refrigeration, embalming, a casket, and either the use of a vault or interment, with the accompanying use of fossil fuels for the machinery used in the upkeep of graveyards, is the least environmentally friendly variant of disposition. Unembalmed bodies have proven to be no threat to public health.
    For those for whom a traditional burial is the preferred option there are now alternatives to wood, lead or metal caskets: e.g. bamboo, sea kelp, or pine.
  2. Flame cremation is currently the preferred option in the USA. However, carbon dioxide, dioxin, and mercury compounds are released. The energy consumed is equivalent to that of driving 800 km and releasing 400 kg of CO2. Instead of spreading ashes, flame cremation also allows for the creation of solidified remains, or cremains.
    Flame cremation and aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis), the latter a subject of past articles in the Greenzine, make metal reclamation and recycling possible.
  3. As a reminder, aquamation, alkaline hydrolysis at 150°C., reduces bodily tissue to its most basic organic building blocks. There is no DNA, RNA, no protein (so no prions, e.g. the proteins which cause Creuzfeldt-Jakob’s brain degeneration) left. The fluid is sterile.
  4. So called green burial is something else. There is no embalming. Either certified biodegradable containers or shrouds encase the deceased body. Dry ice is used for preservation until burial. The use of electric lifts for lowering the body into the grave are avoided. Graves are dug by hand and the cemetery and/or burial site receives no (e.g. gardening) maintenance. It may be located in the woods. Graves are shallow to allow for aeration and the transformation through carrion beetles and microbes. No contamination of soil and water has been observed in green cemeteries in the USA, Canada, the UK or Australia.
  5. Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) or “body composting” is an option of green burial for urban dwellers. The deceased is enclosed in a biodegradable shroud which is filled with organic matter and placed in a NOR vessel, where the temperature is slightly elevated.
    Decomposition occurs the same way as with green burial, only somewhat more quickly, within 30-40 days. If necessary the remains are then ground down and mixed into the accompanying organic matter. They are free from DNA and toxins.

The one small disadvantage of green burial and NOR is the time it takes for the process to be completed. Larger pieces of metal, e.g. from artificial joints, can be recovered. Smaller pieces of heavy metal are bound naturally in the soil.

NOR is allowed in certain States only. It is wise to research what is permissible in your particular region. Ontarians can consult the Bereavement Authority of Ontario or ask a local funeral director.

The brochure ends with a comparison of the described disposition methods according to nine categories of impact and pollution: electricity usage; fossil fuel usage; water pollution and toxicity; greenhouse gas emissions; heavy metal contamination; land use and soil toxicity; the consumption of general materials; global warming/climate change; ozone depletion. There are graphs, facts, and figures galore.

This Guide on the impact of disposition methods is a very helpful source of information. You can download it for your own use at www.partingstone.com/deathcurious. It was made available to me by John Cunningham at Kawartha Aquamation/Ashburnham Funeral Home.

An Environmentally More Gentle Disposition of the Deceased – update © 2023 by Patricia Remy in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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