PATRICIA REMY – There are 8 billion of us humans now, populating Planet Earth. Within the next hundred years virtually all of us will die. This raises a question: How will the disposition of the deceased take place, on the average 80,000,000 annually? Numerically this is somewhat more than the current populations of California, Texas, and the provinces of Quebec and Alberta combined.
How we treat the mortal remains of our loved ones is a matter of natural reverence. Virtually every culture rejects any callous handling of deceased human bodies; the exceptions confirm the rule. The correct disposition of the deceased is also a matter of limiting health risks to the living.
Jessica Mitford’s 1963 The American Way of Death influenced the attitude of an entire cohort toward funeral practices during the post-World War II years. (Being a member of that cohort, I know this from personal experience.) The central critique was that unscrupulous undertakers were taking advantage of their clients at a time of emotional vulnerability and offering funerals which were unnecessarily elaborate and overly expensive. The book inspired a Congressional investigation.
The Sixties and Seventies were a time of exposés of, let’s say, just-to-keep-it-polite, disrespectful corporate practices, virtually all of much more consequence than those of the funeral business. Big Pharma, the tobacco industry, and Big Oil, to mention a few, eventually experienced the same sort of criticism. Big Government and Big Media would follow. “Service” industries, everything from banks to insurance companies, have devolved largely into profit centres. Everybody has become skeptical of everything. Governmental investigations have not been as frequent or effective as one might wish.
In the meantime, the world is experiencing acute climate change. Members of my cohort, yes, the infamous Boomers, have been able to observe its creeping influence during their own lifetimes. Those of us who can expect to die within the next 20 years are examining not only our lifestyle choices for our remaining years, but also the way we organize the disposition of our bodies after we have died. Is there an ecologically responsible method of disposition? And who can be trusted to provide it?
Before discussing the methods of disposition it is helpful to consider the legal context.
Disposition of deceased bodies is regulated by the Province (Ontario) according to the Funeral, Burial, and Cremation Services Act of 2002. Under the Safety and Consumer Statutes and Administration Act of 1996 the Government can determine organizations as Delegated Administrative Authorities (DAA) to regulate the practices determined by law. The Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) is the delegated authority which regulates provisions of the Funeral, Burial, and Cremations Service Act.
There exist also a set of Ontario bylaws regulating Funeral, Cremation, and Scattering Arrangements.
Only certain persons, e.g. estate trustees, spouses, adult children, and (sadly, sometimes) parents of the deceased may decide what will happen to the body. Anyone running a cemetery, funeral home, or transfer service must be licensed by the BAO.
A death must be registered with the municipality where it occurs. A burial permit is necessary for cremation or burial.
A family member can organize and hold a funeral service for the deceased, if it is not done for pay.
Embalming is not a legal requirement. Airlines or a transfer service may require it.
For cremation no casket is required, just a rigid container.
Cremated remains are often placed in a niche. The urn may also be kept privately by a family
member on their private property or in a dwelling for which they pay rent.
Ashes may be scattered on Crown land, on any private property with the consent of the owner, on municipal lands designated for that purpose, or on a (pre-paid) plot to which a family member of the deceased or a person designated by the family has secured scattering rights.
From the outline above the reader may conclude correctly that the days of embalming, expensive coffins and interment are a bygone, if one so chooses.
If this is a sensitive topic for you, please skip the next paragraph.
I was recently asked why it would not be possible to bury Grandma or Grandpa, as they are when they die, under their favourite apple tree or lilac bush. Farmers, after all, bury dead stock on their land all the time. First, there are very clear rules for the burial of farm animals. That is a separate and entire chapter in-and-of-itself. However, I agree, it is appealing to consider how happy the deceased might be if their final resting place was their favourite spot in the world. If their remains are ashes from cremation or the solids retained after alkaline hydrolysis (see Greenzine from September 2022, Aquamation), there is no problem. Where things become complicated is with Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) or ”composting”.
Let’s look at the ecological footprint of these three dispositional procedures, this is not easy. It is hard to find figures of comparison. For that, I used an article in National Geographic from November 5, 2019.
- Cremation takes 4 hours and requires the use of fossil fuels, i.e. natural gas. The oven has to be heated to 1200°F. The average amount of carbon dioxide produced is 543.6 lb. The soft tissue is burned to CO2 with presumably some nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide [latter two my guess]. The mercury from fillings is filtered out. Artificial joints may be removed prior to the procedure. Otherwise, they disintegrate.
- Alkaline hydrolysis takes 3-7 hours and requires the use of sodium and potassium hydroxide. The amount of these chemicals can be calculated according to body weight, so that there is little waste. The effluent is neutral and can be used as fertilizer. There are two variants to alkaline hydrolysis.
In Ontario only HPHT, high pressure, high temperature alkaline hydrolysis is allowed.
- The vessel must be heated to 152°C (305°F). Artificial joints and amalgam fillings remain unharmed and their materials may be recycled. 151 litres of water are used. Around 55 lb of CO2 is produced.
Composting or Natural Organic Reduction requires that the deceased body be placed in a vessel containing alfalfa straw and other organic material, which is rotated at 135°F. This goes on, in total, for four to six weeks. Flesh composts nicely; the bones take longer and have to be crushed separately and re-added to the bundle. After this, the compost is dried for three days. Artificial devices remain. The composted mass is now indistinguishable from garden soil, is then buried or mixed with the earth at the chosen burial site. Sometimes the soil at the burial site must be tested to determine whether it is compatible with the soil from the remains. Proponents of NOR claim that the procedure is carbon neutral.
So much for the ecological footprint.
There are also public health concerns, especially since the identification of diseases carried by prions. Mad cow disease is the most notorious to date. According to an article in PubMed.gov from April 2, 2006 prions adhere to particles in the soil and remain infectious. This means they can travel with groundwater, and, presumably, enter the bodies of grazing animals. Cremation and alkaline hydrolysis destroy prions.