Increasingly in Australia more of us strive to make changes to live a sustainable life but what are we doing to ensure we have a sustainable death? What does a sustainable death even mean?
The majority of us in Australia will be cremated – around 70%. We have become very creative with what we do with the ashes of people we love. Ashes can be scattered by hand or by drone over a favourite place, buried in a container in a cemetery in a wall or the earth with a memorial plant, contained in an urn that starts on the mantle and ends up forgotten in a cupboard, buried at home in a pod under a tree, crafted into jewellery, blown into a glass paperweight, shot into space, cemented into a reef, inked into a tattoo, blown up in fireworks, loaded into ammo to be used on your next hunting trip or even turned into a favourite tune in a vinyl record.
So, we asked the question: How is any of that good for the environment or us? Burning a body to ash in a cremator takes on average about 90 minutes using non-renewable fossil fuels, usually natural gas. Harmful toxins and greenhouses gases including carbon monoxide, embalming agents (such as formaldehyde), mercury found in dental fillings, heavy metals and known carcinogens like dioxins are vapourised and emitted, depending on the body, and pollute the air, depending on the filtration system. Technology is working to reduce the amount of non-renewable fossil fuels required by the cremator and increase the amount of toxins captured in the filtering system but the fact remains non-renewable fossil fuels are still being used and toxins emitted. There is no such thing as a ‘safe level of a toxic chemical’. Interestingly and surprisingly, if using the latest more efficient cremators, cremation has less impact on the environment than traditional burial.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics report that over 160,000 of us die each year in Australia so with 70% of us choosing cremation that is around 112,000 bodies being burned every 12 months. That is over 168,000 hours of burning non-renewable fossil fuels every year in Australia just on body disposal. This number does not take into account the additional gas required to pre-heat the cremator. This number will continue to rise with an increasing population resulting in eventually more deaths per year and with the popularity of cremation continuing to rise, due in part to its lower cost than burial.
The rest of us – around 30% – will keep our bodies in the one spot by being nailed into a coffin. This box will be either placed in a hole in a wall in a mausoleum (bit like an apartment block for the dead) or in a concrete cocoon in the earth called a vault or in a hole in the ground that is often so deep to make room for three coffins to be stacked on top of each other. Each of these options happen in a cemetery.
Again, we asked the question: How is any of that good for the environment or us? Toxic chemicals from the embalming process and non-organic coffin materials leach into the soil, and expose funeral workers to potential hazards. Concrete, metals, synthetic textiles and plastic are some of the non-bio-degradable materials buried with a coffin. Maintaining the garden memorial plots requires a lot of land, uses a lot of water for the lawn and plants and burns up a lot of non-renewable fossil fuels that power the earthmoving and lawn-mowing equipment, which also have embodied energy from the manufacturing process. Highly landscaped, sculptured, urban cemeteries discourage native animals and vegetation.
A miniscule few of us donate our bodies to science (if they are accepted – it is certainly not a given) or are buried on private land or are given the OK to be dumped in the sea. Each of these options require a lot of pre-planning and written approval long before the death happens.
Disconnection from death
Sadly, in recent generations in our culture we have become not only disconnected from nature but also disconnected from death. Many of us are afraid of death, or feel it is a taboo topic, or are just not comfortable talking about it. Our burial practices ensure our bodies are eternally separated from and harmful to nature by injecting them with chemicals, wrapping them in plastic and either burning them or encasing them in various combinations of metal, wood and concrete. The idea of scattering the ashes of your person over the roses they lovingly cared for in life is beautiful and romantic. But did you know cremated ashes are actually harmful to plants and would kill those roses in such a large quantity?
Most of us are unfamiliar with our death system and what we can and cannot do e.g. Can I bring or keep the body of my person at home when they die? If so, how long for? Do all bodies need to be embalmed? Can I make and use my own coffin? Can I be buried in a shroud? Are there other options to cremation and burial? What is a natural burial? Many of us have never even thought about what we can and cannot do when either we or someone we love is dying or dies. Many of us simply outsource death. We think: “Well, by law don’t we have to get a funeral director to do everything?”.
Maybe there is more to this story for us to learn. Then we can make more informed, more meaningful, more cost-effective and more sustainable decisions when death comes into our life.
The Eco Coffin Project aims to uncover, explore and share this unfolding story of sustainable death in an interactive, inclusive, creative way with our community.
In our next post, we will reveal the 2020 Program for the Eco Coffin Project