Since many societies (esp in the West) are ageing, someday soon we are going to start noticing that a great proportion of our populations is on the verge of shuffling off this mortal coil.  And then we are going to ask the question which I am sure that is burning in all of our minds: how are we ever going to deal with all those bodies in a way that is environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and zombie-apocalypse proof?

Burial is the traditional form of body disposal – but apparently it is not a good “green” option according to this Reuters article.  This is because your body takes up space underground, while the decaying process releases methane and caskets use steel, copper, bronze and wood.  And so if you have your grave plot already sorted out, shame on you! Don’t you know that we have to be environmentally conscious even when all consciousness has left us for good? 

Luckily there are other options.  Such as Natural or Woodland burials.  Apparently, in the UK these are becoming more popular and there are around 260 sites where you can choose to commune with nature (in a totally passive way of course).  What is a Natural or Woodland burial and why is it popular?

“Bodies are buried in a woodland setting, field or meadow in wicker, cardboard, or other environmentally sound coffins.

Environmental concerns, wanting to reconnect with nature, reducing the burden on families to look after traditional graves and cost are the main drivers for people choosing a natural burial, a Durham University study said last month.”

If being left at the tender mercies of passing wildlife is not for you, there is always trusty cremation – which combines the joy of a Viking burial with the convenience of not having to find a longboat and fill it with trophies taken from dead enemies (which can be hard if you haven’t already secured one by the time retirement rolls around).  In the UK, around 75% of the population is cremated but this process is again not totally environmentally friendly.  Each cremation apparently uses the same amount of domestic energy as a person uses in a month. Globally, cremation emits over 6.8 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, or 0.02% of world emissions.  If you live in India, cremation occurs in the open air and the amount of wood required comes from 50 to 60 million trees a year!

Ok, but if you want to leave this world without adding to your country’s Kyoto Protocol bill, what else is there? 

“In the UK, Scotland-based Resomation Ltd has developed a process which breaks down a corpse chemically in an alkaline solution.

Although the process uses very high temperatures to heat remains in a pressurized container, the firm claims the process uses one seventh of the energy of a standard cremation and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent.

Resomation still has to be approved by the UK government for use in Britain but the firm has installed resomators in the United States, where some states allow it.”

Or, if you are more of a Terminator 2 fan there is always this option:

“Suffolk-based Cryomation Ltd has developed a technology which freezes a body using liquid nitrogen until it is brittle, removes metal elements and turns the remains into a powder which could be composted, buried in a natural graveyard or scattered.

Having proven the technology, the firm is now seeking 1.5 million pounds ($2.4 million) to build the first unit.

‘The cryomation process has been talked about for far too long but never been delivered,’ said Paul Smith, business development manager at parent company IRTL.

‘Our technology (..) can remove moisture at a cost-effective rate and at a suitable speed to make it a viable alternative to cremation with lots of environmental benefits,’ he added.”

Whatever happened to being mulched down and converted into fertiliser? That surely is the “green” option!?  But seriously folks, while I am happy to try and act in a manner consistent with our responsibilities of guardianship over the Earth, this type of talk unsettles me. It seems to me that this discussion either feeds into, or feeds off, underlying notions that humans are only an ecological drain and burden.  That in death we are to be disposed of in an ecological way, like recycling garbage, and that there is no inherent dignity in the human body that should be revered.  Death has always fascinated and repelled us.  We have woven rituals, ceremonies and taboos around it. Are we losing something deeply and ineffably mystical by freezing, superheating, or dumping our bodies in a wood? Is not death and the respect for the dead a sign of something deeper, something that we perhaps in our modern society don’t want to face? (Are we terrified by the thought that we will die and the world will still go on? That maybe, just maybe, we are not the be-all and end-all of the universe? That someday we will not be an “I am”, but a “he was”?) Hmmm, or am I being too precious?

PS Writing this has brought to mind the novel “The Loved One” by one of my favourite authors, Evelyn Waugh.  If you haven’t read it then I would highly recommend it. But, be warned, it is only for those who like their humour macabre and who don’t have a soft-spot for the funeral industry!

PPS What about door-to-door service?

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...