So maybe you’re not quite ready to be honored, yourself, this Dia de Muertos, All Soul’s Day, or Samhain. But there will come a day for each of us when we cross that boundary from this world to the next. And when we do, what will happen to our mortal remains?
Leave it to humans to take a natural process like dying and turn it into an abnormal event that must be denied. And then make that be the cultural norm and charge lots of money for it.
The average, “traditional” funeral (a rather recent tradition) today costs more than $8,000. Embalming (in which the deceased’s blood is replaced with preservatives like formaldehyde, a toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemical) and facial cosmetics are employed to get the corpse ready for its “close-up” in the $3,000 decorative casket for viewing at the funeral home.
In the meantime, the cemetery will have sent out someone with a backhoe to “open” the grave and get it ready for the burial. Then the cortege from the undertaker’s to the cemetery, where, after a short graveside service, the casket will be lowered on a specially-designed, well, casket lowering device. But it will not be sullied by being lowered into the earth itself. It will go into a concrete burial vault; world-class powerlifters couldn’t push daisies up through that.
Ostensibly all of this should preserve the body for a while. But not so. The embalming only lasts for perhaps a week, just long enough for the ‘viewing’. Unless, of course, you are an Egyptian pharoah–your ancestors were deadly serious about embalming and mummifying. Or unless you’re Lenin.
What about the casket seal and a concrete burial vault—made of 5,000 psi concrete and lined with a metal such as bronze or stainless steel, or plastic? Probably won’t keep moisture, bacteria, and earth-borne micro-organisms out for very long. The vault’s real purpose is to keep the ground from sinking as the casket deteriorates. And all this begs the question: why would you want to preserve a dead body, anyway?
There are other choices. Maybe, like the cemetery administrators in our last blog post, you find cremation to be a more palatable solution. It’s got issues, too. A retort requires a fossil fuel source and puts an unreasonably large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. If you’re a trendy sort, you might instead choose the new ‘biocremation’ technique that uses water and potassium hydroxide—and was approved by the American Chemical Society in 2010—to reduce the body to bones, or “B2B”, as they seem to say in the industry, leaving a very small carbon footprint.
Or, instead, come full circle and return to what most people have done throughout history—simply be placed in the earth and naturally decompose at their own pace, letting their remains go back where they came from, the old “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sentiment. “A dead body plays host to a whole ecosystem of insects that help to decompose the body and return it to nature.” So you won’t be malingering.
Green or natural burials are also much less expensive than a “traditional” burial, costing $3,500 at Natural Path Sanctuary, for example.
With this minimal-impact approach to burial, a body is either wrapped in a natural fiber shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin—woven willow, cardboard, simple wood. And then buried 4 feet down, not 6 feet under. That’s too deep and creates anaerobic conditions; not 2 feet because that’s just too close to the surface. In a Goldilocks sort of way, 3 to 4 feet is just right.
While many urban cemeteries now set aside an area for natural burials, the true green cemeteries, like Natural Path Sanctuary at the Farley Center in Verona, WI, go farther. They embrace the “be a tree” philosophy of allowing your remains to nourish and sustain the earth. An Aldo Leopold quote on the website says it all: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The management here maintains the cemetery in a semi-wild state, so you can literally be pushing up native plants and trees. Makes you wonder how we ever got so far away from such a simple concept.
But we can’t wrap this up without a quick look at the two latest possibilities: the mushroom suit and body composting. Composting is still in the experimental stage, but looks hopeful—after all, it’s become a fairly common procedure on dairy farms with dead animals larger than an average human.
The mushroom suit, proper name Infinity Burial Suit, hit the news last spring when it was first unveiled and ready to sell. More than just a passive, eco-friendly burial shroud, the suit is sown/sewn with varieties of mushroom spores that can use the decomposing body as their substrate, speeding up the process and sequestering toxins to boot. And you go out in a catsuit, looking chic like Emma Peel. Amazing.
Borrowing the marvelously phrased words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dennis White, the first person intending to be buried in the suit, writes: “I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that the flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.” What a way to get ready for Dia de Muertos!
NEWS FLASH! I read today’s Guardian just before I posted this, and here’s yet another possibility . . .
Photo credits, in order: Bohringer Friedrich (Wiki Commons); http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/blogs/the-bike-hearse-makes-dying-greener; http://www.naturalpathsanctuary.org; coeio.com.
Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.