Death and conscious cosmic dust

What happens after we die continues to fascinate, and inspire people to innovate.

In: Death is not the endwell, not for sustainable living, anyway. Michaela Burns (Renew Issue 159, Apr-Jun 2022) investigates the intersection of sustainability and death. Some extracts follow…

Whether we embrace it or do our best to pretend it’s not going to happen to us, death is a part of life.

Burial, cremation and carbon dioxide

This wasn’t something people had to consider, of course – previous generations posthumous preferences were rarely informed by the indirect impacts of their death on people they’d never met.

On average 480 Australians die every day, with about 70 per cent being cremated and 30 per cent choosing cremation.

This means the simple act of putting to rest – burying and cremating – each person who dies on a given day in Australia will generate the equivalent of 53,760kg of CO2 … more than twice the amount that a single living Australian generates each year.

The alternatives to the big two – burial and cremation

Green funerals

This is as much about what we don’t have as it is about what we do.  We tend not to go for the lavish heavily adorned coffin with gold trim all round – low key being very acceptable.  We tend to say no to a commercial floral arrangement, preferring flowers from a family or friends garden. We say yes to natural burial site rather than a lawn cemetery that requires regular maintenance.  In other words we take into account the cost to the Earth as much as we look at the financials and social status.

Wicker caskets and coffins

People have been making furniture and containers from wicker for over 5,000years. It is the oldest known method for such construction. It can include willow, rattan, seagrass, reed or bamboo. They are supposedly cheaper to make and more sustainable that those made of wood – uncles it’s reclaimed. Wicker coffins and caskets are generally constructed without the use of toxic varnishes, glues, plastics or metals. The plants used replenish themselves quickly. They also take less time to decompose and the nature of the material allows more oxygen to reach the body, meaning anaerobic decomposition, and the accompanying release of methane gas, is reduced.

Bio urns

There is more choice today than there was ten or twenty years ago. Urns of the past were often of the ceramic type adorned with artwork – as much a mantelpiece display as a container for human remains. They were certainly intended to stay around for a long time, having been fired in a kiln at high temperatures and not about to biodegrade anytime soon.  Enter the bio urns available today and the choice seems limitless. The two most popular in Australia are: Soul Trees and Eco Water Urns. But check around for others.  We need to understand that what we call ashes, what’s left after a body has been cremated, is actually cremains – the crushed bones of the deceased person.  The body has been incinerated at such a high temperature that the skin and organ tissues are evaporated off along with the water content (70-75 per cent), so the ‘ashes’ content is small compared with the total urn contents, mainly ground up bones. This is what we get given when we collect the ‘ashes’.  But when all is said and done, what’s wrong with a cardboard shoe box? Why the need for all the manufacturing that goes into a vessel that’s going to be buried or even emptied with the contents scattered or shared with family members, if that is the wish of the descendants.  The rules that surround this area are made up. There is no obligation to follow what a commercial operator out to make a profit might tell us is the norm or respectful. There’s nothing disrespectful in being as Earth centred as possible, in ones thinking about this final act of returning to that place from which we came – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We are nothing more or less than conscious cosmic dust.

Alkaline hydrolysis / Aquamation / ‘water cremation’

Proponents estimate that this process produces less than 10 per cent of the emissions emitted by traditional furnace based cremation, and the lower temperature means that pollutants like mercury are not released during the process they can be safely recovered after the hydrolysis process is complete, along with objects like hip replacements and pacemakers.

The process received publicity in early 2022 with the death of South African anti-apartheid advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chose it for himself. Water cremation is relatively new to Australia. Victorian company Aquamation has offered the process since 2009 and still remains the main provider.

Mushroom burial suits

While it’s not yet available in Australia, this unique idea is stirring up well needed conservations around green funerals and the impact buried bodies have on the environment. The mushroom burial suit – or Infinity Burial Suit, as it is advertised in America – is a biodegradable garment for the deceased that aims to neutralize contaminants that may exist within the body.  It uses a form of mycoremediation, a process whereby fungi act a s a natural composter.  The fungi secrete several extracellular enzymes that are capable of decomposing and digesting the chemicals that bodies create as they decompose.

Leaving our body to science.

This could be to the body farm operated by Australian Faculty for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) under the guidance of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

There are also anatomy departments at other universities such as the University of Newcastle or University of Sydney or UNSW.

Other little things that matter

To further minimise ones impact, other things can be considered.

Creating an electronic order of service, rather than distributing paper programs;
Dressing a loved one’s body in biodegradable materials like cotton, silk, hemp or wool;
Planting a tree in memory of the deceased person;
Ensuring any flowers placed or left at grave sites are free from petroleum plastic, and packaging is likewise;
If the opportunity presents itself, choose sustainable transportation of the deceased from the place where the funeral service is held to the gravesite or other venue;
Consider a waste free after funeral event catered for by family and friends held in a community hall or a park or garden – there’s no rule that says we have hire the funeral operators dining facilities.

Funeral practices around the world

Not that these are available in Australia, but there are many other ways to deal with the dead.  Sky burial is one used in Northern India by Tibetan Buddhists.  This involves leaving the body to be consumed by vultures.  It is seen as a gift to the universe and a good omen.

What works for one culture doesn’t work for another.

What we need to do is be well informed of the choices available and advocate for methods that leave the smallest footprint in terms of ecological impact.

In other cultures the body is seen as a vessel, a thing which serves no-purpose once the soul itself has passed over. Perhaps this is something that Australians can learn too – and letting go of the desire to hold on, we also find a way to preserve the Earth for those who must keep on living.

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