Save the Planet: Dissolve Your Dead

By Lizzie Buchen | May 9, 2008 12:38 pm

coffin.jpgYou eschew cars and planes, eat insects instead of meat, dedicate yourself to recycling, avoid plastic, and install CFLs in every socket within reach—but what about your carbon footprint after death?

Standard coffin burials are known environmental hazards, involving high levels of hazardous chemicals and metals at every step. The body is first embalmed with formaldehyde (arsenic and mercury, thankfully, are no longer used), then placed in either a wood coffin (covered in varnishes, sealers, and preservatives) or a metal coffin (full of lead, zinc, copper, and steel). In America, the casket is then placed inside a concrete liner before burial in the ground—using enough reinforced concrete every year to construct a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.

Cremation doesn’t take up nearly as much space, but is no better (and possibly worse) for the environment. Burning bodies emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particular matter, mercury (from silver dental fillings), hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, and other heavy metals.

But there are ways to dispose of bodies that are environmentally friendly (besides tossing them into the ocean with rocks tied around their ankles). In recent years, the “deathcare” industry has been making efforts to be greener—e.g., using the heat generated by cremations to keep mourners warm during funerals, stockpiling the deceased to burn them en masse, solar crematoriums, and burying unembalmed bodies in biodegradable coffins (as people have been buried for thousands of years). A new option has now arrived—dissolving bodies in lye-filled pressure cookers and flushing the syrupy, coffee-colored remains down the drain. (And you thought toilet to tap was foul).

The euphemistic “water resolution” applies alkaline hydrolysis—the chemical process in which a molecule is cleaved in the presence of a basic liquid solution—to the cadaver for three hours, producing a viscous solution of amino acids, peptides, sugars, and fats, along with “bone shadows” (ash), which can be given to the relatives for burial (similar to cremation). It is similar to the natural process of decomposition, accelerated by high pressure and temperature, and alkalinity.

The reduction of a deceased loved one to a motor oil-like syrup and a handful of white powder doesn’t seem very dignified, but neither does sucking out their blood and replacing it with formaldehyde (which can cause spasms and ghastly muscle rigidity). It’s a sensitive issue, but slowing the decomposition of a dead body seems pointless and utterly futile—what’s the sense in preserving the dead if the process endangers the living?

Image: Ecoffins

MORE ABOUT: burial, death
  • JAck

    good lord this is grisly. and yet, it makes so much sense… thanks for that “dissolved body to tap” imagery, by the way.

  • Louise Everett

    Rather than being reduced to a ‘coffee-coloured syrup’ and in the end ‘flushed down the drain’, the UK has seen the introduction of AARDBalm – a non-toxic, short-term preservation solution. Not only does the fluid safeguard traditional funeral customs whilst enhancing the appearance of the deceased (no muscle rigidity associated with traditional embalming methods), importantly the product provides a safer working environment for the Funeral Industry itself and, allows the natural decomposition process to occur without seeping harmful toxins into the ground and watertable.

  • Chris

    I think that the biodegradable coffins and non-preserved cadavers makes the most sense. There is a natural process that occurs, interfering with it is not necessary, until we need the raw materials left in the body for the next generation to start.

  • http://discover Charlie

    Shades of the movie Solient Green From the 70’s I believe! Next is the deceased to soup!

  • Anna

    I understand the necessity of finding alternative means of managing the bodies of our dead loved ones, what with the environmental concerns involved. Perhaps a less drastic method or a modified environmentally friendly embalming scheme would be better. I’m just wondering whether we should be focusing on the dead to save the planet.

  • desiree williams

    well,I think it’s kinda cool,but the question is is that does the dead bodies turn to tap atfer being dissolved and poured down the drain?

  • A Porter

    When is formaldehyde being banned? Money must have been spent somewere, promoting other safer means of embalming, first it was goin g to be banned in 2007, it didn’t happen, next it was 2008.

    Who ever started this campaign, get your finger out and lets have some positive answers, in stead of pussy footing!!!!!!!

  • Shaun

    One issue that has not been mentioned through all of this is the waste of valuable land taken up by our dead. This is becoming more and more an issue as the Baby Boomers go full cycle. Cities and towns across the country are solving the problem by re-classifying municiple land (the kids ball fields in our case) for expanded cemetery space. The more my remains can be condensed the better.


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