Being Dead Is No Excuse for Not Being Environmentally Conscious

By Emily Elert | May 25, 2010 5:38 pm

dead-bodyNo one dreams of leaving a lasting carbon footprint on the world when they depart. But if it’s a choice between that and being reduced to a brown soupy liquid and a pile of bones, which option would you take?

The California legislature is considering allowing funeral homes to provide a third alternative to burial or cremation. Instead of hauling out the backhoe or firing up an incinerator to dispose of human remains, funeral directors could offer a method called alkaline hydrolysis or “bio-cremation.” This technique uses hot water, pressure, and sodium- or potassium-hydroxide (the strongly basic chemicals often referred to as lye) to break down the body’s tissues into simple molecules in a matter of a few hours.

Proponents of bio-cremation say it’s the eco-friendly death option. They note that cremation produces air pollution and greenhouse gases, while burials use tons of wood for caskets and involve treating bodies with hazardous embalming chemicals.

Four other states have already approved bio-cremation, but before funeral homes can offer the service, they have to figure out what to do with the environmentally friendly liquid remains. Last week, an undertaking service in Minnesota asked its local city council for permission to pour it down the drain.

Out of respect for the dead, or reverence for the city’s sewer system, or maybe just gut-level disgust, the council rejected the proposal.

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Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: burial, death, pollution
  • JJ

    or we could just bury people without caskets…it’s free and eco-friendly!

  • Michael

    Great idea. Turn it into some form of fertiliser, why not? After all the human body is essentially a huge megapile of nutrients. You can dub it as “returning the body to mother earth” and market it as an environmental project, then make millions from the resulting patents and boost plantation growth and eventually help reduce world hunger! How cool would it be eh, to save humans from dying from hunger by feeding plants with humans XD

    Okay maybe it wouldn’t be that great an idea, considering today’s culture – but hey it’s a heck of a business idea eh?

  • np

    (1) burying still takes up lot of land … we have burrial grounds in the middle of the city in many cities and they had to be moved or worked around. (2) without using some chemicals the decomposition may lead to other environmental problems … smell, and other health related issues. (3) Death – by its very nature is a difficult thing to deal with – I read somewhere that our DNA is programmed to NOT to think about death ahead of time – and when we HAVE to deal with someone’s death, it is TOO emotional. (4) Funerals are already too expensive – no matter how it is done. Last thing we need is more business people trying to exploit distressed people. Business people (or any others) should think about saving money, and saving the environment.

  • Georg

    “..and potassium-sulfate (the strongly basic chemical often referred to as lye)”

    I hope, this nonsense is due to the inability of some journalist.,
    not of those “inventors”.

  • Ben

    Whatever happened to the Soylent Green option? I agree with JJ and just bury you without the box or use some sort of recyclable material like cardboard or fiberboard. I’m dead, I won’t care what you put me in.

  • JJ

    (3) Death – by its very nature is a difficult thing to deal with – I read somewhere that our DNA is programmed to NOT to think about death ahead of time – and when we HAVE to deal with someone’s death, it is TOO emotional.

    That sounds a bit extreme and subjective, dependent on one’s attitude toward death. Death is a part of life, people need to accept that or they’ll find themselves forever on a shrink’s couch. In fact, death should be seen as motivation to live life to the fullest. I’ve been to many funerals since I was a little kid, I wouldn’t consider it “too emotional”. The more you experience it, the more comfortable you become with it, in my opinion. If death was “too emotional”, people wouldn’t want to become doctors or morticians. Ironically, when a loved one dies we’re essentially mourning for us, not them. I also find it ridiculous that people waste so much money on flowers and fancy caskets…

  • Joe

    So, can anyone answer this question for me? I need to know if all of these can be done with my body when I die:
    – First, I want to donate all parts that can be. This includes not just “the usual” vital organs, but skin, bone, and anything else.
    – Second, I want a full, “teaching” autopsy.
    – Third, donate what is left to a medical institution for research or clinical dissection.
    – Fourth, after the medical institution is done with “me”, donate what is left to one of the places doing forensic decay studies (I think there is one in Tennessee, and maybe one in Michigan), where the body is left out in a field, and the decay rate is studied.

    I don’t see the need to try to preserve the body (except for medical study), and cemeteries are such a waste of space. But if one of the things on my list is done, does that then exclude any of the other items?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Georg — thanks for the catch, and apologies for the error. It’s fixed.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • http://www.CycledLife.com CycledLife

    By using potassium hydroxide, the soft remains can be spread upon the earth. The soft remains are sterile, pathogen free, no DNA, and prion free. The body would nourish the earth with an NPK of 3.1.6. The use of the word cremation is a misnomer for this process, as the process does not involve incineration. A better descriptor for this process is water and alkali disposition. The leading manufacturer of such systems is CycledLife. http://www.CycledLife.com. Cremation and burial are harmful to the living. Water & alkali dispositions are the best way to show one remembered family and friends when planning for the inevitable.

  • http://Discover Pat

    Consider BioGift. You’ll be used for research/teaching/etc. Any small remains are cremated.

  • Sukumar

    Put it in a Tower of Silence where birds will have their feed. It is approved in some parts of the world.

  • Art Steffen

    All these comments have some good points, but I would like to add, what if we did that to all the men and women who died for our freedom, where there is such a impact on you as a person when you visit these cemeteries, that anyone with just a little compasion can feel the enormity of it. Reading the head stones even in a old regular cemetery makes me wonder about their life. Even the children why did they die so young. I really think more words should be written on the stones to explain more. They are our history, our heritage, our ancestors. to just biodegrade them into soup with no indication they were ever here seems such a shame. Maybe we are burying people the wrong way maybe we should bury them upright in strong biodegradable cardboard boxes with no perseratives in the body. Maybe they could chill the body from the inside out to slow the decay process. As far as funerals I’ve been to my share and it seemed more people were more ineterested in the food. There is all kinds of possibilities, and still leave room for their one mark on this world. When I die I would rather have a party with my pictures of the things and people I loved. Just leave out all that depressing stuff, just plant me into the ground with a pair of headphones on listening to just 60″s music for me to hear for all eternity.

  • Beth Bartholomew

    In the state of Washington, embalming is not required if burial or cremation is more or less immediate. Since before WWII people in the Puget Sound area have banded together through Peoples Memorial Association to arrange for such simple processes with minimal frills. National cemetary chains refuse to participate. Beats me why. They get paid. I know. My folks chose to have direct cremation. We then scattered their ashes from a ferry crossing ocean waters near Whidbey Island. This area was sacred to them. All my grandparents’ ashes are in a columbarium at a nearby cemetary, one drawer of combined ashes for each family, as per relevant law at the time they died.
    Personally, I like cemetaries. They make pleasant green spaces in the city. In Seattle, our cemetaries have lots of trees which freshen the air. Cemetaries make for quiet neighbors, too. Maybe Cemetaries could accommodate our overpopulated present by developing a special memorial garden park, the garden fertilized with the bio-processed human remains with a wall of plaques memorializing the individuals. Those individuals who need a place to feel close to family remains would have it. The trees, flowers, and ferns have a comforting scent as well as a reminder of the cycle of life. If the memorial garden were to be designed to be bird-friendly then the bio-remains would feed birds, just not quite so directly as putting the remains out for the vultures. If the garden were designed as part of an atrium, the walls could go pretty high and provide a memorial setting for thousands of people. Hey! With this kind of idea, every tower apartment could have an atrium memorial garden as a feature for its residents. (Couldn’t move the dear departed to rebury them later, but maybe you could take a cutting from a rose or some such memorial.)
    Speaking of large populations, what do the millions of people in Mumbai do with their dead? I understand that in Europe they bury people on end, leave them in the ground long enough to be sanitary and decently grieved (25 years??), then the space is reused. Anyone know more about that?

  • Liz

    @Ben: There are green cemeteries which do not embalm the bodies and put you in a biodegradable box. There are no headstones as to cause the least amount of destruction to the environment as possible. You can check them out here: http://www.naturalburial.coop/find-a-green-cemetery/
    @Joe: In theory you could do most of that to your body when you die. If you express your wishes that you want to be a donor, they will attempt to harvest as much as possible from you – given that your family consents and you don’t have any medical issues that would prevent it. They can harvest eyes, skin, bone, organs, etc. Step two gets in the way of steps 3 and 4. Bodies that are sent to teaching hospitals are preserved since bodies start to break down rather quickly and they are generally used for an extended period of time by students. Once your body has been preserved it’s not useful for research or “body farms”. Most of the “body farms” and such have huge waiting lists due to the popularity of CSI-type shows and exhibits like Body Worlds.

  • http://www.CycledLife.com CycledLife

    CycledBurial and Green Burial
    A CycledBurial is the perfect complement to a green burial. A CycledBurial would solve the problems with green burials. Green burials require the movement of lots of dirt to bury a body. As many green burials are designed to create a land conservation, the upheaval of the soil is undesirable. Further, it limits the placement of bodies both in terms of where a grave can be physically dug and as to how many bodies can be buried on a parcel of land. CycledBurial(TM) reduces the footprint of the gravesite. It eliminates the problem with wildlife exhuming the deceased. Those who choose embalming could still have a green burial, as a CycledBurial would render the formaldehyde harmless. This would allow for this option to have a wider consumer appeal. A CycledBurial would eliminate any concerns about public health risks. Since, CycledBurial kills 100% of all bacteria, viruses and prions leading to 100% pathogen-free remains.

  • Atlas

    I want to evaporate.
    With alkaline hydrolysis, once the human body tissues are broken down into simple molecules, can they continue to a state of evaporation?  But from there, the molecules would not reunite as it would during condensation process of the water cycle because that would still keep my remains in the atmosphere and then back to water supplies.   Is there a molecule destruction process?

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