Dust to Dust: Considering Natural Burial
By: Sara Knight
BU News Service
As far as we know, everyone dies. After you die your loved ones will most likely hand you off to a very professional-looking, somber stranger. This stranger will deal with your corporal remains either by the pickle-and-primp method or by crisping you in an oven that reaches up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should the former method be chosen, your orifices will be padded with balls of cotton and sewn shut. While the blood drains from your body, the gloved and masked stranger will systematically pump you full of noxious preservatives. After your corpse is plumped full of these carcinogenic chemicals, you will be washed with poisonous fungicides and insecticides, dabbed with rouge, and stuffed into an outfit of your loved ones’ choosing.
Your body will be put into a polished metal and wood coffin and lowered deep underground into a secure, cement vault. The grounds around your vault will be regularly clipped, watered, and sprayed with pesticides. Or, if your loved ones went the “cleansing fire” route and chose cremation they will receive an urn full of what will be called your “ashes;” in actuality it is the pulverized gravel left over from your charred bones.
Embalming, the pickling method described above, coupled with the dressing, storage, funerary services, and burial can easily cost from $10,000 to $12,000, cremation $1,500 to $4,000. Both are not only costly, but ecologically harmful. Both are also entirely unnecessary.
Traditional burial and embalming require huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and manufacture of toxic chemicals, an absurd testament to inefficiency. Embalming, though not legally required, often serves a purpose as a preservative to give far-flung family members time to travel to bid the body of their loved one farewell. However, embalming does not accomplish anything a good rest in a refrigerator could not.
Mark Harris, an environmental author and proponent of alternative burials, said that 75 percent of all caskets are made with metal. We put this highly durable box into a deep pit that is lined with concrete – a “vault.” Vaults were created to prevent cave-ins should the coffin begin to degrade. They also protected a loved one’s remains from skullduggery.
Harris puts the waste into perspective in his book Grave Matters: “A typical 10-acre swatch…contains enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses; nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel; 20,000 tons of vault concrete; and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.”
We are taking huge swathes of land and making them useless for all but social visits to carved hunks of stone. This manicured, pesticide-treated collection of somber rocks could be meadowland, forest, orchards, or even community parks; a place where mourners might go to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life.
Fortunately, those of us who are either ecologically conscious or simply wary of the grotesqueries and indignities our bodies are subject to at the hands of a funeral director can now opt for natural burial. In a natural burial, the untreated corpse is shrouded or encased in biodegradable materials (cardboard, linen, or sea grass) and shallowly buried in hopes of becoming mulch. This mulch will nourish the local flora, including any memorial seeds planted by the grieving family.
Would you rather visit your grandfather’s oak tree or a slab of stone with his name on it? And even if the figurative permanence of a gravestone appeals, natural burial does not preclude this option – you can stake your chosen memorial on the burial site. We have green alternatives to embalming, cremation, and traditional burial; it is now time to lay those old practices to rest.