Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dying for Carbon: Environmental Funerals

A deadly challenge to the environment
Comment is Free in the Guardian

There are more people alive today than ever before. What will the environmental costs be when we all die?

More than one in twenty of all the humans who have ever existed is alive now. The environmental cost of that is apparent, but what about the cost when we all start emulating Monty Python's former parrot?

I leave it to the theologians to work out whether the relevant authorities are planning high rises in Heaven or Hell to cope with the imminent influx of immortal souls. But for mortals the remains must surely pose problems of disposal, even if Hell may not be the place most conducive to worrying about global warming.

If there were land enough, the old ashes to ashes, dust-to-dust recycling stuff could apply, but with most of the world now living in cities, old style burial in serried ranks of single sepulchres is no longer feasible. Questions of space and hygiene led the Victorians into cemetery reform to cope with the tidal wave of whiffy dead building up in crowded cities, as inexorably as they led to sewage works to cope with the noxious floods from the living. As the twentieth century rolled on, a majority of the British opted for cremation, which solved problems of hygiene and space in a flash.

In the United States that met resistance from a potent lobby - the funeral directors, whose embalming talents developed during the Civil War. They used arsenic to preserve the departed and the coffins were soon gentrified into sealed caskets. In those pre-environmentally conscious days, no one thought of the consequences of putting an entombed toxic time tomb near the water table in a country where so many householders rely on well water. Now there are elevated arsenic levels in the ground water around old cemeteries. The departed are now pickled in formaldehyde, a class one carcinogen rather than an outright poison like arsenic, the practice raise issues of both land use and ecological damage. The odd Lenin or Eva Peron is one thing, but billions of embalmed dead represent an environmental loss for most of the living, albeit a major profit centre for funeral director.

In fact, I did a "Do It Yourself" funeral for my father some 20 years ago at his express request to stop the funeral directors making any money. But even cremation is now under suspicion. In India, it consumes wood and contributes to deforestation. Gas and electric crematoria add to greenhouse gases. Increasingly their chimneys need scrubbers to trap the mercury from dental fillings and other heavy metals ingested by the deceased.

One ancient nautical tradition, in keeping with recent ideas of sequestrating carbon on the ocean floor, is burial at sea. There have been problems with this in the past, when the recently departed return to the beach or in trawling nets, but the British regulations, which demand two hundredweight of steel or concrete attached to the coffin - which must have holes drilled in it, would seem to get over that problem. The UK also insists that the cadaver should not have been embalmed while the US insists that the water be at least a hundred fathoms deep and at least three miles off shore. All that steel and concrete must have a rather heavy carbon footprint, quite apart from the shock to any passing crabs when it comes hurtling down like a marine meteor.

Rather than planting trees to offset the carbon from cremation, a land-based alternative is one of the green funeral services - biodegradable wrappings in a forest where the recycling is ecologically direct. Some of the ultragreens want to account for the carbon footprint of using motor hearses rather than horses, but I personally think this is tending towards what comes out from equine rears.

My personal contribution to the environment in this regard will be try to stay alive for as long as possible, and although a Viking funeral has its aesthetic attractions, combining as it does green cremation and the burial at sea option with a great party, convenience and a determination to cheat the funeral directors of their gains points to a quick cremation. I hope that by the time the contingency arrives, they have developed solar powered green ovens with carbon (and mercury) sequestration technology. Some public-spirited inventors are already on the case - most appropriately in India.

I don't really care what happens to the residue - as long as they are called "ashes" and not the horrible American term "cremains", surely a word that morticians invented and promulgated to put people off cremation.

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