Death. As with every aspect of human life, it affects the environment we live in. Even more than we even realize. It is something we can never escape from. Worse, it can exact a great toll on our social circle and Mother Nature herself.
Exploring the Meaning of Death
Death is multi-faceted. To ask people the question “What does it mean to die in this world?” will garner you a lot of answers and different perspectives. It will mean many things relative to one’s culture, religion and beliefs.
Medical professionals and experts concur that death the irreversible cessation of functioning of the organism as a whole. It involves all of the following: unconsciousness, absence of spontaneous efforts to breathe, absence of heartbeat, inertness, lack of integrated bodily functions, incapacity to grow, and physical decay. Technically, you are dead when your heart stops beatings and your brain stops giving out signals. That’s the main reason why we check pulses of people (and animals, in some cases) for heartbeats and wait for limb movements before we say that someone is dead in front of us.
Death of Personhood
On the other hand, the philosophical definition of death is deeper. First, it refers to the departure of the animating principle or loss of the soul. Here Heidegger’s philosophy on the human beings oriented towards death comes into play. He says that humans are Dasein, being-in-the-world. But when the person dies, he transcends beyond existence. His or her personhood (being a Dasein) is no longer there. Rather, it assumes the transition beyond this life. In fact, it is Heidegger himself who said that dying is as natural as being born. He said, “When a human comes to life, it is already old enough to die.”
What happens after death?
Death is very costly. There’s a common saying, “You can’t afford to die.” Isn’t it tragic that dying, a normal end of life, entails a lot of expenses and environmental impacts?
Financial Cost of Death
The aftermath of human death is bloody. No, it’s not about blood coming out of the body upon its expiry or the time of death. The crimson aftermath denotes to the intense funerary expenses that can put many grieving families in the red.
In Western countries, for instance, funeral expenses run around $10,000. Think undertaker and cemetery fees, a burial vault, flowers, clothing, transportation, and other related charges. With this, it is easy to see how the funeral industry rakes in billions annually. If you take a darker tone, you could say that death enriches the funeral industry itself.
Funeral costs start with the death registration and transfer of cadaver. Next is the casket or coffin which will be the final resting place of the deceased. Typically, you choose either of the following: wooden, metal, stainless steel, and bronze. You could easily spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on this alone.
The rest of the expenses could triple when the funeral home gives their two cents on their packages – aka what they “advise” you to use to grieve for your dead loved ones.
Environmental Impacts of Death
Toxicity in Human Bodies from Embalming
Embalming, under the lens of a more analytic mind, is unnecessary. Why? It’s simple. Death naturally leads to decomposition and ultimately, going back to earth as dust and bones. But embalming seeks to halt the natural decomposition process. Laughable, as the attempt may seem.
So why do families embalm their loved ones after death? Thank Abraham Lincoln for that. Or rather, his close associates and family members. Lincoln was assassinated at the height of his political career so people in his social circle and government thought of parading his body to the American populace in memorial of the iconic president. Of course, it wasn’t pleasing to bring around a corpse that naturally decomposed – rotting, smells and all. So embalming was first implemented and engraved into the psyche of society. All for the sake of a life-like appearance for public viewing.
Embalmers pump a chemical cocktail of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin into the body through an artery. These are toxic chemicals that can kill a person. Formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen, lethal to people who are exposed to it. Smelling it can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Phenol, methyl alcohol and glycerin also cause similar damages to the body.
These chemicals endanger the environment more after burial. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), people leak 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid into our waterways and soil annually. Almost two Olympic-sized swimming pools of toxic chemicals each year create long-term damage to Mother Nature (in the US alone).
Limited Resources Used Only Once
Conventional burials use a lot of materials that will all go to the ground and never be reused again. That includes, in US context, use 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete. When you realize that this amount of wood is equivalent to about 4 million acres of forest and could build about 4.5 million homes, it’s staggering.
Most of these materials are limited resources so it’s a double whammy for the environment.
Land Soon Will Run Out
Burial funerals are very problematic, particularly if you look at land allocation on a global scale. Approximately fifty million people die worldwide. If every person gets a standard 7 ft by 3 ft grave plot this means that 1,161,300,000 square feet, or 41.66 square miles of habitable/arable land is now solely devoted to graveyards. In fact, graveyards average span 4,300 square miles – the same land size as Connecticut!
Harmful Air Pollutants
After death, what happens to the deceased person and his/her resting place involves a lot of harmful pollution. it is a nightmare for the atmosphere. Every day carbon emissions come from the following processes:
- cutting down trees
- manufacturing the casket
- digging the grave
- transporting the wood
- transporting the casket
- cement manufacturing
Then cremation – it’s not eco-friendly enough. While using less material resources than traditional burial, cremating is still harmful. It releases toxic gases into the atmosphere, such as carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings. Furthermore, cremated ashes are sterile and do not supply nutrients back into the earth due to non-decomposition.
Eco-Friendly Death: Is It Possible?
Dying with an eco-friendly burial is possible. But it involves a lot of creative work-around. You may face a lot of scrutiny and judgement if you choose to go green in taking care of dead loved ones. But it would be all worth it in the end to die with little environmental impact.
One zero waste option for burial is the dust-to-dust approach. Here one goes back to the way our ancestors buried their dead a long time ago. Graves are dug by hand. There are no fancy caskets. Instead of embalming, bodies are preserved with dry ice. Afterwards, people lowered the corpse directly into the ground in simple boxes or plain shrouds. Rough-hewn stones serve as the only markers.
One such “green cemetery” is Ramsey Creek in the United States. Proceeds from the funerals here go towards restoring the land and funding local nonprofits. It also contains streams, trails, and provides habitat for native species.
Other greener forms of burying include:
- Encasing your body into a pod that eventually sprouts into a tree
- Sealing your ashes in a concrete ball that will plunge to the bottom of the ocean to feed coral reefs.
- Getting buried in a wood-only casket
- Using alkaline hydrolysis instead of cremating.
Green burials are more than giving back to the environment. It also gives the dead a greater legacy: the opportunity to create life as they become one with nature and returning to the circle of life.
Death means a lot of things to many people. You could fear dying because you fear not being able to enjoy living with loved ones. Death could be the end of affecting change into this world. Or it could mean a lot of expenses. And dying could also lead to a lot of environmental impacts.
But you can decide your death will affect everyone. Of course, you can’t determine how you die. The thing you can best do is to plan. Plan for your funeral, no matter how morbid. And most importantly, go zero waste even in the burial. Use this guide to help you choose how to deal with death in an eco-friendly way.