What do I want to happen to my body when I die? This is a question which all of us will have to answer sooner or later. Caitlin Doughty, a progressive mortician, is exploring new ways to prepare us for inevitable mortality. She asks “What if we re-designed the funeral industry for an eco-friendly end of life?”
Though this topic seems to be highly morbid and macabre, it needs to be addressed.
There have been different kinds of burials in various religions and cultures in the world. We’ve been laying out our dead for all of human history; it’s call exposure burial. In the mountainous regions of Tibet, they practice “sky burial,” a ritual where the body is left to be consumed by vultures. In Mumbai, India, those who follow the Parsi religion put their dead in structures called “Towers of Silence.” These are interesting cultural tidbits, but they just haven’t really been that popular in the Western world, she explains.
Having worked in the Funeral Industry for over a decade, first as a crematory operator, then as a mortician and most recently, as the owner of her own funeral home, Caitlin is well qualified to advice on this subject. The funeral industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and its economic model is based on the principle of protection, sanitation and beautification of the corpse.
The funeral industry will protect the dead body by offering to sell the family a casket made of hardwood or metal with a rubber sealant. On the day of burial, that casket will be lowered into a large concrete or metal vault. Resources like concretes, metal, hardwoods etc. are wasted and the casket is lowered into the vast underground fortresses.
The dead body is sanitized through embalming: the chemical preservation of the dead. This procedure drains your blood and replaces it with a toxic, cancer-causing formaldehyde. Human decomposition is perfectly safe. It does not need cancer-causing formaldehyde. The bacteria that causes disease is not the same bacteria that causes decomposition.
Finally, comes the beautification of the corpse which provides the illusion that death and then decay are not the natural end for all organic life on this planet.
The Funeral Industry ignores the fact that death can be an emotionally messy and complex affair, and that there is beauty in the natural return to the earth from where we came. Caitlin respects the importance of rituals but says that we have to be able to create and practice this ritual without harming the environment, which is why we need new options.
Even cremation burns a whole lot of fuel, electricity and wood, depending on what medium is used for the cremation.
Caitlin says that there is a whole wave of people; funeral directors, designers, environmentalists etc. trying to come up with a more eco-friendly way of death. There’s no question that our current methods of death are not particularly sustainable, what with the waste of resources and our reliance on chemicals.
Caitlin’s colleague named Katrina Spade, is attempting to create a system, not of cremating the dead, but composting the dead. She calls the system “Recomposition,” and we’ve been doing it with cattle and other livestock for years. She imagines a facility where the family could come and lay their dead loved one in a nutrient-rich mixture that would, in four-to-six weeks, reduce the entire body, including bones, to soil. Once the human body is recomposed, it actually becomes the soil and can nourish a tree.
A more humble and humane way of going back to where we came from.