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Staying sustainable when you’re not

By Virginia Tressider

February 17, 2015

Barring miracles, or some very rapid advances in medicine, at some stage, you’re going to die. Sad, but true. So let’s assume that you’ve tried to live as environmentally frugally as possible. How can you continue the effort to be sustainable when you yourself aren’t?

RETURNED TO EARTH: Is there an environmentally-friendly way to die? Photo: Gwlad Sas (See note 1)
RETURNED TO EARTH: Is there an environmentally-friendly way to die? Photo: Gwlad Sas (See note 1)

Not all funeral practices boil down to bury or burn. Some Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory put the body on top of a platform, cover it in leaves and let it decompose. Sustainable, but impractical in an urban area.

Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet cut the body up, and place it on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements — including vultures. The Zoroastrians of India and Iran have a similar practice, placing the dead in a dakhma, or tower of silence.

In areas of the Solomon Islands, prior to Western colonisation, bodies were left in canoes to decompose or placed on a reef for sharks to eat. The Masai of Kenya allow hyenas to dispose of the dead, and measure the person’s goodness by how long it takes the hyenas to eat their corpse – the sooner they’re devoured, the better they were.

Obviously, sustainable funerals can take many forms, but in practice, the options are limited, unless you’re prepared to search for unconventional but achievable solutions. This probably means pre-planning your funeral in some detail.

Australian regulations demand that a coffin be used for both burials and cremations, to prevent the escape of bodily fluids – although there are religious exemptions to this. Muslims, for example, must be buried in only a shroud.

At the very least, though, your coffin doesn’t need to waste wood. It’s now possible to get fully-compliant coffins made from heavy-duty recycled cardboard. So the question becomes: ‘Do you want to take up scarce space, or be responsible for a final emission of greenhouse gases?’

The space requirements for burial grounds are obvious, and a source of increasing friction in densely-populated areas. Cremated remains take up almost no space, but reducing a human body to ashes and bone fragments has a heavy energy cost. The average time for an adult cremation is 90 minutes at a temperature of between 800 and 1000°C. In fact, a cremator uses about 285 kWh of gas per cremation – roughly the same domestic energy demands as a single person for an entire month.

And that’s leaving aside your teeth. More access to dentistry means it’s more likely than ever that you’ll die with your own teeth. And for now, those teeth are likely to have mercury fillings. An average cremation will release between two and four grams of mercury. This can be avoided by burning at a higher temperature, but that increases greenhouse emissions. As yet, Australia hasn’t emulated the solar powered crematorium in India.

THE SUN ALSO RISES: This solar powered crematorium in India is one way to offset the costs of cremation. Photo: Urvish Dave (see note 2).
THE SUN ALSO RISES: This solar powered crematorium in India is one way to offset the costs of cremation. Photo: Urvish Dave.

It’s all a worry. But if you want to plan ahead, there are a few other sustainable ways to dispose of your mortal remains.

The University of Technology Sydney is building a body farm, to study human decomposition. Since donating your body to a medical school is surprisingly difficult, donating it to forensic science is both an educational and sustainable alternative.

You might want to sleep with the fishes, literally. A US company will combine your ashes with environmentally-friendly concrete and make them part of an artificial reef. You’ll still have to be cremated, but creating habitat for reef fish mitigates the environmental cost a bit.

HOOK, LINE AND SINKER: Your ashes could form a marine playground.
HOOK, LINE AND SINKER: Your ashes could form a marine playground.

Or you might want to opt for a cremation alternative. There are a couple of kinds. There’s alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or resomation. The body is dissolved in a stainless-steel vat using a solution of water and potassium hydroxide (similar to oven cleaner) for four hours at 93°C until it’s reduced to a skeleton. The bones are soft and get crushed and returned like ashes. The residual liquid contains no DNA, and the procedure has only 5 to 10 per cent of the energy cost of cremation. It’s available in Australia.

ASHES TO ASHES: Aklaline hydrolysis dissolves the body into ash, using only 5 to 10 percent of the energy cost of cremation. Photo: BBC.
AQUAMATION: Aklaline hydrolysis dissolves the body into ash, using only 5 to 10 percent of the energy cost of cremation. Photo: BBC.

If that sounds a bit grisly, how about freeze-drying? A Swedish company has a process that reduces a body to a powder, which is then buried in a corn-starch container and becomes compost within a year.

Otherwise, you could aim to live forever, or die in the attempt.



1. Photo: Gwlad Sas

9 comments on “Staying sustainable when you’re not

  1. Good article.
    You didn’t mention donating your body to a medical school for doctors to practice on. The remains are cremated but at least your body would be of some use.

    1. Virginia Tressider says:

      Hi Ruth

      It’s in the same paragraph as the UTS body farm. I only mentioned it in passing because it’s something that’s reasonably well-known already, and, as I found out when my own mother wanted to do be donated to a medical school, it’s not that easy to do. Still, she managed to make a donation to the tumour bank, so some of her got left to medical science.

  2. Terri Eather says:

    I left burial/funeral instructions with my family for the first time in 1978, (I was born 1956). I want a “Green Burial”. Some of your article is incorrect. I am LEGALLY being buried in a “Green Cemetery” in a 100% cotton shroud that has Aussie Wildlife printed on it surrounded by old growth Koala Food Trees. Lismore Memorial Garden use to be called Goonellabah Crematorium & Cemetery. Lismore is offering a more hands on approach for family & friends. People have the option to dig their loved ones grave with assistance to make sure it meets grave standards.

    It is a shame that Virginia didn’t research about Green Burials more in Australia. Here is a link that shows how advanced & common Green Burials are on the Far Nth Coast of NSW and have been for 20+ years.

    “Dying to be GREEN”

    “Natural Death Care Centre”,

    Wildlife Rescue and Care

  3. geoff says:

    What about vertical burials or having a time limit on the length of time one “owns” a horizontal plot to say 10 years so another person can be interred in the same plot.

    I have heard that in some countries people only hire the casket for the period of time of the actual funeral and in burials the bottom opens and leaves the shrouded remains in the hole or at crematoria the body is removed and the coffin saved.

    We really need to get environmentally more aware of funerals and some alternatives.

  4. Graeme Coles says:

    In my view, this article is about yet another groundless anxiety news media generate to save their lives , like supermarket bags.

    A simple coffin can be constructed from around 30 kg of timber and two meters of 1″ manilla rope. Assuming an individual lifetime of 75 years, these materials require 0.2 square meters of plantation forestry to produce, compared with the approximately 1500 square meters that is the bare minimum to provide for the subsistence food needs of a single human.

    If every human now alive were buried at a depth of 1.8 meters, less than 2200 sq km would be required to provide cemeteries for all, and this is only 4% of the area planted to production forestry each year. Clearly, we don’t have to stack up the dead!

    If, instead of burying the dead, we cremate them, the amount of energy used is equivalent to a little more than 0.1% of the energy used during the individual’s lifetime. Virtually all the carbon dioxide emitted will be from the current carbon budget, and would be reabsorbed in 1 year by 50 sq metres of production forestry.

    So. Don’t make death difficult. Plant a tree or two now, and specify burial in a simple coffin under a production forest. In a hundred years, when the trees are cut, the amalgam fillings, the titanium hips and the pacemakers can be harvested, our biodegradable bits having contributed nutrients to trees and the rhizosphere as we evolved to do.

  5. Matt Colloff says:

    The practical options we have available to us for disposal of our bodies are perceived as really rather limited. Some of the options flagged in the article are impractical for most Australians who take this matter seriously and are would like to make a genuine informed choice. I was encouraged by a series of recent conversations I had with some older residents of a longstanding commune in New South Wales who have designed their own sustainable burial practice, engaged their local council in discussions and, though they have yet to iron out all the issues with the regulations, have made very significant progress in creating new options for interment. Some of the rules on burial need updating. The bodily fluids containment requirement as a response to the ‘perceived risk’ of contamination is particularly perplexing when one considers the same rule does not apply to the burial of livestock on farms. The message is, if we want changes in regulations, we have to lobby for them.

  6. Inge Buchanan says:

    I think it’s great to have a discussion sustainability in the burial process, it’s certainly not a typical topic of conversation in the news. With time I’m sure more options will be available as everyone understands that burials have an impact on sustainability and businesses respond to the demand.
    The basic goal is surely to return our bodies back to the earth, avoiding as much pollution as possible in the process.
    If this can be achieved then it’s a small step toward the biomimicry dream of making our cities function like forests.

  7. Gwlad Sas says:

    Your article is very interresting. I’m proud that you use one of my photos 🙂 I’ve been to a lot of cemeteries and every time the question of “what to do with the bodies” come to my mind.

    1. Chris McKay says:

      Thanks Gwlad, it’s a great image

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