To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Hamlet came across the bones of an old friend, Yorick (that some claim he knew well). In those days, in Europe and elsewhere, people were conscious of the fact that cemeteries filled up over time. The solution was to bury the dead, then three or so years later, dig the skeletal remains back up and take them to a place of reverence, an ossuary. Thus, less space was consumed and the burial plot could be reused time and again. However, those bones took up space as well. The Guiness World Book of Records reports that “the skeletal remains of six million people lie, neatly arranged, in subterranean catacombs beneath the streets of Paris, France.” I assume more are added daily.
In the U.S., we have more open space for cemeteries and they flourish. Families buy burial plots so they can be interred together forever. But many decry the practice of burial as an unproductive long-term use of land — not to mention the cost. Indeed, modern burials include embalming the body in toxic fluids, placing it in a wooden or steel casket and interring it in a concrete-lined burial plot, safely removed from any contact with the outside world. Human composting facility designer Katrina Spade notes that every year, “All told, in US cemeteries, we bury enough metal to build a Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single family homes, and enough formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools.” She goes on, “In addition, cemeteries all over the world are reaching capacity. Turns out, it doesn’t really make good business sense to sell someone a piece of land for eternity.”
“O bury me not on the lone prairie
Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free
In a narrow grave just six by three —
O bury me not on the lone prairie”
“It matters not, I’ve been told,
Where the body lies when the heart grows cold
Yet grant, o grant, this wish to me
O bury me not on the lone prairie.”
~ Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, unknown
There have been some endeavors to look beyond our Western burial practice; chief among them is cremation. The body is burned, the ashes collected and then given the appropriate reverence. However, Caitlin Doughty notes, “Even cremation, which is usually considered the environmentally friendly option, uses, per cremation, the natural gas equivalent of a 500-mile car trip.” Caitlin is a funeral home owner who thinks, “When I die, I would like for my body to be laid out to be eaten by animals. Having your body laid out to be eaten by animals is not for everyone.”
And there’s still the issue of managing the ashes, which can be both beautiful and problematic. Some are stored in mausoleums ‘forever’, on the fireplace mantle or at the back of the closet. A common practice is the scattering of the ashes in a favorite, memorable or sacred place. Alternately, ashes can be integrated into something memorable, such as glass jewelry or mementos, ceramics, or concrete used in artificial reefs or other structures. Some ashes may actually be blasted off into space, or incorporated into fireworks. Our attention to the deceased knows no bounds.
More natural burials have been proposed and are allowed in some places. Raw wood, bamboo, woven willow or cloth may be used instead of metal caskets, and unlined graves are another obvious option. There are reportedly hundreds of natural burial grounds in Europe and at least seventy in the U.S.
But the really interesting ideas revolve around the concept of ‘recomposition’, basically composting. Animal mortality composting has been allowed in many states for decades. Most set guidelines for siting and how the operations are conducted. But in reality, dead animals are just allowed to decay under conditions that mimic nature. And as Katrina Spade says,
“Mortality composting is where you take an animal high in nitrogen and cover it with co-composting materials that are high in carbon. It’s an aerobic process, so it requires oxygen, and it requires plenty of moisture as well. In the most basic setup, a cow is covered with a few feet of wood chips, which are high in carbon, and left outside for nature, for breezes to provide oxygen and rain to provide moisture. In about nine months, all that remains is a nutrient-rich compost.”
She adds, “But the truth is that nature is really, really good at death. We’ve all seen it. When organic material dies in nature, microbes and bacteria break it down into nutrient-rich soil, completing the life cycle. In nature, death creates life.”
So why not human recomposition? Caitlin Doughty says, “We’ve been laying out our dead for all of human history; it’s called exposure burial.” She goes on, “Even human decomposition, which, let’s be honest, is a little stinky and unpleasant, is perfectly safe. The bacteria that causes disease is not the same bacteria that causes decomposition.”
An added benefit of recomposition can be that the soil and nutrients we generate after death can be used to improve the environment. A tree seedling added to our burial capsule could feed a new tree. Cemeteries could be replaced by forests, protected by the presence of human remains from any future development and becoming pleasant natural areas compatible with urban or rural settings. Author Richard Coniff states, “This is how I want to be dead. That is, in the woods with wild things all around.”
According to Raoul Bretzel of Capsula Mundi, a company offering recomposition services, “A tree takes between 10 and 40 years to reach maturity, while a coffin is of use for just three days …We want to plant trees instead of cutting them down.”
Given today’s mobile society, most of us don’t live our lives near where our parents and other family lived and the concept of family plots is less meaningful. My family and most families I know are scattered across the country, and having a family plot makes little sense to them. To me, corporate burial is a wasteful concept, and I have toyed with having my cremated ashes interred in artificial reefs, bike paths or the ocean. However, that could be a lot of work for my surviving family.
The idea of a natural burial is appealing and seems, well, natural. The tree concept is really exciting, but I would hope that it could be a stately tree, maybe an oak or chestnut or southern pecan. I’d have to be explicit, though, because my Texas origin and family’s sardonic wit might just get me a mesquite, and who knows what dreams may come from that?
Katrina Spade notes (with no apparent irony), “The death care revolution has begun. It’s an exciting time to be alive.”
Richard Coniff, This is How I Want to Be Dead, The New York Times, July 9, 2017
Caitlin Doughty, A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet, TEDTalks, March 2017
Michael d’Estries, The biodegradable ‘Capsula Mundi’ aims to reinvent the coffin as an eco-friendly seed, Mother Nature Network, June 20, 2017, www.capsulamundi.it/en/
Katrina Spade, When I Die, Recompose Me, TedTalks, June 2017