cremation Death Ethics Eco-Death

Save a Mango Tree: Incinerate Amma in Cow Dung

Cow Dung Cremations Catch On in Bihar
Amarnath Tewary, BBC News (September 27, 2009)

Ongoing floods and a subsequent depletion of mango trees, the traditional cremation fuel for the people of Bihar, India, has led to the use of cow dung in funeral pyres. Readily available and culturally acceptable (coming from a sacred animal, and all), the practice is gaining social acceptance and is even touted as environmentally friendly — no more laying to waste swaths of scarce mango groves only to light them afire.

The cow dung process takes an hour and a half compared to the usual 3–4 hours and is also considerably cheaper. A cow dung cremation will run you $6–$8, compared to the traditional mango tree sendoff at $62–$83. (Average cremation cost in the US: about $1500–$4000.)

Come to think of it, this is so obvious and sensible the fact that cow dung has entered into the cremation equation hardly seems worth mentioning at all. In other words, is this really that shocking and gross? I don’t know — I don’t think so. I do wonder, though, the real extent to which the practice has been embraced — and not just seen as a necessity or an option bright-sided (it’s efficient! it’s green!) out of desperation.

cremation Death + Technology Death Ethics Eco-Death

Reduce – Reuse – Recycle – the Dead…

Body Heat
The Economist (August 6, 2009)

Let us all say it together: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle. Now add: Dead bodies. It’s true. Shocking, but true.

A strong case can be made that organ donation, for example, is the noblest form of cadaveric recycling and that the reuse of human organs and tissues to extend life is a huge social good. That said, the dead human body offers up numerous recycling possibilities and many local and/or national governments have turned those postmortem opportunities into actual policies.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

These particular recycling plans focus on transforming the by-products produced through the final disposition of human remains (say from cremation) into new goods. That is a wordy way of saying that the various kinds of Green Technologies running rampant across the globe can also be used on dead bodies.

I am all for it.

The short Economist article at the top is about two different kinds of postmortem recycling. The first section explores the recycling of artificial joint implants (hips, knees, etc.), which can then be re-used in other industries. The left-over metal is melted down and sold to companies that use the different alloys in their own products. These companies often include ones that make joint implants. It’s all a bit circular (…just like the reduce reuse recycle arrows…) but it works. And many of the metal recyclers donate portions of their sales to designated charities.

Artificial Hip Joint

In about three years Denmark’s crematorium association has earned $15,000 from salvaged parts. America is a bit behind both Europe and the UK when it comes to implant recycling but at least one US company in Detroit, MI is making a go of it: Implant Recycling. I like to imagine that Detroit’s economic re-birth will start because of postmortem recycling.

Author Mark Harris, whose book Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial is a good primer on eco-friendly burial, has one of the best photos that I have ever seen of a hip replacement post-cremation. Note how the metal hip replacement glows red amongst the remains:

Hip Replacement in the Crematorium

The second section of the Economist article discusses a topic that I am actually working on: recycling crematorium heat. Regulations require crematoriums to filter toxic substances from waste gases by cooling them from around 800°C to 180°C. Crematoriums capture the excess energy from this process and send the “waste heat” into building heating systems.

I remember explaining this concept a few years ago to a group of American college students. A few of them were aghast, to say the least. In early January 2008, officials at the Dukinfield Crematorium near Manchester, England announced that they would, indeed, begin capturing the crematorium’s exhaust, filter it, and then re-use it to heat the building. The always excitable Daily Mail ran a predictably over-the-top article on the plan: Crematorium to keep mourners warm by burning bodies of loved ones.

But, as even the Mail admits, not one person in the surrounding community (or in the Anglican Church for that matter) complained about the plan.

So here is the big lesson (and I learned it with the aforementioned students): when people understand that the heat being captured and re-used is already being produced vis-a-vis cremation, and that the same excess, potentially useful heat would otherwise go to waste, they are agreeable to the whole concept.

Indeed, the Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium on the southern edge of Bath (near the University of Bath where I work) has a state-of-the-art facility capable of heat recycling. Haycombe’s Manager, the always good humored Rosemary Tiley, will gladly give a tour of the facility and/or the public can visit during one of the crematorium’s Open Days.

The larger question to ask about crematorium heat recycling, however, is how any surplus energy (after the local needs are met) could/can be channeled to the national grid? That is the next leap. Cremation rates in the UK are high: 72% nationally (the US cremation rate is currently at about 33% but growing) so making use of the crematoriums in this way makes sense.

Everything that I am writing today may seem a bit crass and bit too Soylent Green but a good public education plan goes a long way in explaining why these programs are socially useful.

In fact, cemetery planners in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, Spain (near Barcelona) have installed solar panels on the mausoleums to collect energy. It’s a great plan to help produce electricity for local homes and since most cities (large, medium, and small) have cemeteries in their vicinity, this might just work in other places. The Spanish authorities effectively explained the merits of the program and the public got behind it.

Not everyone is a fan of these Green burial initiatives. Evangelical Christian leader Chuck Colson, he of Nixon Administration infamy, lambasted an early 2009 article on Green Burial technologies. Colson offered a special commentary in his BreakPoint Ministries column on the absurdity of eco-burial concerns. I firmly believe that Colson missed the entire point of the Slate article but so it goes.

So let us all say it together one more time: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle…

Burial Eco-Death

Promession: Lose Your Life, Leave a Tree

Kim posted a couple weeks ago about promession, the process by which a body is embrittled in a bath of liquid nitrogen, crumpled using vibrations then sterilized by freeze drying, rendering a corpse into compost. Promession avoids the harsh chemicals and environmental pollutants of traditional burial and cremation, making it a green alternative while providing the requisite sanitization of death and emotional distance from simply dumping fresh bodies into the earth (the original “organic compost” method).

Today I discovered an animation depicting the process. I fear the multiple angle re-enactments of a tree growing out of a corpse’s pulverized chest may shift the intended “gee whiz!” effect closer to “oh dear god,” but it’s still an interesting infoplug, provided you’re not eating a delicious, ruby apple, or plan to, ever.

Burial Funeral Industry

Funeral Procession, er, I mean Promession

Container by Erik Geschke

“Natural burial is what we have been doing for millennia. People may be leery of this new fandangled technology.”

– Janet McCausland, Executive Director of the Toronto-based Natural Burial Association

Eco-this, eco-that. Seems everybody wants to “go green” these days—even in death. I say, why not? It’s the last good deed you can do for the planet after you shuffle off that mortal coil.

Eco-friendly burial practices are not necessarily a new phenomenon, but they are receiving more attention and interest these days as environmentally friendly practices of all kinds take hold. An article in the NY Times covered the topic about 4 years ago when they profiled the Fernwood Cemetary in northern California.

Take, for example, a recent article in The Walrus, a Canadian general interest publication akin to the U.S.-based Utne Reader. In the latest issue, writer James Glave, writes about the process of “promession”, which is actually a neologism used to describe the process of ecologically inclined disposal of bodies by way of freeze drying. In other words, the term may not have caught on yet, but the concept of freeze drying one’s remains to then be implanted into soil so that life may begin anew, is gaining purchase with the eco-friendly crowd.

On a more personal note, my experiences with freeze drying have primarily been with either Folger’s coffee or the disturbing (at the time) purchase of a freeze dried duckling my parents bought at a flea market back in the 1980s. Literally frozen in time, this little guy had been saved for posterity due to its cute factor—and the fact that it could be suspended in time, fuzz and all, in a perfect non-animated but life-like state—mesmerized and seduced my parents to purchase and display him in our living-room curio cabinet for years, where it remains to this day.