Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust

What if I told you that there’s an industry in the US that throws 10 tons of copper and brass, 30 million board feet of hardwood timber, 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete, 100,000 tons of steel and a goodly bit of plastic, vinyl and fiberglass into the ground every year? And that on top of all that, they plant approximately 1.5 million gallons of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and biocide? How about if I added that workers in this same industry are exposed to such high levels of this toxin that they see increased incidences of several types of cancer?

Astute readers may have already guessed that this industry exists and thrives, without controversy, all over the US. It’s the “traditional” funeral industry, of course, and they’re able conduct business this way with very limited oversight, despite the environmental, resource management and land use problems involved.

There’s more. Not only do we lay toxic chemicals and wasted resources to rest along with our dearly departed, the gravesite itself will likely be doused with fertilizer, maintained with heavy, gasoline-consuming and carbon emitting mowers and be maintained in this fashion “forever”, unavailable for use for any other purpose.

I’m not trying to bust on your grandma’s funeral. My grandparents were buried this way, and my mom and stepdad will be, too. Though there are reformers and rebels out there, many morticians and cemetery owners make choices like these easy and expected. Like the food industry, the corporate funeral industry has marketed us into believing that the current product is “traditional”, which is incorrect on two levels: not only is the current state of affairs not traditional, the corporate funeral industry itself, as we currently know it, would be completely unfamiliar to bereaved families until well into the 20th century.

My father chose to be cremated and scattered in the Pacific—a choice many people see as kinder to the environment. And it is, but this choice isn’t without consequence, either. During a cremation, the retort (the chamber where the deceased’s body is placed during the procedure) reaches temperatures between 1400 and 2100ºF, and this intense heat must be maintained for up to 2 hours. As you’d guess, this uses a ton of energy, usually natural gas. In addition, during cremation the chlorine ions present in the body are converted to dioxins, which are persistent organic environmental pollutants, and the mercury contained in older dental fillings vaporizes during cremation and is sent into the atmosphere, to return to earth later as acid rain. (Hello again, Dad!) Newer, more energy efficient crematoria are beginning to appear, and the addition of special filters and scrubbers to older facilities can significantly decrease the amount of toxins entering the atmosphere. But if one is concerned enough about the environmental impact of their passing to avoid the formaldehyde and hardwood, dioxins and spent fossil fuels do seem like an odd second choice.

Death: Another Life Choice

Thankfully, there are alternatives. The opportunity which interests me the most is the small but growing trend toward green burials. No embalming, no expensive and environmentally unsound materials, no carbon footprint—just your dead body, a biodegradable container or wrap, the earth, and your date with decomposition. Though green burial sites aren’t yet common, demand is growing. The UK is ahead of us on this one, so we have an example from which to draw both inspiration and practical advice. These facilities are not only easier on the surrounding ecosystem, they aren’t obliged to care for individually entombed caskets of remains indefinitely, as once on body completely decomposes, the earth is ready to receive another.

Doesn’t this seem much more in keeping with our increasing recognition of our often-destructive relationship with our environment? Our demand for fuel-efficient, electric and hybrid cars; the expanding organic and local food movement; our developing awareness of how our choices impact workers and our growing awareness of our collective impact on climate and the environment in general indicate that we’re ready to examine our actions more closely and make meaningful changes in the way we live. But what about the way we die? I think it’s fair to assume that if we actually thought about it, many of us would see the value in responsibly returning ourselves to the earth rather than becoming our own private biohazard. In order to discuss death intelligently, however, we have to base our conversation on facts and rationality rather than sentiment and euphemisms. We have to begin the reclaim death from the professionals and make demands for change.

Outsourcing Death

How did we get here? How did handling our dead cease to be a private affair and become an outsourced service? How, within just a handful of generations, have we abdicated what used to be common knowledge: the things that happen to our bodies after we die? What does it do to us to see the process of death and eventual decay as abstract, something to be whisked away at the moment it occurs? How did we become so disconnected with the only inevitability with which we’re faced?

A few years ago I jotted down some ideas about the significance of this disconnect.

I’ve been thinking about how the view of death encouraged by this outsourcing—that it’s something you shouldn’t think about, that it’s clean, and sterile, and that corpses are pretty— has robbed us of the spiritual nature of death, of the notion that death is part of the circle of life. Historically speaking, when we die, we return to the earth, and this significant and important process is messy and often aesthetically unpleasant.

My take? This inability to embrace a realistic understanding of death—what it looks like, what happens to our remains, the often undignified way that people actually die—has a lot to do with our collective lack of consequential thinking abilities generally. We’ve sanitized death, taken it away before it’s unattractive, and removed it from the public domain to be handled by professionals. If we don’t actually see what the most predictable consequence of having lived is, how does that alter our ability to see consequences in general? Does our perspective change?

Here in the US, we see death almost as children do. It’s abstract, and spoken of only in hushed tones and when absolutely necessary. We’ve been numbed to witnessing the end of a life via movies and television, and perhaps most brutally by material on the internet, but we’re only comfortable from a distance. I’m not suggesting that we should be thrilled to have death visit our household, or that we should fetishize death and its accompanying trappings. But the disconnect between watching a loved on take their last breath and the makeup-wearing, embalming fluid-infused body in the open casket leaves us wanting. And importantly, if people knew more about the journey through a typical funeral home, they’re better informed to make a decision that’s right for them, and for their own ethics and priorities, when the time comes.

This is the first post in what I hope will be an engaging look into our ultimate fate. I’ll explore the way the current cultural focus on DIY, the maker movement, local and independent food, climate change and the environment can and should be reflected in our decisions about our deaths, by exploring the parallels, and often the inconsistencies, within people’s choices about how to nourish themselves and the earth while they’re alive, and how they choose to embrace, or not, their last chance to have a beneficial relationship with the environment. I’ll also be defending the notion that death should be brought back out of the shadows and, when the sad occasion occurs, back into our direct experiences.

Post title: from Cymbeline, IV, ii, Shakespeare


Cancer and Other Causes of Death among Embalmers

Order of the Good Death


2 Responses to “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust”

  1. kim place-gateau August 31, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    That’s another terrific idea! I’m going to write a post about options like these eventually. In the meantime, have you ever read Stiff? I read it with interest when it came out, and I’m pawing back through it now. Lots of good stuff.

    • kim place-gateau August 31, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      According to Jessica Mitford, it goes back at least as far as 1916. She credits the funeral industry with coming up with them, and indeed, they do, or at least did, publish guidelines from time to time, making language improvements like “prepare body” for “handling corpse” (1916) and “inter” for “bury” (1956).

      And thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s been fun to research and write so far.