It’s almost as gross as talking about poo power, but it is also something that urgently needs to be discussed in a world of declining open space, diminished resources, climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, and the rising cost of traditional funerals.
What will your loved ones do with your body after you are dead? All thoughts of soul, afterlife and eternity aside, the body – which once housed your brain and all the associated electrical activity that made you human – is a leftover once you are gone. And a pretty gruesome, smelly and useless leftover at that, immediately beginning to decompose into the elements from which it formed.
Traditional burial requires an undertaker, embalming or preserving with toxic chemicals (formaldehyde and ethanol solvents that can leach into soil), a coffin (and perhaps a coffin liner), a burial plot, and ultimately a caretaker to tend to the plot by using a gasoline-powered mower and then disposing of the grass. To date, no graveyard I’m aware of has adopted the earth-friendly policy of goats (or sheep) as an alternative to polluting lawnmowers.
Even cremation, currently considered the most eco-friendly form of burial, requires very high heat (1,562 degrees Fahrenheit; 850° Celsius) which comes with its own energy burden, and can also add up to 350 pounds (160 kilograms) of greenhouse gases per incineration.
All that may soon change, as Australian firm Aquamation Industries begins pushing its truly “green” burial solution, which involves alkaline hydrolysis, a process of putting a body into a stainless steel-lined vat filled with a solution of potassium hydroxide and water at a temperature of 200°F (93°C), and leaving it for four hours.
At the end, all that is left is bone, which is soft enough to crush with little energy expended. The entire process, according to Aquamation CEO John Humphries, uses a maximum of 10 percent of the energy of cremation (and likely less than one percent of the energy involved in traditional burial). And the residual liquid, which contains no DNA, can be treated with vinegar to correct pH and then recycled as greywater; that is, used to water lawns, plants and gardens.
The process is currently being used at Eco Memorial Park, but the sale of 15 more units around Australia will likely change that within the next year. A poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that overwhelming approval (65 percent of 2,065 polled) will drive that change even faster.
Another driver, in Europe, will be EU regulations reducing the amount of mercury generated by crematoriums by 2012 to half what it is now. Greenhouse gas emission taxes, or carbon taxes (and/or other carbon reduction schemes) will likely reduce permissible releases even further in both the EU and the US.
Pundits disagree on the procedure’s future popularity, arguing that the idea of dumping loved ones’ remains down the drain is too offensive for most people to swallow (drain and swallow probably not being two words one should use in the same sentence).
But when we consider the other things that end up in our treated drinking water, like pharmaceuticals, chemicals (arsenic, mercury, lead, chloroform, tetrachlorethylene), and even limited amounts of e coli and other dangerous bacteria which escape filtration, drinking someone else’s loved one loses the ick factor it might otherwise have.
Fortunately, as Kevin Hartley – spokesman for the Natural Earth Burial Society and an advocate for resomation, a similar procedure – notes, our loved ones are already gone when we start the decision-making process about burial options, so they probably don’t care what we do, as long as we don’t expect them to come back and put a shoulder to the wheel again.
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Image sourced from: state-of-affairs.org