The Western world has transformed death, writes Lauren Mulvihill – but what are the consequences?
Life has a 100% fatality rate. We’ve been trying to get around this fact for a long, long time, and to no avail. Even with earth’s human population standing at its highest point in history, the dead outnumber the living by around fifteen to one. That’s quite a lead, and one we’re unlikely to catch up on any time soon. Death is something that will eventually happen to everyone, and in many ways, that makes it one of the most natural things on earth: we’re born, we die, we decompose, and the nutrients in our bodies feed the soil that maintains the next generation. On and on it goes.
But modern death has undergone a transformation in the West. Families and friends across cultures have traditionally taken the care of the deceased into their own hands – washing the body, preparing the dead for burial or committal to fire, preparing foods their loved one can take with them into the afterlife, and so on. However, as Western societies moved into the 20th and 21st centuries, funerals became increasingly professionalised. This led to families largely relinquishing direct involvement in the care of their deceased to industry professionals, who elected to prepare the bodies of the dead for visitation and, subsequently, burial. As the funeral industry grew internationally, what was considered ‘best practice’ in the care of the dead began to standardise. Among these practices emerged a modern twist on an idea that can be traced at least as far back as Ancient Egypt: embalming.
Embalming is a short-term means of preserving the dead by using chemicals to ward off decay. The practice was first introduced to Ireland over fifty years ago, but had been in use in the United States since the American Civil War. Two forms of embalming are commonly used in funeral homes today: arterial and cavity. The former involves removing blood from the body, while the latter drains key organs of gas and fluid. Empty veins or cavities are then filled with a chemical solution, which may include methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water, alongside coloured dyes to simulate a natural skin tone. This is often used in conjunction with makeup artistry to give the deceased a more ‘life-like’ appearance. Approximately half of all bodies in Ireland undergo the embalming process, due in large part to the popularity of open-casket funerals and delayed ceremonies so that relatives living abroad may attend. Embalming’s practical uses are many, clearly, but there’s one chemical among the cocktail employed in the process which is a cause for concern: formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is a colourless chemical also used in the production of building materials, household products, and industrial disinfectants. Although it is naturally occurring, when air reaches a formaldehyde content of more than 0.1 parts per million (PPM) many people suffer side effects including skin irritation and burning sensations in the eyes and throat. Formaldehyde is also carcinogenic to humans, with sufficient evidence for a causal link between exposure to the substance and nasopharyngeal cancer according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is perhaps unsurprisingly currently listed by the EPA as being among the top 10% most hazardous chemicals. Due to their high level of exposure to formaldehyde-based embalming solutions, therefore, professional embalmers typically don full-body protection when carrying out their work. It’s not just those who work directly with the deceased who are at risk, however. What comes next – burial or cremation – can have a far wider-reaching impact on the environment at large.
Let’s start with burial. It’s inevitable, in this part of the world at least, that some area of land within a given territory is going to be set aside as a resting place for the dead. These areas are often unique in the depth of their religious and philosophical meaning, and are tended to accordingly. In Ireland, bodies have traditionally been buried in graveyards – although cremation has become increasingly popular, it was initially criticised by the Catholic Church. However, the methods being used to preserve the dead before burial are negatively affecting such spaces in the 21st century. The professionalisation – and accompanying mysticisation – of death has led to myths forming regarding the dangers posed by dead bodies to the health of the living, but studies have shown that the vast majority of pollution to areas surrounding cemeteries is a result of embalming chemicals entering the soil and atmosphere. The burial of embalmed bodies requires a huge amount of resources in preventing this: in a single year in the US alone, 4,000,000 acres of forest, 115 tonnes of steel, and 2 billion tonnes of concrete are used in the manufacture of caskets and tombs by the $16 billion ‘death care’ industry. Alongside its carcinogenic effects, this is one of the reasons for formaldehyde being considered for banning by the European Union (a move which is heavily resisted by those working in the funeral industry).
The ecological destruction of burial spaces is made more concerning by their theological and cultural significance, which necessitates their preservation.
Some have suggested cremation as a means of combatting this situation, but therein lies another problem. Not only does flame cremation require a huge amount of energy in the form of heat, but the smoke emitted by crematory machines can itself contain hazardous gases including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and carcinogens. Another unexpected hazard arises in the form of amalgam dental fillings, which can cause the dispersal of mercury vapour through the air. Vapours then fall as rain, contaminating water. These problems are worsened if the cremation is not direct, i.e. if the body has been embalmed beforehand, as formaldehyde is added to the mix. Though many facilities feature filtration systems which limit the amount of gases released into the air, this is a very imperfect solution to a fairly serious problem. Now that the negative impacts of embalming and flame cremation are becoming more widely known, though, what possible alternative do we have in preparing and interring our dead?
Enter the Order of the Good Death, found by mortician and YouTube personality Caitlin Doughty in 2011. The rather gothic-sounding Order, and the broader ‘death positive’ movement of which it is a part, aims to transform the way the Western World deals with death through discussion, art, innovation, and scholarship. As part of this mission, Order members hope to create legal changes which will allow all individuals to have a real say in what happens to them upon their death, as well as empowering families and friends to be involved in after-death care if they so choose. In a further effort to rally against what Doughty terms the ‘funeral-industrial complex’, the Order is also a major advocate for natural or ‘eco death’, as described in a 2017 YouTube documentary Eco Death Takeover: Changing the Funeral Industry.
Eco death, through practices including alkaline hydrolysis (also known as aquamation or water cremation) and natural burial, aim essentially to make death itself more environmentally friendly.
Water cremation sees the corpse placed in a pressurised steel container, without any need for the cardboard or wooden caskets traditionally used in flame cremation. The container is then filled with a mixture comprised of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide/sodium hydroxide. When the container is heated to approximately 185 degrees Celsius, this mixture mimics the natural decomposition process at a much faster rate. Following two to three hours in the chamber, the body is reduced to soft bone fragments – up to 30% more than those left by flame cremation – which may then be crushed into a dust and returned to the family. Dissolved soft tissue forms a neutralised substance which may be either disposed of safely, or repurposed as a fertiliser. This process uses ⅛ of the energy needed for flame cremation, and creates ¼ of the carbon footprint, with little to no mercury emissions. Moreover, the water used is equivalent to the average used by a living person over a three-day period. The Catholic Church, just as it once opposed flame cremation, rejects aquamation on the grounds that it disrespects the body of the deceased. This, along with the fact that water cremation sounds – frankly – a bit gross, may help to explain why the process is currently unavailable for humans in Ireland. Regardless, it has been lauded as the future of the funeral industry by a number of national and international media outlets and NGOs, and may reach our shores in the near future thanks to the work of death positive activists.
In terms of eco-friendly burial there is, of course, always the obvious choice: direct committal to the ground, unembalmed, either wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or basket. Not only is this the ‘greenest’ means of burying the dead, it is the only means that is inherently beneficial to the environment, allowing the body’s nutrients to seep into the soil unburdened by hazardous chemicals. The decomposition process may occur faster than it would had the body been embalmed, but embalming is simply a process that temporarily wards off the inevitable. Moreover, any pathogens remaining in the corpse are generally killed off quite quickly owing to the body’s position near the surface, meaning that green burial is a safe practice. It has also been legal in Ireland since 2013, with the passing of the Burial Ground (Amendment) Act.
As Caitlin Doughty notes in Eco Death Takeover, “green burial is the ultimate way for a person to give back to the earth that supported them their entire life.”
Human beings care for our dead, and we care for the earth on which they once lived. In an effort to attend to one, we have inadvertently neglected the other, and have harmed ourselves in doing so. There is a way of allowing the living to care for and celebrate our dead in a way that helps us come to terms with our own grief, without engaging in chemical processes which harm our environment. Death is what it is: it’s a closing chapter; it’s terribly sad; it’s absolutely inevitable. And it’s high time that we, on a societal level, face that inevitability head on.