Dead bodies endure as objects of cultural fear, especially in US popular culture, where the specter of their attendant decay is on display in everything from crime scene investigations to zombie sagas. But this threat is not only the stuff of fiction. Over the last 150 years, US funerary practices have spun a similar story in which humans, as well as the whole of nature, must do its best to guard against the dangerous wrath of the corpse.
In her new book Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, author Suzanne Kelly explores the myths that drive many of our standard, environmentally damaging burial practices.
Kelly unpacks the funeral industry’s environmentally destructive and alienating methods and gives voice to a growing movement seeking to reckon with decay and restore lost knowledge to the living. Detailing how embalming and encasing the dead in caskets and then in grave-lining vaults have little to do with limiting health risks or ensuring adequate sanitation, Kelly argues that these practices are not only destructive to the environment, but worse, they dishonor the necessity of dissolution, while reinforcing human beings’ separation from nature. But this is changing. A movement to green death is gathering momentum, and Kelly is one of its most ardent allies.
Lorna Garano: In Greening Death, you take on the myth of safety and health hazards posed by dead bodies. What are some of the reasons why this myth persists?
Suzanne Kelly: Yes, there is this prevailing social belief that the dead body and its attendant decay are dangerous contaminants that can potentially cause harm to the living. The truth, however, is that most pathogens die with the body. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has been actively trying to dispel this myth of the infectious corpse, particularly in times of natural disaster. Of course, proper precautions must be taken with bodies infected with certain diseases, like Ebola. But apart from such viruses that cause a dead body to be more infectious after death, the dead do not generally pose a threat to public health.
Our standard American death practices, which include the use of chemical embalming, sealed hardwood and metal caskets, and concrete vaults and liners, only reinforce this myth. The reasons for their development and their continued use are more complex than that, but fears around sanitation have certainly fomented their widespread practice. Although there are virtually no state or federal laws or regulations to support them, these practices have become commonplace, stimulating a story about the problem of the dead, more specifically – that the decay of the dead body is something we must guard against. Indeed, the funeral industry has had a heavy hand in this.
How, exactly, are our current burial methods harmful to the environment and what are the alternatives?
The use of hardwood and metal caskets, manufactured burial vaults and chemical embalming fluid all pose environmental harm. Each year 20 million board feet of hardwood and 64,000 tons of steel are buried in US cemeteries. Concentrated levels of iron, lead, copper, zinc and cobalt have been shown to leach from caskets into the silt loam. The funeral industry buries over 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year in the form of burial vaults. But vaults are sometimes also made of copper, plastic and asphalt – a semisolid form of petroleum.
There’s also the matter of embalming fluid, which is mostly made up of the carcinogen formaldehyde. While formaldehyde is biodegradable, it still poses a serious threat to funeral worker health when it’s breathed as a vapor. There’s also the nonrenewable energy it takes to manufacture conventional caskets and vaults, as well as the energy used to maintain a typical conventional cemetery through lawn mowing.
By Lorna Garano, Truthout