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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

How do you get rid of the body of an environmentalist?

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Coyote in a cemetery (just like the one I saw in Vancouver)

Coyote in a cemetery (just like the one I saw in Vancouver)

How do you get rid of the body of an environmentalist?

Uh, let me rephrase that. I’m talking about myself. What I mean is, say I’m dead, now what?

Not that I’m into morbid contemplation, but still: I’m gonna die at some point, and I’d like my death to be, well, if not organised, at least somewhat prepared for.

What’s an environmentalist to do? A poorly planned death – or, rather, disposal – can have bad environmental consequences. I’m interested in waste management, so looking at death is natural; the only difference being that here’s a dead human body to be rid of, instead of a dead car or computer. But the method used to dispose of my body could be polluting, and I don’t like that possibility. (What would I like to be remembered for? A fish kill, or worse? No, thank you.)

Google “environmental impacts of cemeteries” and you get over 700,000 hits. Ditto for cremation. It’s not just me, and it has created an interesting market.

Is this casket toxic?

Is this casket toxic?

Cremation pollutes the air. This is partly because we, our own bodies, are polluted; for instance, a British study blames cremation for a remarkable 16% of all mercury air emissions (all those fillings!). The other problem is that cremation occurs in relatively small operations, not set up for air pollution control. Also, it’s not just dead bodies: it’s toxic embalming fluids, as well as caskets made of composites which pollute when burned. I was surprised to learn that BC, as opposed to other provinces, has no mandatory air pollution regulations that apply to crematoriums.

So if my body is going to be cremated, I would much rather it be at the Burnaby incinerator – here’s a place well equipped to burn cleanly and has extensive pollution control equipment. There, every pollutant that is my so-called body burden: my mercury, my bisphenyls, my pesticides would be removed. Alas, I’m pretty sure that I’m asking for something not legal.

Cemeteries are no better, though they have advantages. They provide leafy, green areas in the middle of cities, which is

Cemetery in Germany

Cemetery in Germany

great. German graveyards are wonderfully lush with growth (no noisy lawn mowers, please), and seem to embody the idea of returning to nature. But North-American cemeteries tend to be large (and fairly sterile) expanses of lawn, which require chemicals and, in drought-stricken California, irrigation water.

And cemeteries are only as good as what is buried in them; so, embalming fluid, casket varnish, mercury (again), you name it; this all represents risks to drinking water. To name one: arsenic was in common use as an embalming agent in the eighteenth century, and instances of groundwater contamination, as well as risks to cemetery workers, have been recorded.

Burial and cremation are the common options, but there are others. I could ask for a sky burial: my body would be eaten by vultures. But I don’t like the idea of flying my body to Tibet just for that, given the carbon footprint, never mind the legal complications of exporting dead bodies.

Thankfully, there’s new technology: I could ask, for instance, for a new process called resomation. My body would get dissolved in potassium hydroxide at ten atmospheres and 180C, and the (supposedly) benign resultant liquid gets tossed (ceremoniously) in the sewers. In a way, I’d like that: I’d end up visiting the wastewater treatment one last time; I take students on tour there, and it’s always fun. But it looks like a process that is energy expensive (to say nothing of expensive, period).

How about the Promessa process: get frozen solid in liquid nitrogen and then shattered into a million pieces, easy to dispose of. I’m not convinced; if we applied this logic to garbage, we’d say put everything in the grinder and it’ll be fine. (But the idea of frozen corpses is intriguing, still. I suppose if people get tired of keeping Walt Disney in deep freeze, that would work…).

Or I could ask for the carbon in my body to be turned into a diamond. I like the idea: it’s the ultimate carbon sequestration. But on second thought, with the temperatures and pressures required, it think it’d be counter productive.

no toxic chemicals for me, please.

no toxic chemicals for me, please.

How about plastination? Forever frozen in plastic for the edification of the crowds that visit Body World. But I’m told there’s so much demand that there is a waiting list, and I don’t know what toxic materials are released in the process, if any. Pass.

Nah, being an environmentalist, I have to turn to the three R’s, reduce, recycle, re-use. Please do re-use any part of me that still works! I checked at the BC organ donation site, happy to see they still have my info. What about my skeleton? It can’t be re-used, but surely some medical or art school could use it: in other words, recycle it! I found one school in Surrey seeking a skeleton, but I haven’t figured out how to donate mine (google “skeleton donations BC” and you get sites for the Olympic death-defying sport, which is no help).

As for the third R, reduce, well, sorry if I end up not losing weight before I die; not a priority. And don’t try to cut off body parts on the sly; in BC, that would have to be disposed of as biohazard, which is expensive, and a bit undignified.

If I could get composted, replenish the soil, feed the plants, then great. But that’s unlikely; it’s not allowed here, though that may change if enough people ask for it. So, please do what’s the simplest: cremate what’s left of me (side project: I may get a student to check on the local crematoria, see who’s got better air pollution controls). But first remove my mercury fillings if I still have any (keep the gold ones – that would be a souvenir, if anyone wants.). Then use my ashes, maybe to the balance the pH of some garden…

An article in Grist, here, has other tips for a green funeral. But I still like John Prine’s idea best:

Please don’t bury me / down in that cold cold ground
No I’d rather have ‘em cut me up / and pass me all around
Give my knees to the needy…


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