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Nov 13

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Two things I’ve encountered recently have me thinking about sustainable living through the lens of sustainable dying.

First, there’s this delightful TED talk from artist Jae Rhim Lee: “My mushroom burial suit.” It’s under eight minutes, and I recommend watching if you haven’t seen it. In short, she has developed the concept for a burial process that uses a body suit that would be infused with spores from edible mushrooms that have been “trained” to break down a person’s body (she’s been using her hair, skin, and nail clippings as a growing medium).

Not only would this speed along an organic breakdown of the body after death, but part of the advantage of using mushrooms, as Lee explains, is that they neutralize toxins like BPA and heavy metals that accumulate in our bodies and that are returned to the environment when we die. “Our bodies are filters and storehouses for environmental toxins,” she says. And of course in our culture (America and most of the Western world, as far as I know) we tend to fill bodies with more chemicals after death. Not good.

On a similar front, NRDC’s OnEarth recently featured a Q&A with Sarah Murray, who has a book out called Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre – How We Dignify the Dead, about death rituals around the world. This interview highlighted just how troubling many funeral/burial practices are from an environmental standpoint. Here’s a snippet:

Anybody who’s interested in sustainability will tell you it doesn’t make sense to put this stuff into the ground. You cannot imagine the range of things you can buy at the big funeral expos. You look at these huge, seven-gauge steel coffins lined with silk and nylon with special drawers for your mobile phone, and you realize it’s all just going into the ground. As one environmentalist put it, essentially, a cemetery is a landfill.

Murray also talks about options for natural burial — no chemicals, no steel coffins. But of course there’s still the problem of the environmental toxins already present in our bodies, which once again highlights the power of Lee’s idea for a mushroom burial suit.

And while cremation may sound like an eco-friendly alternative to burial, apparently it’s fairly problematic (carbon emissions, etc.). Another option described by Murray is intriguing:

There’s this new technique that a couple of states are doing. One company is calling it ”resomation.” Another calls it “alkaline hydrolysis.” Essentially, you go into an alkaline bath, and it dissolves your body. It’s what would happen if you were just buried in the ground, but it does it in a bunch of hours. And it doesn’t use all the energy it takes to cremate you. You’re not being embalmed, so it doesn’t use all the chemicals. You’re not being buried with a huge steel box. It does leave you with some ashes, so if you still want to have a scattering ceremony, there are bone fragments. And then the mortar into which you’ve been dissolved can be used as fertilizer. So you can put me out on the fields to fertilize a few crops. That sounds kind of promising.

With 7 billion people on earth and counting, rethinking our burial practices is an important issue, in and of itself.

But this topic also relates to a larger issue that I’ve been pondering, which is how to shift behaviors and change systems to allow for and encourage more sustainable ways of living.

Not that long ago, death was not an “industry” — people were buried naturally because that was the only option, and the fact of death was more intertwined with daily life. As an undergrad in the mid-80s, I took an interdisciplinary course called “Death and Dying” where we looked at the history of death and dying through various lenses of literature, film, social sciences, etc. The big take-away form that course was this: modern-day Western culture is really screwed up about death, and our fear and discomfort around death run deep.

We’ve medicalized dying and turned the handling of the dead into something we pay professionals to do, rather than a final caring act carried out by loved ones (I know there are exceptions to this around the world and even in our culture, but for the vast majority of Americans, the established system for dealing with the dead is never questioned). Death, even a relatively peaceful death in old age, is scary and bad and distasteful — and because we aren’t confronted with death as often as people used to be, it’s easier to avoid death as a natural part of life.

When you look at a topic as profound and personal as death and think about how to begin to shift behaviors and expectations, I think it provides a framework for thinking about how to shift behaviors and expectations around more mundane daily decisions and social rituals that relate to sustainable living (biking or using public transportation; using cloth diapers instead of plastic; eating sustainably grown food; etc. etc. etc.)

One of the things I find most interesting is how deeply ingrained current behaviors can be — even if not that long ago (a decade, a generation, a century) the more sustainable choice was the status quo.

For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about gardening, and how my grandparents on both sides had large vegetable gardens that helped put fresh, delicious food on the table. However, that knowledge was not carried on by most members of the next generation in my family — why garden when you have the modern conveniences of grocery stores and fast food? why garden when it’s no longer a necessity for survival? — which means most of my generation did not grow up with an inherited familiarity of how to grow our own food (although I did, thankfully, grow up knowing what a tomato should taste like…so there’s that).

Of course gardening and death are part of the same amazing cycle, and our attitudes about death speak to our connection to the earth, or lack thereof. I definitely agree with Murray that a process that would accelerate the natural cycle of returning my body to the earth as fertilizer is pretty attractive — and it’s kind of amazing how hard our culture works to forestall this natural cycle.

I think one of the things that’s appealing about very old graveyards is the knowledge that while the markers are still there, the bodies below truly are ashes to ashes and dust to dust. So when a body pumped full of embalming fluid and encased in an expensive hunk of steel is lowered in the ground, I have to think: how did we get here? And how do we relearn what we’ve lost?