Live and Let Die | Sunday Observer

Live and Let Die

They say that two things in life are inevitable: Death and taxes. People go to extraordinary lengths to dodge taxes, but the same cannot be said about death, which is, well, inevitable as things stand. Yes, at some point in the future we may achieve immortality or at least a very long lifespan (like 300 years), but for the moment every living being on Earth is going to die sooner or later.

But once we die, just how we like to ‘go’ is another option. Most people opt to cremate their loved ones now, partly due to the shortage of burial sites and partly due to religious reasons. But both methods have an ecological cost – cremation releases a huge amount of greenhouse gases (regardless of whether gas or electricity is used) and burial leaves embalming chemicals and harmful body fluids in the soil, which may affect the water table and soil health. Both also involve the burning/decay of the coffin, clothes and any implants, which add to the ecological footprint.

Thus there is a worldwide movement for more environment-friendly funerals. We harm the Earth more than enough when we live. The idea is to prevent this at least in death. Hence the rise of viable, eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional cremation and burial.

One of the most interesting ideas that had emerged in recent times is turning the human body into compost upon death. A US firm has already given scientific details of its “human composting” process for environmentally friendly funerals. A pilot study on deceased volunteers showed that soft tissue broke down safely and completely within 30 days. The firm, Recompose, claims that its process saves more than a tonne of carbon, compared to cremation or burial.

It says that it will offer the world’s first human composting service in Washington State from next February. The process involves laying the body in a closed vessel with woodchips, alfalfa and straw grass. The body is slowly rotated to allow microbes to break it down. Thirty days later the remains are available to relatives to scatter on plants or a tree. Although the process is straightforward, it has taken four years of scientific research to perfect the technique and also the bodies of six volunteers who signed onto it before they passed away.

Recompose’s chief executive and founder, Katrina Spade, said that concerns about climate change had been a big factor in so many people expressing interest in the service. Recomposing involves integrating the body with the soil. She claims that natural organic reduction of a body prevents 1.4 tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere, compared with cremation.

There is a similar saving compared to traditional burial when transportation and the construction of the casket are taken into account. In fact, scientists are already contemplating composting bodies of dead astronauts on Mars, where resources will be severely limited.

But this is not the only game in town. In Canada and some US States, one can opt for water cremation also known as resomation or alkaline hydrolysis, an alternative to cremation with fire. The body is placed in a steel container filled with a solution of alkaline and potassium hydroxide before being heated to around 180 C – 800 C cooler than the 980 C reached during a traditional cremation. In this solution, the body’s soft tissues and organs break down into a solution of watery molecules that can then be literally washed down the drain safely. It shortens a process that would take up to two decades in burial down to around four hours, a timescale similar to a standard cremation. What’s left are bones, which are ground down into ‘ashes’ in the same way as a normal cremation and given back to the family.

You can become plant food after death in some countries. The mushroom suit makes your body a remarkably eco-friendly gift to nature. The Coeio Infinity Burial Suit is made of organic cotton and lined with specialist mushroom spores, so a person buried in it will soon be covered in growing mushrooms. Their remains will feed the mushrooms, which quickly break down organic material and remove toxins from the environment, in turn delivering nutrients to the soil and surrounding plants.

It is also possible to be buried at sea, albeit as a foundation for a coral reef. US-based Eternal Reefs is able to mix cremated remains into its concrete to create a ‘pearl’, which is lowered onto the ocean floor to create new habitats for fish and other marine life. “Many natural reefs have been destroyed and over fished,” says the company on its website. “Establishing new reefs helps to take the pressure off the natural reef systems and help repair the damage that has been done by mankind. The Eternal Reefs provide a nurturing environment for fish and other forms of sea life that are critical to the environment.”

Why not go back to ‘birth’ when you are dead ? Italian designers Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli have created a burial option that gives back to the Earth. The Capsula Mundi, which translates as the ‘World’s Capsule’ in Latin, is an egg-shaped, organic casket in which a body can be buried in the foetal position. Once in the ground, the biodegradable casing breaks down leaving the remains to provide nutrients to a tree planted right above it. In many cases, the deceased’s loved ones choose for the tree to become their memorial in place of a tombstone.

The remains help create fertile soil in a way bodies sealed in a coffin cannot. Meanwhile, the resulting tree helps to purify the air. Most of these methods could also be used for pet funerals, a rapidly growing business around the world.

Scientists and undertakers around the world are exploring many other ways to send us off in a fitting, eco-friendly ways than the two popular methods (burial and cremation) used today. We hope that Sri Lanka’s undertakers too will study these new methods and get licensing/ regulatory approval for them. Indeed, the cost of funerals is very high now and if any or all of these alternative methods can be offered at a lesser cost, it would be better off for the families of the departed. Still, these would not necessarily sound the death knell for funeral parlours, which could still get people to pay last respects to the departed, before the bodies are handed over to alternative funeral services.

Death is a big business all around the world and there is no sign of it dying anytime soon, unless, of course, we achieve immortality.