Food for Worms: Natural Burials & the Green Death Movement

You may have heard someone say something along the lines of “when I die, just put me in the ground and I’ll be food for worms!”

Photo by Bee Jamieson.

But the reality of a traditional burial is far from that. If we go down that route we’re looking at embalming your body with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde for a viewing, sealing you up in an expensive wooden/metal casket with a rubber lining to be air tight, and finally lowering said casket into a metal vault 6 feet under the ground because perfect cemetery landscaping doesn’t just happen. In fact, your body won’t ever touch the dirt again, so food for worms you are not.

Now I’m not here to lecture and guilt trip you into forgoing a traditional burial (maybe a little) but the thing is a lot of people don’t know that they have options other than an expensive casket and a body filled with carcinogenic chemicals.

So why should you choose a green death?

Environmental Impacts of Traditional Burials & Cremation

When it comes to traditional burial, the environmental impact is pretty intense. If we’re going off the American stats, the National Geographic says;

“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid.

When a body finally decomposes, those 800,000 gallons (Or 3,028,329.43 litres) of embalming fluid, which is made up of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, humectants and other nasty chemicals, end up in the cemetery ground.

Then when we look at cremation, we find that although a cremation might not create as much damage in regards to wood being cut down or metals mined from the earth, there is still a substantial environmental impact. The cremation process uses as much energy as a living person would use in a month, as well as releasing dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If that body had also been embalmed prior to cremation the embalming fluids join the noxious cocktail. Oh, and don’t forget the burning of mercury tooth fillings many people may have at the time of their cremation.

So to recap a cremation may spew formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, humectants, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury into the air we breathe.

So what are the other options?

‘Natural’ Burial

For centuries, ‘natural’ burial was just a burial. Before we decided to pump our dead with embalming fluid and chuck them in metal vaults in the ground, we dug a hole and lowered our loved ones into it.

A body wrapped in a biodegradable burial shroud. Image: Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetary

If you choose a natural burial, your body will be left as is, placed in a biodegradable shroud or coffin made of organic materials such as wicker or bamboo and placed in a hole roughly 3-4 feet underground. For this you need to find an actual natural burial plot or check your local laws regarding burial. In South Australia, if a death certificate has been issued by a coroner and you own over 2 acres of land you can be buried in your own backyard.

The body will naturally decompose back into the earth. In some natural cemeteries there is a small plaque or landmark placed on your burial site to show family members where your final resting place is.

There is also the movement of conservation burial. Essentially, cemeteries are hallowed ground. Legally in Australia the land used for the burial of bodies is not allowed to be developed on or dug up for at least 100 years after the last body is buried. This means that if we create natural burial grounds/cemeteries on undeveloped land they become untouchable and we can save natural landscapes from becoming urbanised.

Alkaline Hydrolysis/Aquamation (not legal in Australia… yet.)

Aquamation is like cremation but with the opposite side of the elements. A body is placed into a high pressure vessel which is then filled with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. The vessel is then heated to 160 °C at a high pressure to prevent boiling. Within 4-6 hours, all the tissue, fat and muscle have been stripped off the bones and turned into a green-brown tinted liquid containing amino acids, sugars, salts and peptides. The bones are left soft and porous and are crushed like they are with cremation to create the traditional ashes for the urns. There are also more remains left over in this process than in traditional cremation (33% more ashes in fact). Aquamation uses only a quarter of the energy that a traditional cremation does and is legal in many states in the US and in the United Kingdom.

Some liken the process to a baptism of sorts, some find it comforting to know their loved one wasn’t sent up in flames. However, many argue that alkaline hydrolysis is not a dignified way of disposing of a loved ones remains, but many of the same things were said about cremation. In my opinion, it’s all about personal preference. Why not have the option to go with the flow, so to say.

Recomposition (Composting the Dead)… a hard sell.

If your immediate reaction was “ew”, I get it. The idea of using human remains as compost is a little taboo in our death and body fearing society. Recomposition (or natural organic reduction) is exactly what it implies; the decomposing of a body into soil. People aren’t exactly with it yet, but I think it’s cool as hell.

Katrina Spade created the idea and founded Recompose, with the help of body farms and some cool ass science, Recompose will open its doors in Seattle in 2021.

Recompose Facilities (bodies being processed in the honeycomb things)

The idea behind Recompose is to return the body to the earth, as well as providing more natural and environmentally friendly options for end-of-life. Within 30 days, the body will decompose with the help of microbes and other controlled bacteria. Recomposition is safe and the result is a soil that families are able to take home to create new life from death. So many people say they want to be a tree after they die, and this is one way of making that happen. Your body will feed new life. You could be your favourite fruit tree after death. I’d be a peach tree.

I really can’t do the process justice so if you are interested please visit Recompose HERE or watch Katrina’s ted talk HERE.

So what now?

Right now where I live, only natural burial is legal and it’s hard to change the minds of generations who believed that there is only one way to do things. But as we as a society become more and more eco-conscious, the way we live becomes more green, so why shouldn’t our deaths be too?


All sources and interesting links are below.

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