[Just in time for Halloween]
I saw a dead body when I was 15. It was at biotechnology camp.
Seeing the gray-skinned, pruny cadaver marinating in formaldehyde was somehow less disturbing than having seen embalmed, made-up corpses at funeral homes. I think it was about this time that I decided I wanted to donate my body to science when I kicked it.
I stand by this decision, combining what I feel is rational, ethical, economic and environmental sense. Because this is an eco blog post, I'm gonna focus on the environmental aspects of just what to do with a dead body here.
Taking your sins to the grave
You'd think your ecological footprint would dissolve once you met the reaper. Not if you're buried conventionally. First you're embalmed in toxic chemicals, which can leach into the ground. Then, you're placed in an ostenatious box that could take eons to biodegrade. Then, you take up space in the ground. What a legacy.
The "death care" industry supports this process—just as other industries support other processes detrimental to the environment. Fortunately, many people are choosing cremation, which creates less ecological impact. These aren't the only choices we have, though.
The Green Burial Council is a non-profit that "encourage[s] ethical and sustainable practices in the deathcare industry, and to use the burial process as a means of facilitating ecological restoration and landscape-level conservation." It has created standards to use in certifying eco-burials—which might allow these cardboard coffins. Its site will soon list approved providers of eco-burials.
The magazine Lip recently published an interesting interview with Mary Roach, author of Stiff. She brought up "human composting"—a movement that began in Sweden. Apparently, a body can be deep freezed and vibrated so it breaks into small pieces. These pieces are then freeze dried and given to the loved ones to bury and plant something over the remains.
Give it up
If you aren't ethically obliged to a belief system that stipulates whole body burial, donating your body to science is another option. Apparently, all you have to do is contact a local university for a body donor form. (Gotta stay local though because there are laws about transporting un-embalmed bodies over state lines, according to Mary Roach.) Go here for a list of full body donation programs in the US.
Of course, there's always organ donation to remember, too. But once they take the good parts, you still have to do something with the rest.
What we want someone to do with our bodies once we bite the dust is not something we like to think about. Some of these options may seem strange or gross, but really all of them are gross. Death is not pretty, but the least we can do is plan a responsible way to deal with it.