Going Out Green Isn't Just For Frogs

Death and end-of-life celebrations are undeniably an uncomfortable topic.  For the eco-conscious, adding guilt about the ecological impact of their passing makes an already unpleasant topic nearly unbearable.  In the near future, new methods may be available that will help make "ashes to ashes" more of a truism.  Here's a look at the traditional methods versus the new methods:

Traditional Methods

  • Burial.  There are an estimated 1 million acres dedicated to cemeteries in the United States.  About 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, 4 million acres of trees, 2.3 billion tons of concrete, and 115 million tons of steel are buried within that 1 million acres each year.  Besides the issue of massive use of resources, the decidedly environmentally un-friendly flower industry serves to further the reputation of burials as the least responsible choice for sepulture.
  • Cremation.  Disposition via cremation has come to be accepted as the most eco-friendly method.  However, statistics show that the energy used for a cremation is similar to that of driving 4,800 miles.  Incredibly, 0.2% of all greenhouse gases are emitted from crematoriums.  In addition to greenhouse gases, pollutants such as mercury and hydrogen fluoride are also released into the environment.  Contact groups such as at http://www.carememorialcremation.com/ for more information on how they are working to be environmentally friendly.

New Methods

  • Alkaline Hydrolysis.  Developed in Scotland, alkaline hydrolysis converts the decedent's soft tissues into a broth like substance and softens the bones, allowing them to be ground into a fine powder.  The liquid can be used as fertilizer or simply flushed into the sewer system.  The powdered remains can be sent home with the family, much like the ashes resulting from cremation.  Alkaline hydrolysis relies on a water and potassium hydroxide mix.  The corpse is placed in a bag, which is then immersed in the mixture.  The mixture is heated up, which causes the decomposition process to accelerate, resulting in a green disposition. Detractors to alkaline hydrolysis say that the process is "disturbing and disrespectful."
  • Promession.  Perhaps the most eco-friendly of all the options, promession involves freezing the body of the deceased with liquid nitrogen.  The now frozen deceased is then placed in an agitator.  After a short period of light vibration, the remains are reduced to a dust like substance.  A magnetic field is then applied to the dust, removing any mercury or other metal contaminants.  After being buried in a bio-degradable coffin, the remains turn to viable nutrients for plant life within 6 to 12 months.  Developed in Sweden, proponents of promession are actively lobbying for promession to be brought to the United States.

Population levels worldwide are continuing to rise at alarming levels.  As birth rates rise, so must deaths.  Finding environmentally sound ways of dealing with the inevitable is unavoidable.  As land continues to become scarce and global warming steals headlines, the business of death will surely change with the times.