When a loved one dies, we have two obligations; to dispose of their body and remember their life. In most of human history we have combined those two things but they don’t have to happen at the same time. As the Torajans have shown us, we can postpone the ceremony indefinitely, but we can’t put off dealing with the corpse.
“It is difficult to put words to the smell of decomposing human.
It is dense and cloying, sweet but not flower-sweet.
Halfway between rotting fruit and rotting meat.”
Mary Roach, Stiff.
Outside of police procedural dramas, corpse is a word we’re not comfortable with these days, but like cadaver, it’s one of the words we use for a dead body to distinguish it from the living person we knew and loved. One of the many other words we use when we talk about the dead is ‘stiff’ and in her bestselling book of the same title, Mary Roach ‘lifts the lid on what happens to our bodies after we die’.
As she writes, “one’s own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus for emotions that no longer have ones. The dead of science are always strangers,” and one of the places she visited to find out what happens to our bodies after death is a forest grove in Knoxville Tennessee.
The Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee is the only place in the world that studies the process of human decay, primarily to help crime investigators determine the time of death; it’s also the only place where you can choose to donate your body to advance the science of medical forensic medicine in this way and should you decide to do that, then your body will be laid out in a grassy meadow behind the University’s Medical Center.
As Mary Roach explains – in sometimes ghoulish detail – it takes less than a month for bacteria to break down and liquify a human body under these conditions, a process that in a conventional grave can take up to twelve years.
Judaism and Islam continue to follow the practises around death that were developed in response to very specific climatic conditions. Bodies start decomposing shortly after death, so in a hot climate it makes sense for burial to take place as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease but even today, when refrigeration allows them to be safely preserved for weeks and months, a Jewish or Islamic funeral takes place three days after death.
Even with refrigeration, our ‘end of life choices’ are pretty limited here in the UK. The vast majority of us will be cremated; about a quarter will be buried, but every year a few people choose a rather different route and have their bodies committed to the waves.
Burial at sea sounds romantic and conjures visions of burning Viking longships, but in reality, it is extremely challenging to arrange. Around the British mainland there are only five designated burial sites; three off the English coast, at Tynemouth, The Needles near the Isle of Wight and Newhaven in East Sussex and two off the coast of Scotland.
It would take two days under sail to reach the one that lies two-hundred and ten miles west of Oban, out in what WWII films called ‘The Western Approaches’ which makes the alternative, a mere fifteen miles off the coast of Caithness, seem rather more convenient.
Caithness lies at the most northerly point of the British mainland, and the stretch of sea that divides it from the Orkney Isles is the Pentland Firth, a notoriously fast tidal race currently being used as a test bed for tidal energy generation. In Norse myth, the Pentland Firth was the domain of the Swilchies, a pair of marine goddesses who produced all the salt in all the seas of the world, and legend has it that it was their actions in grinding and milling the salt that made the waters so unpredictable and dangerous.
Even today, the Pentland Firth is a stretch of water that ships enter at their peril. It’s not unusual for bodies that have gone into its waters to wash up several months later more than a hundred and forty miles away in Shetland, which is why there are very strict conditions on sea burial.
The coffin must be made of soft wood, it must be heavily weighted down and it has to be drilled full of holes so it will sink. The body inside must be clad in light, biodegradable clothing. It must not have been embalmed, and the person arranging the funeral must have a licence from the Marine Management Organisation, along with a doctor’s certificate stating that the body is clear of fever or infection.
Given all of these conditions, it’s not surprising that there are only about a dozen burials at sea in the UK in any given year, but given what we know about marine pollution and the state of our oceans, it’s not exactly a sustainable way to go.
In an ever-increasing climate crisis, the problem of dealing with our dead is a very real one. In 2013, a BBC survey predicted the UK would run out of burial space in twenty years.
In Mainland China, Beijing’s cemeteries were officially full in 2016 while in 2019, scarcity of available land prompted the building of a vertical cemetery called ‘The Dragon Tower’ in Taiwan which has space for the cremated remains of 400,000 people but cremation as we know is a major contributor to climate change.
A single cremation releases about 400 kilogrammes of CO2 to the atmosphere, roughly equivalent to that released by a single economy class flight from London to New York.
It’s true that cremation is less damaging to the environment than pumping a body full of formaldehyde, encasing it in a lead lined coffin and burying it below a layer of concrete, which is the most popular American style of burial, but in the USA alone, it is estimated that cremation releases 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year, so cremation is very much a part of the problem rather than the solution.
The technology for Alkaline Hydrolysis, where the body is dissolved in water, has been around for a decade or more, but although it generates only a tenth of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation, it has yet to capture the imagination of ‘End of Life Professionals’ here in the UK although it is available in the USA.
Norah Menkin of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Foundation is a fan. As she says, “While the process takes a similar amount of time, it doesn’t have to heat that much; the water does most of the work and there are zero carbon emissions from the body itself.”
As with cremation, there are remains that families can either keep or scatter and the nutrient-rich run-off can be used on farmland as fertiliser. Even if it just goes down the drain, Menkin says “A lot of municipal sewer systems actually appreciate it, because it improves the quality of the wastewater.”
Architects and designers are coming up with innovative solutions.
One proposed in Australia seeks to limit urban sprawl by designating pasture land on the edge of cities as a ‘burial belt’ where native trees and vegetation would be planted alongside the bodies to create a memorial parkland.
Another in Hong Kong imagines a ‘floating columbarium’ that could travel from port to port, while designers from Columbia University are exploring the idea of using the gas from decaying bodies to illuminate lanterns at London’s Arnos Vale cemetery.
My personal favourite however lies at a depth of just over six fathoms in the waters off Key Biscayne in Miami Florida, where cremated remains are bonded with concrete to form the world’s largest man-made reef, creating a rich and vibrant marine habitat where fifty-six species of fish live and breed among hundreds of coral colonies.
Admittedly, you’ll need to have a PADI dive certificate to visit, but as a creative response to the climate crisis, it’s inspiring.