Jennifer Novo, MJLST Staffer
Halloween is often a time for ghosts, the dead, and for some, is the perfect time to make a trip to a local graveyard or cemetery. The obvious association with death as the final resting place for many makes graveyards an inherently spooky destination. Burial is just one of the many methods used for the final disposition of human remains around the world and is a common practice in the United States. However, considering environmental and economic factors, it may be time to consider alternative forms of final disposition.
In the United States, there is a presumed right to a decent burial under common law. Beyond that, different jurisdictions within the United States have their own regulations for the disposal of dead bodies and the reporting of deaths and final dispositions of the remains. For example, Minnesota Statute § 149A outlines regulations with the purpose of “regulat[ing] the removal, preparation, transportation, arrangements for disposition, and final disposition of dead human bodies for purposes of public health and protection of the public.” This chapter outlines license requirements, safety standards, and guidelines for a number of disposition practices, not just burial.
There are a number of negatives, from environmental to economic, to the modern burial. Modern burials consist of burying a casket containing embalmed remains. This practice has serious environmental effects. Embalming is used to delay the decay of a body, and the chemicals used for embalming include formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin, all of which are irritants and some of which are carcinogenic or toxic. Over time, once the body and the casket have decomposed, these chemicals will seep into the soil and water table of the surrounding area and pose a health risk to the living. Burials also negatively affect the environment by using a large amount of resources to create caskets (hundreds of thousands of tons of various metals and concrete as well as millions of board feet of wood). Another primary negative environmental impact that burial has is that graveyards use up a lot of space (as of late 2018, there are a little under 145,000 graveyards across the United States totaling to approximately 1 million acres of land). This land requires a lot of maintenance, water, and fertilizer to keep green. In addition to the environmental effects, burials are expensive. By 2017, funeral expenses increased 227.1% and the cost of burial caskets rose by 230% since 1986. The current cost of a traditional full-service burial in North America is between $7,000 and $10,000.
In 2017, a report by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) found that for the first time, more Americans were cremated than buried. Researchers ascribed this change to shifting religious beliefs and generational differences. Economically, cremations are less expensive than traditional burials. Additionally, cremation removes the need for large swaths of land required by burials. However, like burials, cremation has negative environmental impacts. For example, studies have suggested that the high level of energy required to cremate a body damages the environment. Additionally, the cremation process releases various chemicals (such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury) and soot into the atmosphere, and the resulting sterile ashes lack nutrients that could contribute to ecological cycles.
As people are becoming more aware of the downsides to traditional burial and cremation, other methods of final disposition have been created and adopted that address some of these concerns.
One alternative comparable to a traditional burial is a natural or green burial, in which a body is buried either in a shroud or a biodegradable container without going through the embalming process. Some types of natural burial (conservation burial) take this a step further in that some of the fees associated with the burial go towards protecting the land through a conservation easement.
One alternative comparable to traditional cremation is a flameless cremation process known as alkaline hydrolysis, in which the body is dissolved, leaving bone powder and a liquid that can then be “recycled” in a local wastewater treatment plant. Only a handful of states, including Minnesota, have formally adopted regulations for this final disposition process.
A number of states, including Minnesota, do not have many (or any) restrictions on remains post-cremation, so a number of alternatives focus on ways cremated remains can be used to negate the negative environmental effects of the traditional cremation process. Some examples include sending ashes in a concrete ball to the ocean floor to promote the growth of coral reefs, placing ashes in a pod that will eventually grow into a tree, and mixing ashes with fertilizer to feed a particular tree in lieu of having a gravestone.
Death is frightening and uncomfortable to think about, and contemplating the treatment of a loved one’s (or one’s own) remains is depressing. However, decisions on these matters have lasting effects for friends, family, and even the general population. There is a lot of legal leeway surrounding final disposition, so it never hurts to consider the options before it’s too late.