What Do I Do With This Body?

Last week’s blog, Returning To The Earthdealt primarily with food waste and the benefits of composting. This week, I wanted to explore some of the options regarding “what to do with me” when I pass this life. 

Years ago, my wife and I were sightseeing in New Orleans and took a tour of a cemetery.  Most of the tombs in New Orleans are above ground vaults or lawn crypts, because the high-water table makes below-ground burials impractical.  Some of the vaults we saw were not very large, but had many names on the monument.  Our guide explained that these vaults were the final resting place for numerous family members over multiple generations, even though there might only be one or two chambers within the vault. This is possible because of an ancient technique known as “unlimited interment”.  When a body is placed inside this vault, and the vault is sealed, it becomes very hot inside.  Because of the heat inside the vault, the body is reduced to ash, usually within a year.  After a year, if the chamber is needed again, the vault can be opened, and the ashes pushed to the back or allowed to fall to the bottom, making the vault available again for another body.  This technique is used around the world, especially in places with Latin or Roman-Catholic influence.  A reusable vault requiring no coffin; pretty efficient I thought.

Glenwood Cemetery, Houston, Texas

Besides being buried in a New Orleans lawn crypt, there are many options regarding “what to do with my body”.  Many people opt for a traditional in-ground burial in a cemetery.  This typically involves embalming the body, being placed in a coffin, and buried in a concrete vault in a cemetery plot. 

Depending on the cemetery, most – even older rural ones – have rules, which may include having a memorial headstone marking a “final resting place” where family and friends can visit. Rules may also advise who to contact if you want to bury someone.

Rural East Texas Cemetery

Some individuals opt to be cremated, with the remains interred in a “final resting place” – e.g., a private mausoleum or public mausoleum within the cemetery, saved in an urn, or scattered. 

Until recently, my considerations were limited to choosing between burial or cremation, and the location for that “final resting place”.  But recently, I’ve been thinking about the environmental impacts of that “resting place” decision.  According to an article entitled 7 Eco-Friendly Options for Your Body After Death, the traditional burial is about the least friendly option I could choose.  “Casket burials and the associated materials use 100,000 tons of steel and 1.5 million tons of concrete each year, as well as some 77,000 trees and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid. There is also worry that some of that carcinogenic embalming fluid eventually leaks into the earth, polluting water and soil.  Cremation is not as bad, but according to the Natural Death Centre, a single cremation uses about as much gas and electricity as a 500-mile road trip. The process also emits around 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, as much as the average American home produces in about six days.”

Some of the 7 options discussed in this article (referenced above) describe various ways in which the body is allowed to decompose – and some of these options are uncomfortable for me to discuss here.  But one option, burial at sea, was one I hadn’t thought of.  Donating my body to science is another option.

One option, a “Green Funeral” or “Green Burial”, looked interesting.   The New York Times published an article a few years ago which outlines what is involved in a “Green Burial”.  While the specifics of a green burial vary widely, they typically require far fewer resources for the care of the body (e.g., embalming) and skip a number of the traditional steps (e.g., vaults, coffins) making them better for the environment. They can also cost less.  The typical cost associated with embalming, vaults, and coffins is approximately $8,500. 

According to a survey released by the National Funeral Directors Association, nearly 54% of Americans are considering a green burial – perhaps to save money but perhaps to reduce the carbon footprint associated with a traditional burial or cremation. 

One final option I’ve explored is the Natural Burial.  According to BurialPlanning.com, natural burial strictly refers to the actual burial process, i.e., opening and closing of the grave, the preparation of the remains, and the laying of those remains in the burial plot.  “A natural burial does not use embalming fluid, a casket, or a burial vault. Instead, the remains are placed directly into the earth, allowing the body to decompose naturally. The process has minimum impact on the environment. In some instances, the bodies of the deceased are buried in a biodegradable casket or in a simple burial shroud, so long as they do not inhibit the decomposition of the body in anyway. Natural burials also do not use any machinery or heavy equipment for digging the grave site. Instead, the grave sites are dug by hand.” 

Like the Green Burial, the Natural Burial is more eco-friendly that traditional burials.  In fact, the terms natural burial and green burial are often used interchangeably and although they are similar, they are actually two different types of burial option.  A natural burial can occur within a traditional cemetery, whereas a green burial requires a special “green” cemetery.  A “green cemetery” uses no artificial pesticides and none of the bodies buried in a green cemetery can have been embalmed or buried in a traditional casket.  In terms of different burial products, such as headstones, burial flowers, and memorial benches, there are slight differences compared to more traditional burial options.  Natural burial headstones are usually a simple stone with a simple bronze plaque.

Traditional Cemetery – Wooster, Ohio

Bottom line, there are many end-of-life choices I can make that are more environmentally friendly than others.  And while the impact may seem slight, it is a final statement, so to speak.  Some people might be uncomfortable thinking about what will happen to their body when they die and might avoid the subject.  But as I’ve grown older, I’ve thought about it more.  It’s not so much I’m worried about my body – one way or another, it will return to dust – but I believe it’s important to think about it for one more reason – namely, by making timely end-of-life decisions, I’m actually providing a gift to those I leave behind.

When you are ready to decide What To Do With Your Body, call your local funeral director as laws vary in each state, county, municipality and cemetery.

As a footnote to this topic, there is an interesting place you can visit the next time you are in Houston.  It’s called the Funeral Museum.  Founded in 1992, it consists of over 30,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and is considered the largest educational center on funeral customs in the United States.  In addition to the exhibits providing the history of “death care”, there is a huge collection of vintage hearses which alone are worth the price of admission.  And the gift shop is like one you’ve never seen with gifts like a BBQ apron with the word “Cremator” on it!  One more thing to add to your “bucket list”.

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