Death and remembrance reimagined in a greener way

Let’s plant greens instead of gravestones for a greener remembrance.

The other day as I was talking to someone, I started thinking about the way we bury and honour our loved ones who had passed on. Ever since cremation became the most common method, the easiest solution has been to just stick the ashes into graveyards and put a gravestone on top. However, much like everything else, cremation also has a significant carbon footprint and graveyards are essentially a lot of dead weight and poor functional use of land. So, I got to thinking, what if we could remember our dead in a slightly less dead way, a sort of greener remembrance?

The environmental footprint of death

To begin with, a standard cremation releases about 400 kg of carbon dioxide per body, which is about the equivalent of an 800 kilometre car trip. Whether that sounds like a lot to you or not, when you multiply it with the amount of people that die every year, which is about 50 million by the way, it becomes a huge cumulative amount. Additionally, people are often cremated with their dental fillings, implants, prosthetics etc., which further adds up to the emissions. Mercury from dental fillings is particularly problematic, so most crematorium filters are usually used to capture metal and particulate matter, as well as nitrous oxide, but no carbon dioxide. Although some crematoriums claim to offset their carbon emissions and are more or less fuel efficient, the carbon footprint of cremation is still quite large.

So, what are the alternatives, you might ask? A woodland burial in a coffin made of all natural materials without embalming or a burial at sea is obviously eco friendlier, but we’d soon run out of space and would severely affect the environment if we tried to dispose of our dead in those ways, so speeding up the decomposition of the bodies is the only logical answer.

One of the already established methods in the market is resomation or alkaline hydrolysis, which has been around since the 90s under various names. However, it has a strong ick factor, because the bodies are put into a pressurised canister filled with hot water and potassium hydroxide, where they dissolve after a couple of hours, leaving behind mushy grey bones that are then ground into powder and water that can be used as a fertilizer. Totally recyclable, but not the most dignified way to go, right? Promession is a similar, somewhat less gross idea, where the bodies are freeze-dried using liquid nitrogen, broken up and shaken into dust using vibration, then the dust is buried in the ground in a biodegradable bag.

Considering that your rotting corpse is slowly eaten by worms over several months in a traditional burial, resomation isn’t even that bad, but there are now also emerging new ways to compost the body with dignity. The world’s first human composting centre opened in the USA in 2021, where they lay the bodies in vessels filled with wood chips, straw, alfalfa and other plant matter and let the naturally present microbes do their job. In about 30 days, the bodies become nutrient-dense soil that can then be returned to nature. Their facility looks really clean, sci-fi-ish as well, but personally, I’d go for a mushroom suit.

The mushroom death suit was designed as a futuristic post-mortem couture for a design competition, but it’s just funky enough that it might become an actual widespread option. The idea is that the body would be dressed in a cotton suit full of infinity mushroom spores and mycelia, causing the mushrooms to grow over the body and decompose it. These particular mushrooms would be chosen for their ability to process toxins, which is pretty important, since the average human body accumulates all sorts of pesticides, preservatives, heavy metals, pollutants etc. during its lifetime, not to mention chemotherapy drugs and so on. That’s also the reason why we can’t just spread human ashes wherever we want unless they’re properly processed, because they’re alkaline and full of nasty. Also, if we decided to scatter around everyone’s ashes, there would be too many for the environment to process at once.

A greener remembrance

Now, I realise that for a lot of people the method of disposing the remains of the deceased is tied to religious beliefs and tradition, so I doubt we’ll outgrow cremation anytime soon, but beliefs and practices do change. Here is a fascinating article about the history of how cremation became the current popular method. However, this post is not primarily about the ways we dispose of the bodies, but rather about what we choose to do with them afterwards.

Although people all over the world are getting rather creative with the ashes of their loved ones, i.e. mixing them into tattoo ink, getting them pressed into CDs or diamonds or used in art, fireworks and even bullets, the most common thing is still to put them in an urn and bury the urn under a gravestone in a cemetery. Even if Goths are very fond of cemeteries and gravestones can be an interesting testament to how people chose to commemorate their loved ones throughout history, they are essentially a dead, non-functional space. They’re usually very orderly and paved through and through for easy access and that oppressive, sombre atmosphere, but are they really benefiting anyone?

When you honestly think about it, very few people visit the graves more than once per year after the initial heavy grief has passed and cemeteries take up a whole lot of space for nothing, and I say that will all due respect for the dead. So, what if instead of erecting yet another generic gravestone made of imported stone, we’d plant trees to commemorate our dead instead? What if cemeteries looked like a forest, a greener and truly lasting testament to our loved ones?

Few places have the unique peaceful atmosphere of a forest and nature has a way of calming our thoughts and getting us to breathe in and let go of our problems. I probably don’t have to tell you what a difference a forest the size of an average cemetery would make to the air quality of its neighbourhood and how we desperately need more trees in the world for carbon capture and oxygen, but the idea of planting trees instead of gravestones opens up so many levels of greener remembrance possibilities.

We already pay for the upkeep of cemeteries and gravestones, so it wouldn’t be a huge adjustment to shift towards plants instead, as it would be a bit like maintaining a park. They wouldn’t even have to be trees, as you could choose any number of permanent local plants like bushes, cacti or perennials, and it wouldn’t be vastly different from leaving flowers on the graves. There could still be small name plaques or gravestones in front of your chosen plant, except the plots would be mostly grass instead of concrete and paved paths and the urns would be replaced by biodegradable bags with the appropriately treated human remains that would act as fertilizer for the plants.

In this way we would create living monuments for those that had passed on and you could literally sit with your grief, contemplate and watch it grow from an empty spot of land to something lush and green that would help fill the absence they’d left behind and facilitate acceptance. Besides having a positive effect on the environment, such a forest, urban or otherwise, would, over time, induce the same feeling of awe as a very old graveyard — you know the one where you can literally feel yourself standing on the shoulders of history. Unlike in a regular graveyard where the graves are often overturned to make room for more, the dead would never be truly lost if forgotten, as a green space is not something that needs to be kept contained, but can become part of the surrounding environment and adapt to the current needs.

Planting greens instead of gravestones would be a win-win across the board, but as always, it would take a mentality shift, a global initiative and a conscious consumerist choice, which is something I’ve already discussed from a different perspective here. So, what do you think of such a greener remembrance? Would you plant a tree for your loved one and watch it grow as a living memory?

Originally published at https://erraticengineeress.blog on September 18, 2021.

Curious mechanical engineer, Tribology PhD student and a passionate traveller who still believes in dragons and goodness. Blog: erraticengineeress.blog

Curious mechanical engineer, Tribology PhD student and a passionate traveller who still believes in dragons and goodness. Blog: erraticengineeress.blog