The conversation was sparked by a lecture on vultures and their role in the ecosystem. The speaker had mentioned a tradition called “Tibetan sky burial”, in which the dead are carried to a location in the mountains where their bodies can be devoured by birds of prey. (The ground in Tibet is apparently cold enough to make grave digging a difficult undertaking.) It was the first time I’d heard of the concept, and I was impressed.
ME: What a great idea! Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we just throw dead bodies into the woods and let vultures handle it?
BOYFRIEND: Because you can’t just leave corpses lying around. It’s unsanitary. There are dangerous bacteria in rotting bodies, like anthrax or something.
ME: Really? Anthrax? Are you sure? That doesn’t sound right…
Normally at this point I would have consulted my trusted friend iPhone, but we were camping in an area with spotty reception and so the question went unanswered…until now.
Given the effort and expense that go into human post-mortem affairs, it seems reasonable to assume they serve some crucial hygienic benefit. And yet wild animals die and decompose all the time and nobody is running into the jungle to make sure their remains are properly buried or burned. Is there an legitimate reason why I can’t just leave a dead body in my backyard? The vultures would be thrilled.
A decade ago, the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia was at the center of a bewildering scandal. Rather than cremating bodies entrusted to him by grieving loved ones, proprietor Ray Brent Marsh – who had recently taken over operations for his ailing father – inexplicably left the dead to decompose in and around the facility. Over 300 bodies were discovered in various states of decay, piled into seemingly every inch of the crematory. The community and the nation were, naturally, horrified and then furious. Marsh pled guilty to multiple charges of theft by deception, fraud, making false statements, and abuse of a dead body. Once you finish reeling from the strangeness of Marsh’s crimes, however, you’ll notice that nowhere on the list of offenses is endangering public health.
That’s because, surprise! Dead bodies aren’t the biohazards many assume them to be. Remember that human rituals for disposal of the dead far predate the germ theory of disease (in which certain microorganisms are responsible for illness and infection, rather than vaporous “miasmas” and other debunked beliefs of yore). The process of decay may look like disease, but the bacteria found in dead bodies are the same ones that exist in the living, there are just a lot more of them.* You see, while dying may be undesirable/inconvenient for the individual, it’s a big party for our inner microbes. Once the body throws in the towel for good, enzymes begin breaking down our cells (a process called autolysis, or self-digestion). This floods the fresh corpse with food, allowing the microbes to multiply. By-products of the bacterial boom cause cadavers to bloat and stink and generally upset the senses of the living, but there’s nothing uniquely dangerous in there. Even the famously malodorous compounds Putrescine and Cadaverine – by-products of decay but sometimes also culprits in bad breath – are toxic only if ingested in large doses. And, really, why would you want to do that?
It’s not that corpses are completely clean and cuddly and should be stored on your kitchen countertop. But the main risk they pose is basically the same one posed by living bodies – they can pollute the water. It’s a bad idea to float a dead body down the Ganges River for the same reason it’s a bad idea to dump raw sewage into it – bacteria in the water supply can cause gastrointestinal illness. Possible groundwater contamination is the major health threat of improper disposal of bodies, particularly in areas that rely on untreated well water. However even burying bodies in cemeteries doesn’t always prevent this problem.
So negligible is the threat posed by corpses that the World Health Organization (WHO), in its guidelines for dealing with dead bodies in emergencies, urges against rushing them into mass graves, especially if the emergency in question is a natural disaster rather than an epidemic. According to WHO, the benefits of clearing out corpses are mostly psychological (I’d imagine having to constantly sidestep dead bodies is pretty demoralizing), and hasty mass burials only make matters worse for survivors by thwarting the identification of the dead. When epidemics are involved, of course, disposal of the dead needs to be done with more protective clothing and disinfectant. (And watch out for ticks if the problematic illness is typhus or plague.) But despite the ghastly smell of cadavers, no harm will come to you from simply breathing the air around them.
But since the psychological impact of confronting death by confronting corpses is a valid concern, we’ve developed some ways to keep our dearly departed from littering the public streets. Let’s have a look at some options.
Most corpse disposal methods involve getting the body either into or onto the ground, but whether by burial and cremation there’s a lot of diversity in the logistics.
Let’s start with so-called “traditional funerals” (in quotes because many of the conventions aren’t especially ancient). This is what most people conjure up when they hear the word “burial”. It’s a big production with elaborate caskets and carved headstones, and a service for which the body of the deceased is typically embalmed, groomed and dressed, even if it is to be a closed casket funeral. The problem with traditional burial is that it’s kind of, sort of, just a little bit, um, horrifically wasteful. All those materials going into the making of the casket, all that embalming fluid† pumped into the corpse (typically containing formaldehyde, which the poor mortician is thus exposed to), and all this just to get buried.
And it’s not only the casket going into the ground, there’s also the concrete burial vault, a requirement for interment in some traditional cemeteries. The burial vault is essentially a casket for your casket. It prevents your actual body-containing casket from collapsing under the weight of dirt and cemetery-maintaining vehicles and whatnot. After all, nobody wants to go through all the trouble of a traditional funeral only to end up with an unsightly sunken grave.
With the copious resources going into it, traditional burial isn’t cheap. A consumer guide on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission website acknowledges that, “Funerals rank among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make.” (Anywhere from $6000 to over $10,000, by their estimates.) Sound like too much money for too much packaging? Then cue the alternatives…
Cremation tends to be the go-to choice for those wishing to avoid the excesses and expense of traditional burial. It’s definitely a space saver. While you’re still welcome to have your “cremains” (shop talk for ashes) buried in a cemetery, many people opt to store the ashes in an urn or to scatter them somewhere suitably symbolic (outdoors ideally, I’d recommend against scattering ashes in a shopping mall or the floor of Congress). It also circumvents the whole decomposition issue for those upset by the thought of their bodies putrefying in the ground (even an airtight casket can’t stop the inevitable decay of a corpse, as Caitlin Doughty will cheerfully explain to you in her Ask a Mortician video series).
Yet cremation too is not without problems. Incinerating bodies requires energy (modern crematories have stopped using coal, but they still burn fossil fuels such as natural gas and propane) and releases carbon emissions. Burning corpses with metal amalgam dental fillings can also produces a small amount of vaporized mercury, which is generally considered bad news.‡
But fear not, your body can now be reduced to ashes without flames through a process called alkaline hydrolysis (aka resomation, aka liquid cremation). It’s been used for decades on dead animals and has recently also become available (though only in a handful of U.S. states) to dead humans. Here’s how it works: your corpse + the strong base potassium hydroxide (KOH, or lye if your prefer a gentler sounding name) + low heat (about 350F, compared to the over 1500F temperature of a crematory furnace) + water + pressure = ash-like solid remains + disposable liquid by-product. For those concerned about that liquid and its disposal, we’re assured that the stuff going down the drain is both sterile and pH neutral. And if you’re aesthetically or theologically outraged by the whole idea of what I’ve just described, this may not be the best option for you. Perhaps we should revisit burial…
Natural burial, or green burial, is an alternative designed to minimize the environmental impact of cadaver disposal. Rather than attempting to delay the inevitability of decay with formaldehyde and über-caskets, it embraces it as a way of returning the body to the earth (ashes to ashes and all that). The dead are buried in simple, non-toxic, biodegradable caskets (wood, wicker, or even cardboard are options) or just shrouds (what better way to prevent casket collapse than by not using one in the first place). Embalming fluid is generally eschewed, and when it is used, a formaldehyde-free version is employed. The cemeteries themselves are decorated with trees instead of headstones. It’s all very pastoral.
Of course, as with many things labeled “natural”, the ambiguity of that word opens the door for charlatans hoping to cash in on the growing popularity of eco-friendly death. In the U.S., the Green Burial Counsel is attempting to establish some standards to combat the potential green-washing (they have a three leaf rating system even). Still, in the absence of government regulation, it’s pretty much buyer beware at this stage. If your “green” burial provider insists on an airtight metal casket and cement vault, you might want to shop elsewhere.
And if you feel natural burial isn’t green enough, you might look into having yourself composted. While you can’t just have your corpse hauled directly out to the garden – most states require either refrigeration or burial of the body within 24 hours of death (there goes my dream of vulture-mediated burial) – you can be made into nutrient-rich fertilizer with the aid of technology. The Swedish company Promessa has created a method of removing water from the body by freeze-drying it in liquid nitrogen. This makes the body brittle enough to break into a powder (and much lighter, recall that water makes up well over half of the body). The powder is buried shallowly (Promessa contends that whole bodies are buried too deep into the ground to allow sufficient oxygen for the natural, plant-nurturing variety of decomposition). And, if you like, a tree can be planted on top. That part sounds especially appealing to me, as it would allow me to do in death what I’ve consistently failed to do in life – keep a plant alive.
I first heard of human composting in Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. The book was published almost a decade ago (2003) and today Promessa’s concept remains far from being a readily available option (you might need to die in Sweden for this to work out for you). But it could still catch on. After all, turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) Brits were largely adverse to the idea of cremation (too reminiscent of Pagan funeral pyres), but by the 2000s, over 70 percent the country’s corpses were bound for flames. You never know.
Guess which recently deceased famous astronaut is going to be buried at sea this week? That’s right, Neil Armstrong! Armstrong, who served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy prior to his more memorable role as first man on the moon, will presumably have a military sea burial. But underwater interment is available to civilians as well.
As with land graves, sea burial can be more or less environmentally intrusive, depending on the materials involved. Regulations vary. Even though we’re both using the same ocean, EPA-controlled U.S. burials will let you throw an embalmed body overboard, while Britain forbids it (along with non-biodegradable caskets).
Sea burial comes with one additional consideration that isn’t an issue on land – how to keep bodies from washing up on the shores and spooking beachcombers. EPA requires that cadavers be ferried a minimum of 3 miles from shore to a depth of at least 600 feet. And there’s various paperwork to be filed as well (though that’s also the case on land). Weights are used to discourage corpses from wandering too far. A casketed body needs more weighing down than a shrouded one, btw. Another reason you might want to keep it simple.
What’s it like under the sea? Your body will still decompose, though more slowly in colder waters. Luckily the ocean is filled with hungry fishes and crustaceans ready to help move the process along. And this is one of those rare instances in which you’re allowed to feed the animals.
Space burial sounds pretty cool until you realize it’s not your whole body being launched into the cosmos, but rather a small capsule of your ashes (a few paltry grams worth). So you’ll still have to arrange some sort of earthly cremation process before the final journey, and figure out what to do with the remaining majority of the ashes.
Additionally, the space ashes won’t exactly float through the heavens for all eternity. For now, an ash capsules boldly goes only as far as Earth orbit, where it will circle the planet until – like any other piece of space junk we put there – it eventually falls back to Earth and burns up in the atmosphere (not really as issue for the ashes, I suppose). Essentially, it’s just a very elaborate method of scattering ashes. Still, the cremains of Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary rode into space in 1997. Yours can to, for a price ($1,295 for a gram of ashes, according to a 2006 article in Wired, prices may have gone up since). I think I’ll pass. If Neil Armstrong’s ashes aren’t traveling into space, I see no reason why mine should.
DIY or die
Okay, so you can’t let corpses decompose on your lawn thanks to that rule about refrigeration, but (depending on where you live) you may be able to bury them on your property. That’s right. Home burial is an option in some locations, particularly rural ones. You’ll have to check with the local authorities to find out if your property qualifies (remember, buried bodies need to be a safe distance from water sources) and get all the necessary approvals. Make sure you don’t skip that last part. Alabama resident James Davis is currently in a legal battle to decide whether he can keep the remains of his wife buried in his yard. Interestingly, the county health department found no issues with the burial site, but the City Counsel rejected Davis’ request due to concerns about property values and disturbing neighbors (it’s a residential, not rural, area). In any event, it sounds like a colossal drag. Don’t let this happen to you.
Even if you prefer to have the body taken elsewhere afterward, you can still try for a home funeral. This means you pick up the body and do all the ceremonial parts at home and then deliver it to a cemetery or crematory only for the final step. It’s potentially far less expensive than going through a funeral home and, by some accounts, being actively involved in preparing the body of a loved one for burial or cremation can provide a better sense of connection and closure. Displaying a corpse in your living room may sound weird and morbid to modern sensibilities, but not so long ago home funerals were how everyone did it.
As with home burial, this needs to be run by your local government before getting started. Certain states require the involvement of a funeral director at some stage of the process.
Final resting place
So what’s the best way to dispose of a dead body? In researching this article I came to the conclusion that there isn’t one perfect solution to that question. (I used to think cremation was the way to go, now I’m not so sure). I’ve focused a lot on environmental factors because that’s my greatest concern in the matter, but even with that in mind there isn’t a clear best choice. The point is you have options. Boy, do you have options. And there are even more out there that I didn’t have time to cover. So choose carefully. Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only live once. From which it stands to reason that you only die once.
* FYI, typing word combinations like “bacteria specific to corpses” into Google will route you to a wealth of icky urban legends regarding necrophilia. Consider yourself warned.
† Embalming fluid gained popularity during the civil war as it facilitated shipping bodies of dead soldiers home. For corpses just travelling from the mortuary to the graveyard, embalming is not necessary. Refrigeration is sufficient to slow decay prior to burial.
‡ There was some speculation that mercury poisoning led to Ray Marsh’s pathologically passive method of cadaver disposal at the Tri-State Crematory.
As a child, Alex Reshanov was told by grown-ups that she should consider becoming a lawyer (tendency to argue) or a comedian (frequent joking), so naturally she opted for science writing. In 2010, she started a personal blog, Blogus scientificus, as an outlet for her diverse scientific interests, random pop culture trivia and various phobias. Many of her posts have been published at EarthSky.