Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Body Disposal.

Yesterday on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Mark Harris- author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2007). I haven't read the book, but I found the conversation enlightening. Harris argues the merits of eco-friendly burial, as oposed to the contemporary methods, which are expensive and harmful to the environment. Like many people, I tend to avoid thinking too much about my own demise and how my body should be disposed of. But I do see the value in thinking about this issue in broader social terms.

Frankly, some of the points Harris made in his discussion with Gross are fascinating. The average price of a basic funeral and burial is about $10,000. Money must be laid out for the death certificate, embalming, hairdressing, placing the deceased in the coffin, the coffin itself, the viewing, the funeral ceremony, the transportation of the body, digging the grave, the cemetary plot, and a headstone. Of course like anything else in our society, there are a variety of options available. For example, you can buy a simple wooden coffin or an indestructible copper one. And these are just the costs that apply to the family and/or friends of the dead.

Burial methods imply costs to society at large. Most obviously, cemetaries take up valuable real estate. This is a pet peeve of at least one of my friends who is obsessed with urban planning. They tend to break the flow of an otherwise dynamic community. In addition, the embalming and internment processes use an ordinate amount of resources that could be better used to serve the living. There are also polluting wastes that need to be disposed of, and much of it ends up in our sewers. And every container placed into the ground disrupts its ecology. For some reason people in the United States are particularly obsessed with permanence... and this means that the society's dead tend to linger in the ground.

I've never cared much what happens to my body once I'm dead. It's not like I'm going to have any use for it at that point. As far as I'm concerned, it will only really effect my loved ones. But I don't like the idea of being lowered into the ground preserved like a wax figure, and enclosed in an impenetrable box. I figured I'd just be cremated, and my ashes scattered in some wilderness. Cremation is certainly less expensive than burial. It has an effciency that attracts me. Yet Harris points out a drawback with the process. Apparently many baby-boomers (with their silver fillings) will be emitting mercury up the smokestack and into the air we breath. This residue settles onto the ground and gets into our water supply. Scientists are not sure about the extent of the problem... but it is a concern.

As Harris points out, there are alternative arrangements that can be made. There are now eco-friendly options, like biodegradable burials in a nature reserve. With a cardboard coffin it's not long before your body starts decomposing, and your remains get reintegrated into the next cycle of nature. Or if you prefer- your cremated remains can be mixed with concrete to make an artificial reef, which is then dropped into the ocean to create a fish habitat. These arrangements have the benefit of bequeathing one last act of selfless giving.

Finally, some states allow home burials... and others allow you to do it without any embalming. If you are a bit selfish, you may want to put the nutrients back in your own land to benefit your heirs. That solution includes simplicity without appealing to those damn hippy liberals! Make sure you check the state laws wherever you live first. If you need suggestions or hints, there is a wealth of true crime material detailing D.I.Y. methods. Why not consult the experts?


Blogger chillintanka said...

I love NPR!

I dont always get to listen to it, because I forget to download the podcast. :(

Anyways - so there has been TONS of press lately on Green Burials. They sound great, but here are my concerns.

1. Will these "green burial" grounds stay "green" after 40 years? Keep the same methods and practices?

2. Will any religions have issues with this type of burial?

3. Will my burial insurance company cover this type of burial?
http://www.onedollarglobeinsurance.com - is what I have

Great concept, just want to see what type of preparation it requires, thanks!

6:43 PM  
Blogger Rob Park said...

I heard the interview also. The mercury part also caught my attention. Pull those teeth out before cremation.

Is that a weird thing to do? It wasn't mentions on the radio nor in your blog. So I have to wonder whether am I being "morbid."

8:05 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Tough questions. I don't think anyone can really guarantee that a cemetary stays "green" for forty years. If it's not economically viable, then the land will be purchased and used for something else. But who's gonna want to dig those bodies out of the ground first?

I can't think of any reason why a particular religion would have a problem with a "green burial". But then again, there are a lot of different sects to consider.

No clue at all on insurance concerns. My guess is that if it's cheaper, then they will be OK with it.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I actually thought of that too. It seems the obvious quick fix. I've never seen a viewing where the deceased was showing his/her teeth. It shouldn't make a difference. Just slip a piece of wood in there and fill the gap, so the cheek doesn't cave in. Plus the survivors get a cute little relic of their loved one!

9:25 PM  
Blogger Dagrims said...

We cremated my dog two weekends ago, and made sure that his fillings were pulled to avoid the mercury issue.

Even if the deceased were showing his/her teeth at the viewing, I'm certain the upper and lower teeth would be touching each other, making it impossible to tell if any fillings or back teeth had been removed. Perhaps certain adult movie actresses would want their mouth wide open at a viewing (in memorium) but I can't think of anyone else who would.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Merge, thanks for raising this topic.

I hadn't heard or read anything about green burials, but will look into it.

Lately there have been discussions around here as to how we'd like to be disposed of after death. No, I'm not planning to go anywhere soon, just came up from something on tv. Among the topics have been donation of organs (seems to be a no-brainer, it's on my license...though I'm hoping my organs are nicely worn out by the time anyone cares to check my license), the impact of religious beliefs (I understand the Catholics have adopted cremation as an alternative...though I'm not Catholic, it's interesting, and it does affect my partner), bury or cremate (I'd want to be cremated), open or closed casket (my preference is closed, but I'd leave it up to my family), and the burial site itself (I've owned a couple of plots for about 30 years, but have some difficulty justifying using one of them for ashes alone). I'm pretty much of the mind that I don't care what happens to my body after I'm dead.

The Mr. Skeptic in me tells me that up to now the choices we've been able to make withing the "normal" societal parameters have been dictated to us by the funeral directors.

Speaking of funeral directors, have you watched Six Feet Under? I think it's a good show, having watched three episodes from Season One (the library has it). Alternating watching episodes of The Office and Six Feet Under makes for an interesting night of viewing.

As for Dagrims, how did you know to do that (have the mercury removed first)? Did the vet mention it, or had you known about it before (i.e.; planet ahead)? I'm just curious.

Also for Dagrims, you do have a wicked sense of humor. Not sure why, but something about your last comment makes me want to go out and rent the flic "Mercury Rising".

8:59 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

See.. I guess we have our answer.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Duly noted.... No, I haven't watched "Six Feet Under", though it's onmy radar screen as something I'd watch if I had a free opportunity.

PS: The last joke was terrible.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Dagrims said...

My wife and I watched pretty much every episode of the first three or four seasons of Six Feet Under. Then, for some reason, it got too weird for us and we stopped watching.

I really enjoyed the first few seasons.

9:21 PM  

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