Sustainability Showdown: Sustainability is an issue after death

Rachel Li/Daily Trojan

Eight years ago today, my dad was killed in a car accident.

While my life has changed in innumerable, inexplicable ways, one of the biggest changes is that I’ve become much more aware. Aware of my limited time on Earth. Aware of the beauty of our planet. Aware of my impact on this pale blue dot.

Every day, I think about how to live the most sustainable life. I think about how my minute choices will impact the world beyond what I see up close. I spend embarrassingly large amounts of time researching the smallest things, trying to make sure I’m limiting my carbon footprint as much as possible.

But the solution for sustainable death is up in the air. It’s hard to find the sustainable option for your body once you’re done using it — traditional burial, cremation, some magical third solution — are all up in the air.

Traditional burial is incredibly harmful to the environment. Before burial, the body is embalmed — drained of any fluids and filled with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, which are used to preserve the body and keep it looking “life-like” for open-casket ceremonies. Most bodies are embalmed, regardless of whether or not the family plans to have an open-casket funeral.

Traditional caskets are made of thick, impermeable wood and metal rendering themnearly impossible for to properly decompose. Traditional cemeteries require a reinforced concrete vault around the casket to aid with the weight of heavy lawnmowers used to keep cemetery grass uniform. The grass requires large amounts of water, and cemeteries often use pesticides to keep it green.

When the body does decompose, the toxic embalming fluid goes with it. A study published in the Berkeley Planning Journal found that over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, primarily formaldehyde, soak into the soil every year in the U.S.

Cremation is not exactly a greener alternative — it uses fossil fuels to incinerate the body. Bodies are burned for two to three hours, releasing hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. Dental fillings are also melted, releasing toxic mercury emissions as well, unless the crematory has a filter on its chimney.

But cremation is becoming more and more popular in this country. The number of people who are cremated has risen from 40 percent to 47 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. And it’s only projected to become more popular in the coming years.

Cremation is usually a less expensive alternative to the traditional burial, which could factor into its growing popularity.

But when it comes down to it, neither traditional burial nor cremation is exactly great for the environment. Despite these common options, burial doesn’t have to be unsustainable.

The “green burial” is an increasingly popular option. In a “green burial,” the body is not embalmed. It is buried in a biodegradable casket, made of wicker, seagrass or another natural material. The body can also be shrouded in a cloth made of organic material and buried without a casket of any kind.

Green burials are becoming more popular, possibly due to the growing awareness of our collective impact on the planet. Jim Olsen, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, said he doesn’t like to call it a trend.

“It’s really nothing new,” Olsen told the Daily Trojan. “It’s simply just going back to the way that they’ve done it for thousands of years — hundreds of thousands of years.”

While green burials are a more environmentally conscious option, they are also a better option for the family, said Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that sets a standard for what is considered a “green” or “natural” burial and holds providers to that standard.

“They come to us grief-stricken, rightfully so, and they leave with smiles on their faces, and that’s a really strange phenomenon,” Bixby told the Daily Trojan. “But, it’s not in the sense that if you could care for your dead as you would care for them in life … It’s a very different experience because that’s really all you want to do is give them what you feel is best. And being part of that, being hands on is life-changing.”

Green burials are better for the Earth and can be better for grieving families.

The most sustainable option for your body is to allow it to return to the earth. From the earth we rise, and to it we shall return.

Katherine Wiles is a senior writing about environmentalism and sustainability. Her column, “Sustainability Showdown,” runs every other Wednesday.