Going green is about to get deadly. Strap into your seat and get ready to learn all about the art of dying sustainably. Hear me out, this will be hauntingly interesting stuff!

So I recently came across an intriguing article entitled “Planning for the Disposal of the Dead” in a journal issue of the American Planning Association. The premise of the paper was that geographic locations of living populations have historically been of interest to scholars, academics, and the public; however, with increasing scarcity of developable land and rising land costs, geographic locations of the buried dead are becoming of interest as well. As urban sprawl claims land, providing acres and acres of new cemeteries each year will not be feasible. Furthermore, relocating cemeteries for the sake of development rapidly eats up land and is costly in both time and money.

In order to limit future environmental degradation, unnecessary economic loss, and ensure healthy living for future generations, we must accept several logical truths. We know as the global population increases exponentially more land will be developed and more deaths will occur. We know this increase in urbanization will coincide with an increase in demand and consequently a decrease in availability of natural resources such as land, groundwater and prime farmland. We know that traditions and beliefs have historically prevented and continue to prevent the majority of the human race from maintaining a cyclical turnover from death to new life. We know that oxygen is crucial for quick decomposition, yet a common burial 6 feet below the surface is well out of oxygen’s reach. We must consider all of these truths if we are to effectively and sustainably plan for current and future generations.

Like Band-Aids, burial sites in North America can conceal festering problems. Traditional embalming and other preservation practices utilize toxic chemicals and expensive materials to hermetically seal each dead body. As a result, these methods compromise the environment by inundating the soil and ground water that is inundated with heavy metals and noxious chemicals from each casket and body as they slowly, weather, oxidize, and decompose. In this way, conventional practices essentially ensure single use of each burial site.

Death is a commonality amongst our world’s diversity of traditions, religions, and beliefs. Mortality is a certainty. Insects, flowers, trees, sea turtles, and oysters know this well and they counteract by producing tens, thousands, even millions of offspring in the hopes that even a few will survive. Life is a gamble but death is certain. Thus, in order to properly plan for the health and prosperity of the living, we must plan for the dead. In order to ensure that the “circle of life” does not become compromised we must reconnect death with life while maintaining, protecting and improving ecosystem fitness.

Cremation was one of the burial methods suggested in the article, as a means to save space and conserve our resources. A common practice since its modern debut in the 1880s, cremation appeals to a wide variety of people because it is simple, convenient and relatively inexpensive ($1000 or less compared to $6500 for a traditional burial in the United States.) Additionally, reducing a body to ashes increases disposal possibilities. Ashes can be scattered at a favorite site, in a garden, at sea, buried in a urn, or placed in a columbaria (above ground burial vaults,) to name a few. The use of columbaria encourages a greater density of interred bodies and in turn reduces future needs for land, which saves money and space. But does it bring death to new organic life?

Despite cremation’s growth in popularity, the practice still falls short of connecting death with life. Plants transform sunlight into sugars and carbohydrates, which are translated vertically through the food chain as organisms feed on one another. Whenever someone succumbs to death, microbes and fungi mine the body’s nutrients making them available for plants to use in conjunction with sunlight to start the process over again. It’s a cyclical process. Cremation chops out the nutrient recycling, effectively linearizing the process. Cremation volatilizes the majority of our bodies’ nutrients, rendering them unavailable for further microbial biodegradation. In addition, each cremation takes roughly 2 hours, requires several gallons of fossil fuels, and emits mercury, which cannot be completely filtered out by expensive carbon scrubbers.

Despite many adverse affects, crematoriums do produce energy. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden have recognized this and now recycle heat produced during cremations by directing it into local heating networks. Doing so eliminates the need for expensive water towers to cool 2,000+ 0F gases down to 250 0F before being discharged into the atmosphere.

One method that I’m surprised the planning article never mentioned is Promession. I heard about the seemingly science fiction method years earlier, but never perused the Internet for it until I began writing this post. Promession, derived from the Italian word for “promise” (promessa), is the product of Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who is a biologist and founder of Promessa Organic. She pondered the idea of an ecological burial for 20 years over before she felt it was ready for presentation.

“The principles of Promessa are to combine biological knowledge with a dignified and ethical way of being remembered by ones next of kin. Promessa has two primary principles, one being preservation after death in an organic form and the second is to give new life by converting us to compost as a result of being buried in the living top soil.

We should try to adopt a more natural approach to our life and our death. Today’s burial traditions conceal reality from people and do not allow them to feel secure in the fact that death is essential to new life.”

Promession effectively brings death to new life without adversely affecting any part of the natural environment. By using liquid nitrogen and purified water, which are both produced on site, Promessa doesn’t have to worry about producing any harmful emissions (such as mercury vapor from dental fillings) because N2 and water vapor naturally exist in the atmosphere. Furthermore, Promessa sources its nitrogen from the oxygen industry (think medical and scuba tanks) where it is a waste product. Although cooling nitrogen to its liquid state is expensive and requires a lot of energy, it is less environmentally hazardous than using fossil fuel alternatives. The process involves flash freezing, liquid nitrogen dunking and disintegration by sound waves to produce ashes that are void of all toxins, yet still retain all natural and essential nutrients required for new growth. By placing these remains in a biodegradable coffin and burying within the 6-12 inches of living topsoil, rapid decomposition will ensue and nourish the surrounding landscape. How sweet is that!

The final suggestion outlined in “Planning for the Disposal of the Dead” was for cemeteries to create or adopt open gate policies. Doing so would encourage multi-use activities such as film screenings, jogging, walking, and biking, which could help seamlessly integrate existing cemeteries into communities and landscapes. On the other hand, most Americans consider burial sites and graveyards as single use and to recreate in them is taboo. But without mixed or varied use the expansion of these sites and the creation of new ones will effectively freeze public access to many acres.

We must retrofit the death industry so that its actions not only benefit the dead but also contribute to the prosperity of the living. We must begin to plan for not only traditionally and aesthetically pleasing ways of disposing our dead but doing so in an environmentally responsible way. Rising public awareness of environmental issues has ignited concern over the traditional processes of embalming and other preservation techniques. Therefore, to be truly effective, accommodations of the dead should comply with existing land uses, provide public space, protect the environment, and promote economic and social development for the living. If communities across the United States want to conserve social, cultural, environmental, and economic systems, they must recognize and address the threat of an increasing elderly population before they can rethink and revamp the traditional industry of death. Ultimately, resource intensive burial options that degrade the environment and squander land should be regulated despite tradition.


About Michael Petesch

Michael is a collaborative writer with Metro Hippie. In addition to pursuing a masters degree in Urban Planning at the University of MN, Michael bikes year round, is an avid omnivore, is easily distracted by bright colors and is often guided by ephemeral passions for human powered transportation and DIY projects.