The first dead body I ever saw was my grandmother’s.
She passed away after years of suffering caused by a stroke while another one would eventually end her life. I remember her as vibrant and truly devoted to her family, but lying in her oversized casket, she looked small and sickly. Gone was the glow of her complexion. Instead of being bright, she was practically jaundiced. Her skin unnaturally stretched against her face, distorting her features. This wasn't the woman I knew. It wasn't even the woman I remembered in the hospital on her deathbed. This was a grotesque parody of my grandmother.
My grandmother received a traditional western funeral. She was embalmed, placed in a large wooden and metal casket, and buried in a way that would prevent decomposition. This type of funeral is extremely common throughout the United States. However, there are far more burial options that get passed over in conversations about mourning. These alternative burial practices have gained more attention as part of a growing “Death Positive” movement--an intersection between death practices and environmental concerns. The movement seeks to provide sustainable choices for burial and mourning practices, while also providing ethical service to both the deceased and their family.
The typical American funeral has many detriments. For one, embalming chemicals are both incredibly toxic and used in every part of the United States. The main ingredient in a lot of mixtures is formaldehyde, a known cancer-causing agent. When these embalming fluids are buried, they can leach into groundwater supplies and pollute the environment around them. Furthermore, non-biodegradable caskets, made of polished woods and metals, hinder the natural decomposition process. These materials keep their contents sheltered from the conditions that would allow a body to naturally decompose. All of this takes a huge ecological toll, especially when it is done on as wide a scale as it is in the modern funeral industry. According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2017 report on American funeral trends, about 43.5 percent of Americans opted for burial that year.
The funeral industry itself can be incredibly problematic. When grieving families come in, a reputable funeral home will give them options in a low-pressure environment to try to make the process as easy on the family as possible. However, many formerly family-run homes being taken over by corporate funeral homes, and many of these are under pressure to make sales quotas. United States law prohibits funeral homes from outright lying, but it is not uncommon for salesmen to do so anyway. Two of the most common lies they tell are that embalming is necessary for the safety of body viewing and that it is illegal to view a body without it being embalmed. Both of these lies are designed to make people purchase more expensive funeral packages. Some of these cheaper options often omitted include at-home viewings, cremations in alternative containers, and burial without embalming.
It is important to understand all of these options before you or a loved one pass away. Though there are many ways to legally deal with a corpse, I propose three here.
The first method is the second most common when it comes to funeral arrangements: traditional cremation. This involves a specialized machine that burns the body at an extremely high temperature for about three hours. After the process, all that is left are bone fragments and dust, which then get fully pulverized into a homogeneous powder. That powder is then given back to the family to bury, keep in an urn, or scatter. The downsides to cremation are the amount of energy it takes to cremate the body and the number of gaseous emissions. A single body can release 573 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The second method will yield the same style of remains as traditional cremation. This process is called alkaline hydrolysis. The body is submerged in a mixture of water and chemicals that over the course of three hours force the body to undergo rapid decomposition. The same white inorganic material is left over, the liquid is discarded, and the remains are pulverized and given back to the family. The benefits to this procedure over traditional cremation is a lower carbon footprint and less energy expended. However, this process is only legal in 16 states, including California, Florida, and Michigan, so far and thus not always available.
The third process, natural burial, has the lowest ecological impact. The body is dressed in either a shroud or organic clothing and buried in a biodegradable casket. These caskets are made out of wicker, bamboo, or another material that will inevitably give way to natural processes. Once the covering on the body has degraded, nature is free to return the corpse to the circle of life. This process is legal in all states; however, it still requires the normal amount of legal paperwork and a regulated burial spot, of course. A funeral director can help with the legal planning for this method.
Ultimately, the choice of what to do with the body postmortem is up to the person who died. It is a fantastic idea to make a simple death plan early, in case of an accident, and to articulate your wishes to the people who would be helping make those plans a reality. After my own experience with the traditional American burial process and the horror of seeing my loved one in that state, I was compelled to ponder the alternatives.
Death positivity at its heart is about having a variety of options for caring for the remains and the knowledge to help make the right decision. For more information on death positivity, the website theorderofthegooddeath.com contains articles and resources compiled by death industry workers to help the public.