Commemoration of the dead and the environment: coffin or cremation for an eco-sustainable death?

Commemoration of the dead and the environment: coffin or cremation for an eco-sustainable death?
Commemoration of the dead and the environment: coffin or cremation for an eco-sustainable death?
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We all agree that humans need to reduce their impact on the environment. And while most of us think of this in terms of daily activities – like eating less meat or being cautious with water – this responsibility actually extends beyond life and into death. The world population is approaching eight billion e the amount of land available for human burial is running out, especially in small and densely populated countries. To minimize environmental impact, human bodies should return to nature as quickly as possible.

But the rate of decay in some of the more common traditional disposal methods is very slow. They can be it takes several decades for a body to decompose. In a unique study of its kind, carried out by Paola Magni and Edda Guareschi of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and published on The Conversation, an information site which collaborates with academics and researchers from all over the world, 408 human bodies exhumed from pits and stone tombs in northern Italy were analyzed to find out what conditions help accelerate decay. Here are some observations:

The environmental cost of traditional burials

Funeral rituals should respect the dead, close families and promote reaching the afterlife according to people’s beliefs. This looks different for different people. Although the Catholic Church has allowed cremation since 1963, it still prefers burials. Muslims should always be buried, while most Hindus are cremated. In Australia, however, the latest census revealed that nearly 40% of the population identifies as “non-religious”. This opens up more avenues for how to handle people’s bodies after death.

Cremation isn’t all that sustainable

Most traditional burial practices in industrialized countries have several long-lasting detrimental effects on the environment. Fragments of wood and metal in coffins and sarcophagi remain in the ground, releasing harmful chemicals through paints, preservatives and alloys. The chemicals used for embalming also remain in the soil and can contaminate the soil and waterways. Cremation also has a large carbon footprint. It requires many trees as fuel and produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, as well as toxic volatile compounds. There are several alternatives to traditional burials.

These include ‘water cremation’ or ‘risomation’ (in which the body is rapidly dissolved), human composting, mummification, cryonics (freezing and storage), space burials and even turning the body into trees or the ashes into diamonds or discs. vinyl. However, many of these alternatives are illegal, unavailable, expensive, or not aligned with people’s beliefs. The vast majority choose coffin burials and all countries accept this method. So the question of sustainable burials comes down to choosing from the many types of coffins available.

Decomposition in the different types of coffins and soils

The coffins range from traditional wooden, to cardboard, to natural made of willow, banana leaf or bamboo, which decompose faster. The most environmentally friendly choice is the one that allows the body to decompose and shrink to a skeleton quicklypossibly in a few years.

The research presented three key findings on conditions that promote the skeletonization of human bodies. First, he confirmed that the bodies disposed of in traditionally sealed tombs (where a coffin is placed within a stone space) may require more than 40 years to become skeletons. In these sealed graves, bacteria quickly consume oxygen in the stone space where the coffin is placed. This creates a microenvironment that favors an almost indefinite conservation of the body. It was also found that cemeteries with a high percentage of sand and gravel in the ground favor the decomposition and skeletonization of the bodies in less than ten years, even if they are in a coffin.


This is because this composition of the soil allows greater circulation of air and microfauna and a large drainage of water, all useful elements for the degradation of organic matter. Finally, the research confirmed previous suspicions about the slow decomposition of the buried bodies. It has been found that placing bodies inside stone tombs, or covering them with a stone slab on the ground, helps in the formation of cadaver wax (or ‘adipocere’). This substance is the final result of various chemical reactions through which the adipose (fat) tissues of the body are transformed into a “soapy” substance that is very resistant to further degradation. Having corpse wax slows down (if it doesn’t stop completely) the decomposition process.

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For an eco-sustainable death: the aired tomb

In the search for innovative funeral solutions, there was an opportunity to experiment with a new type of body disposal in one tomb called ‘aired tomb’. Over the past 20 years, aired graves have been developed in several European countries including France, Spain and Italy (where they have been marketed). They allow abundant ventilation, which in turn allows for a more hygienic and faster decomposition of the bodies compared to traditional tombs.

They have some noteworthy features: an activated carbon filter purifies the gases; the fluids are absorbed by two distinct biodegradable powders, one placed on the bottom of the coffin and the other in a collection tray under it; once the body has decomposed, the skeletal remains can be moved to an ossuary (a site where the skeletal remains are kept), while the tomb can be dismantled and most of its components potentially recycled.

The airy tombs are also cheaper than ordinary tombs and can be built from existing tombs. They would be simple to use and on average comply with public health and hygiene standards. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen to our bodies after we die. Maybe we should. Ultimately this may be one of our last major decisions, the implications of which extend to our precious planet.

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The article is in Italian

Tags: Commemoration dead environment coffin cremation ecosustainable death