When Phil Olson was 20, he earned money in the family business by draining the blood from corpses. Using a long metal instrument, he sucked the fluid out of the organs, and pumped the empty space and the arteries full of three gallons of toxic embalming fluid. This process drains the corpse of nutrients and prevents it from being eaten by bacteria, at least until it’s put into the ground. Feebly encased in a few pounds of metal and wood, it wasn’t long until all the fluid and guts just leaked back out.
Most of the bodies Olson prepared in his family’s funeral home would then be buried in traditional cemeteries, below a lawn of grass that must be mowed, watered, sprayed with pesticides, and used for nothing else, theoretically until the end of time.
Cemeteries “are kind of like landfills for dead bodies,” says Olson. Today,
as a philosopher at Virginia Tech
, his work looks at the alternatives to traditional funeral practices. He has a lot to think about: The environmentally friendly funeral industry is booming, as people begin to consider the impacts their bodies might have once they’re dead. Each year, a million pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are put in the ground to shield dead bodies from the dirt that surrounds them. A single cremation requires about two SUV tanks worth of fuel. As people become increasingly concerned with the environment, many of them are starting to seek out ways to minimize the impact their body has once they’re done using it.
There all kinds of green practices and products available these days on the so-called “death care” market. So many, in fact, that in 2005 Joe Sehee founded the
Green Burial Council
—a non-profit that keeps tabs on the green funeral industry, offering certifications for products and cemeteries. Sehee saw a need to prevent meaningless greenwashing in the green burial world. “It is a social movement. It’s also a business opportunity,” he said. So what’s the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body? It all depends on your preferences.
For those who still want to be be buried, a greener approach may include switching out the standard embalming fluids made of a combination of formaldehyde and rubbing alcohol, with ones made of essential oils. And instead of a heavy wood and metal box that will take years to degrade and leave behind toxic residue, there are now Green Burial Council-certified biodegradable cedar caskets.
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