Looking Beyond the Grave: Sustainability and Death

Sustainabilty and… death?

Burial and sustainability are two concepts that seem quite removed from each other. After all, death will effectively remove us from drawing on resources… right? Well, as it turns out… not really! According to the Population Reference Bureau, a grand total of 117 billion human beings have ever lived on our planet. If you calculate average grave plots, that sheer mass of humanity would equate to an area which would cover about half of the EU. Traditional burial in a plot, therefore, is not a sustainable solution for the treatment of the dead. As a matter of fact, warnings about the decreasing availability of cemetery space have been appearing for about a decade.

Death is one of life’s great certainties, which begs the question; has dealing with the dead always been unsustainable? Let’s start by looking at treatment of a body immediately after death. Today, the removal and storage of human remains is regulated by law in many parts of the world (e.g., Britain’s Human Tissue Act of 2004). In the past, the preparation and removal of human bodies was mandated through cultural tradition. Deuteronomy 21:23 instructs us that burial should take place “on the same day.” Why? A body begins to decay immediately after death, which can pose a health risk if not handled appropriately. In this way, the removal of human remains can literally be the difference between life and death.

When was the first burial?

But when were people first aware of this? Recent work near to Johannesburg, South Africa suggests that the first potential removal of the dead for deliberate burial may date from as early as 335,000 years ago. Two burials at Rising Star Cave have been accredited to Homo naledi, an early human ancestor. However, it seems that burial of the dead is not a behaviour that is unique to hominids. Highly social animals, like elephants, chimpanzees and bees also exhibit corpse management behaviour, including some form of ‘burial’.

How long has there been a connection between burial, expense and sustainability?

Nevertheless, humans seem to be the only species whose dealings with the dead have evolved beyond sustaining the surviving community into the realm of social commentary. For example, any archaeologist or historian will tell you that there is often a 1:1 relationship between the effort or expense of funerary treatment and status. Consider the fact that prehistoric Europeans—who depended mostly upon farming for their livelihoods—used the most fertile topsoil in the construction of the mounds under which they entombed their leaders. This effectively curtailed the availability of a crucial resource for those who survived the individual being interred. Was this sustainable? Certainly not!

Slow cremations

However, there were also some ingenious historical means of dealing with the dead which were ahead of the sustainability curve. One of these is Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, Louisiana (USA), whose founding was contemporary with the French Revolution. Here’s the interesting bit about Cemetery No. 1: it actually isn’t a cemetery… at least not in the traditional sense. Because of New Orleans’ high water table, the coffins that had been interred in previous local cemeteries would float up every time the ground got a little too wet (and, as the city actually lies below sea level, it got wet often). With the rains returned the recently departed which resulted in two things: 1) the city’s now legendary association with the occult and 2) the family mausoleums of Cemetery No. 1 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, LA, USA. Photo © Robert Staniuk, used here with permission.


Early inhabitants of New Orleans populated Cemetery No. 1 not with burial plots, but rather with domed white mausoleums (one per family) which functioned as slow crematoria and remain in use to this day. According to tradition, a body is placed in the top of a (typically) two-layer mausoleum for a year and a day. Due to the pervasive heat of the American South, in that time, the corpse is reduced to ash and dust. Then, the remains are manually crushed and placed into the bottom layer of the mausoleum (the vault), where they mingle with those who have gone before. Even today, inclusion in one of these family vaults is still so desirable that it is often negotiated as part of a pre-nuptial agreement when ‘outsiders’ marry into a mausoleum-holding family. So, ‘til death do us part’ may or may not hold true in New Orleans… depending on how well you impress prospective in-laws.

Raise up your dead

Elsewhere, others found different solutions. The now extinct volcanic island of Bermuda is smaller than San Marino and lies a few hours’ flight from the US coast. “The Rock” (as it is known by locals) only became known to the wider world after Shakespeare’s The Tempest dramatized the wreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda’s soon-to-be-famous reefs. Being removed from the nearest large landmass and having only a small amount of arable land made corpse management a particular problem for the first settlers. However, early Bermudians soon found necessity to be the mother of innovation; rather than cutting tombs into the island’s bedrock, they raised them up instead. Upon death, individuals were buried in sequential “floors” of familial towers (see Figure 2). In this way, each generation was entombed upon the one that came before, thus freeing up land for much-needed agricultural endeavours.

Figure 2. Tucker family tomb in Paget, Bermuda. Photo © Theresa Airey, used here with permission.


Why current practices cannot continue

Unfortunately, even if we put the issue of cemetery plots aside, it seems that current burial practices are a far cry from those in the past. Yearly estimates suggest that traditional burials put enough embalming fluid to fill an Olympic swimming pool, enough hardwood to build more than 1000 homes and the weight equivalent of almost 250,000 elephants in steel, reinforced concrete, copper and bronze into US soils alone. From these figures, it is easy to imagine that cremation may be the more responsible option. However, as further research later discovered, each cremation releases about the same amount of mercury as was contained in one of the old quicksilver thermometers, 75% of which goes into the air and the remainder settles into the ground and water. Moreover, the energy used to cremate someone is roughly equivalent to a single person’s domestic consumption of gas and electricity for an entire month.

The sustainable future of dealing with death

It is clear, therefore, that the environmental costs of what is today considered a ‘traditional’ Western funeral have gone far beyond our ability to sustain them.  Native American Chief Seattle is known to have said “we did not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” A sustainable burial may be the last gift we can give. The best lesson the past can give us about the future of burial is to pay that gift forward. For this reason, we may wish consider the pared-down un-embalmed funerary treatments known as ‘green’, ‘natural’ or ‘eco’ burials (which involve easily degradable materials and pollution management of affected soils) or the ‘aquamations’ (water cremations) that are currently gaining traction. In so doing, we would look beyond the grave to the people who survive us.

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Samantha Scott Reiter


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