eco-death: bury, burn or compost?

From ABC Radio's Background Briefing
(Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Reporter: Ian Townsend

There's a boom in funerals around the corner as the Boomers face mortality, but neither cemeteries nor crematoria are eco-friendly. The business of burials is beginning to adapt, and so are their future customers.

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[excerpts from the transcript]

Ian Townsend: What began as a baby-boom after the Second World War is about to end with a 20-year boom for the funeral industry. The wave of deaths is going to sweep away many of the traditions we have about death and dying.

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Kevin Hartley's been in the funeral business for 25 years and earlier this year, he started White Knight Funerals. He's been burying people in biodegradable shrouds since January.

A few months ago he was on the ABC television program The New Inventors, with a coffin he invented called the 'Transporter'. Most State laws say you have to be taken to your grave in a coffin, but they don't say you have to be buried in one. Kevin Hartley's exploiting this loophole.

Kevin Hartley: I took in fact one of these bizarre, elaborate American coffins which I've got to say look fantastic, but they're made out of sheet metal, heavier than the average motor car, and we modified that so it has a trapdoor device in the bottom, through which at the end of the service the body slowly lowers under gravity, a lowering device, and over a period of a minute, ends up at rest in the bottom of the grave.

Ian Townsend: The Transporter, the body's lowered into the grave. That seems to satisfy a lot of people's I suppose ideas of what should happen.

Kevin Hartley: Look, it meets all the legal criteria for a start, but what I discovered when we first did this was the difference. And the difference is that these funerals feel different to any funeral I've ever been to, because there's zero pretense, and there's zero facade. What you're seeing is what you're getting, and I've said to you I think that the funeral industry is a bit of a facade. It's all just show for the day, whereas when you get to the end of a funeral and you're standing around that grave and you look down and there's a shrouded body there that you know is there, you know that's the relative, and as a lady said to me just very recently at a funeral, she went to say goodbye to her sister, and she said, 'And I really can say goodbye, because she's just there and I know it.'

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. . . when you think about it, if you bury a body in a medium-depth grave, not shallow, not six foot in the ground necessarily, you're burying it at a point where it will actually decompose naturally. Quite the contrary if you put a body in a plastic lined box where the decomposition naturally is limited by the barrier of the plastic, what in fact you get - and it's a terrible term - it's putrefaction, it's rotting. Because not only is it sealed in a box but at a six foot depth you're down through the zone where you're into an anaerobic area. So you've got a situation, I would suspect that from a health point of view or a bacteria point of view, you'd actually have a much worse problem sealed away in that six foot down plastic-lined one-room apartment under the ground, than you ever would by returning that body directly into the ground would it could decompose naturally.

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Ian Townsend: Kevin Hartley's been thinking about it since Christmas two years ago.

Kevin Hartley: That Christmas when I was asked this question, What are you going to do with yourself when you die, Kevin? OK, the choice of a natural earth burial was an emotional one for me because I'd run a crematorium, and without going into the details, I'd never be cremated, it's just unpleasant. It's violent, it's unnecessary. And I hate the idea of being buried in a box. I've seen the results and looked at the insides of coffins and thought, Wow, why would you put a person inside a plastic-lined box? They're not going to decompose. So I got to the idea of a natural earth burial via an emotional route. But once I get there, I then see the environmental benefit of it.

Ian Townsend: Presumably you were in a reasonably lucrative part of the industry where you had a crematorium. Why did you decide then to move over, was it all emotional, or is there a real niche here that you can make money out of?

Kevin Hartley: I can make a fair living out of this. This is a business; I've got to make a profit. I've got to pay people, pay the rent, make enough to eat food. The profit's got to be fair though. I know in some niches of the market it's possible to make five, six, eight, $10,000 straight profit on the sale of an elaborate coffin. That just simply doesn't wear well with me, personally.

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Ian Townsend: Around 100,000 bodies are cremated in Australia every year. We've become used to cremation. It all seemed quite practical and even environmentally sound. But now that we're prepared to put a price on carbon, it might not be so cheap.

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There are some very good reasons for embalming. If a body has to be sent interstate or overseas. But for preserving a body for the few days it takes to arrange a funeral, refrigeration's usually all that's needed.

The trouble with embalming is that burned or buried, the chemicals are polluting. The toxic formaldehyde that's still used here has been banned in Europe.

It used to be common for people when they died at home, to be left in a bed or in a front room, and the family would hold a vigil until the funeral was organized. It was practical then, because the people who made the coffins would undertake to collect the body and bury it, and so there was a day or two, or even three, between a death and a funeral.

The body wasn't embalmed, but that wasn't a problem if it was only for a day or so.

That tradition's gone, to be replaced by viewings at a funeral home.

While there are also good reasons for some people to view a body at a funeral home, Kevin Hartley says in many cases it's really not necessary.

Kevin Hartley: So much better to see that person in its familiar surroundings, like in a bed, than to see them presented, painted up, pumped full of chemicals and put into an austere coffin. I mean I've had people say that to me where I've met people after funerals, and one gentleman always stuck in my mind, this is years and years ago. I ran into him some months after the funeral. Obviously the funeral came up in the conversation, it was his mother's funeral, and he just said, 'I wish I'd never had that viewing'. I said, 'Why's that?' He said, 'Because it's the image that's in my mind, it's the last picture, seeing her in that damn coffin.' His exact words. And I've been mindful of that ever since.

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Ian Townsend: Professor Roger Short started out as a reproductive biologist and he's since gained a reputation for his studies of population control. He's now taking an interest in what happens at the end of life, and has become a convert to the idea of a natural earth burial.

Roger Short: Three years ago I had decided that I was definitely going to be cremated, and my ashes were going to be sprinkled from the highest mountain in the Inner Hebrides, a mountain called Halival in a south-westerly gale so that my ashes would be sprinkled over the rest of Scotland, and that made me feel really good. And now I realize that it was just infantile, childish and idiotic. No way would I make my last emission 150 kilograms of CO2 to contaminate the world. The best thing to do with your body, when you've died, is to commit it back to the earth and if you could plant some trees around your corpse, you're perfect blood and bonemeal, and you could generate a memorial forest because we've done some calculations which show that one tree will sequester from the atmosphere one tonne of carbon dioxide every 100 years of its life.

Ian Townsend: Worries about the environmental impact of disposing of all these dead people, whether buried or burned, is starting to test cemeteries and crematoria around the world. Kevin Hartley in Adelaide says he thinks it's curtains for cremation.

Kevin Hartley: When you think about it, this amuses me, I don't know if it amuses anyone else, but it's cheaper to cremate a body than it is to bury it. You think about that. You've got to put it in a coffin, you've got to take it to a specially built crematorium where they've got a furnace or a number of furnaces with maybe up to $250,000 each, you've got to pump fossil fuel into the furnace to raise it up to about 800-degrees C, you've got to have staff who are trained to do this. You've actually got to put the body through an industrial process of specialized fashion, deal with the ashes, and all of that costs less than to simply dig a hole and pop a person in it. That doesn't really seem sane.

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I tried to work this out when that thought came to me. Why is it cheaper to be cremated? And the simple answer is, it's being subsidized. It's being subsidized by cheap fossil fuel and by the environment.

Ian Townsend: Already in Europe, crematoria are being ordered to put filters, called wet scrubbers, on their chimneys to capture some of the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere. They can cost up to $1-million each, so cremation in Europe will simply cost more.

The attraction of cremation has been that it's cheaper than traditional burials. If the price goes up, people might not buy it.

So funeral directors are looking for something that's as convenient as cremation and as cheap. So far two methods are being considered, both macabre.

In one, the body is snap frozen in nitrogen and then shattered with sound waves, freeze dried and turned into dust. It's like cremation without burning.

The other method involves dissolving bodies in an alkaline solution, breaking them down into a calcium dust, which you can keep or scatter, and a liquid. It's been suggested that the 300 litres of liquid left over from the process be used as fertilizer.
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Ian Townsend: A lot of things are possible, but it's persuading people that this process is right for them, or at least getting people used to the idea, and even talking about death and decomposition and composting.

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It's the baby boomers who are going to want more private property burials and burials at sea, and natural earth burials. When it's their funeral, the choices they make will become the funeral traditions for the future.

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Around the world, what to do with the billion people who'll be dying in the next 20 years is going to test the funeral traditions of all countries.

The sheer weight of numbers is going to force change, whether we like it or not.

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