[Comment is free] Time for burial to die a death

Originally published in The Guardian.

Counsellors talk about “letting go” as the last phase of the mourning process, but before the bereaved can get there, they have the urgent problem of “getting rid”. Human bodies need to be disposed of, although not primarily for health reasons – corpses are surprisingly benign, according to the World Health Organisation. Funeral practices are about much more than hygiene. Dealing with the dead is a last tribute to their humanity; but there’s also a powerful element of disgust involved too.

Whatever the WHO says, there’s a deep and powerful conviction that corpses are unpleasant and probably hazardous, and that in turn seeps into a set of moral beliefs. From Frankenstein to Pet Sematary, meddling with the dead is the kind of supercharged taboo that fuels our worst nightmares. Which is probably why any change to the habitual methods of handling remains can feel like a shocking oddity at best, and an outrage against humanity at worst.

Two challengers to the habitual options of burial or burning have received some publicity of late. There’s resomation, in which soft tissues are dissolved into sterile liquid that can be released into the water supply, and the remaining bone ash presented to the family; and promession, a process of freeze-drying the body with liquid nitrogen and then shaking the desiccated corpse down to biodegradable dust that can be used to fertilise, say, a memorial tree if the mourners wish. Human smoothie or person, blood and bone meal. Neither is exactly the way I’d wish to resign my earthly form.

But then, nor is being pumped full of formaldehyde and sealed in a box with my eyes sewn up and then buried. Or pumped full of formaldehyde, sealed in a box with my eyes sewn up and cooked at 900º C. Which is why it’s so perplexing to read conservative journal National Review Online get itself into a tizz about promession and resomation, railing hysterically against “an ongoing and regressive attempt to impose a narrow conception of ‘sustainability’ on even our most private moments”. (Apparently GOP-types just love choice, as long it doesn’t have any potential benefits for the environment.)

In the same article, natural burial is dismissed as “what effectively amounts to composting”, as if a churchyard guarantees a more civilised form of decay. The smell of self-delusion is as ripe as a week-old corpse here – whatever the process, human bodies are ultimately going to end up as a selection of brownish fluids and bone bits, so why get more distressed about one means of physical obliteration than another? Is it because the fact of being new draws attention to the ends of these processes – the goopy, dusty ends – despite the sanitised, science-y names?

Even the gross-out detail about remains being released into the water system in the case of resomation is substantially less sinister when you remember that all corpses leach their way into circulation eventually. At least this way, the run-off is sterile. And our current means of discarding the dead simply aren’t adequate. Burial space in the UK is running out, for one thing, meaning that grave reuse will soon be needed to make room for all the bodies jostling for their place in the dirt; and cremation causes carbon emissions, as well as mercury pollution from burning fillings. Is breathing in scorched teeth really any nicer than sterile remains flowing through the sewers?

It’s time to stop hoarding the dead, treating cemeteries as the equivalent of a cupboard under the stairs for things we don’t need but can’t quite let go off, and dispose of bodies in ways that make them part of living soil and water again.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by GloomyCorp, used under Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “[Comment is free] Time for burial to die a death

  1. Only works in a secular republic of atheists or agnostics.

    Religious observance requires a specific and more respectful method for disposing of one’s physical remains, and with a very great majority of people in the UK adhering to some sort of religion with burial practices this idea – though efficient in itself – would not significantly alter the general practice.

    Perhaps if the CofE could be persuaded to support it, as they were with various other concessions, the practice in this country might begin to change.

  2. I really enjoyed your article. I am a founding member of Chicagoland Green Burial Society. We are trying to get green burials out here. As an Orthodox Christian with MDiv, I see green burial as just what we used to call burial. I think the sinister use of embalming is a way of playing on the fears most of us have of death, and that few I have encountered are willing to talk about the end game of their body. I like promession and hope we can have it here in the US soon.

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