Sometimes it’s the heart that is last to go, a knot of dense muscle still recognizable after the other organs have long since vaporized. Sometimes non-combustible material is found among the remains — prosthetic implants, dental filling sand unretrieved jewellery, mingling with hinges and nails from the coffin. Two hours at 900°C is usually enough to reduce us to our bare essentials, the chemicals, gases and minerals from which we originated.
The human body is like that of any other creature, a biological cog in a cyclic enterprise of birth, death and rebirth. But the methods by which we inter our remains reflect our tendency to view death as a final state, an attitude manifested in our burial practices. We have come to face our natural demise in most unnatural ways, with the vast majority of us destined for one of two ends: a formaldehyde-infused corpse in a laminated coffin entombed in a cinder block vault, or a fiery evaporation into ash and nothingness.
The growing understanding of human impact on Earth’s climate, however, has brought about an awareness of our own place within the ecosystem, and an embracing of ourselves — not just our actions, but our very bodies — as an ecological factor rather than an exception. Rather than pre-serve our bodies artificially or seek to escape our natural end, we are beginning to realize we can extend Earth-friendly lives with Earth-friendly deaths. An entire industry is surfacing in North America focused on this end — burial practices that allow us to biodegrade as plants and animals have been doing naturally for millions of years, feeding the ecosystem, rather than poisoning it.
Beyond the fossil fuels consumed in the cremation process, the reduction of the human body to cinders releases a grab bag of pollutants into the atmosphere, ranging from chemicals to heavy metals to sulfur dioxide (a source of acid rain) and carbon monoxide (a contributor to global warming). Included in this long list are dioxin, a known carcinogen, and furan. Emissions of these toxic chemicals can only rise if cremation continues its pace as the send-off of choice.
Traditional funerals are hardly a better option. Manicured expanses of headstone-pocked grass — appearing as nature-friendly as a verdant prairie — conceal a toxic soup of formaldehyde and other preservatives and disinfectants from the embalming process, which is seeping into groundwater and contaminating the surrounding soil. Mortuary chemicals have been linked to increased rates of leukemia and other cancers.
No wonder, then, that the idea of natural burials is taking hold in North America. The movement promotes chemical-free burials in biodegradable containers to gently usher our bodies back into the ecosystem. Buried without embalming fluid, laminated wood, cement chambers, and sometimes even headstone markers, bodies disintegrate into flora- and fauna-dense surroundings, not only reducing the presence of chemical contamination and green-house gases, but providing nutrients for a healthy ecosystem. Though natural burials are offered as a service by some traditional cemeteries, there is a growing impetus for entire cemeteries built upon this concept.
Eco-friendly cemeteries, known as natural burial grounds, first appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, and have since sprung up in North America from New York to Texas. The movement in Canada is being spearheaded by the Ontario-based Natural Burial Co-operative.
Natural burial grounds do more than just reduce pollutants otherwise caused by cremation and traditional burials. Some eco-cemeteries function as wild spaces, marking graves with local rocks and flora rather than headstones, keeping track of burial plots through GPS locators. Rather than a chemical-dense, artificial landmark, people can visit family and friends in a wildlife preserve free of pesticides, herbicides and man-made materials, knowing that their deceased loved ones are nurturing a vibrant ecosystem.
Excerpted from CheckerSpot Magazine