March 23, 2023

By Arthur A Wisley….

With the memory of the recent Turkish earthquake and the tremendous loss of life, the following article is very thought-provoking.

There are hillsides in the Andean mountain range where the bodies of the dead are left. They are offerings to the Gods represented by the revered Andean Condors that eat the bodies of the dead.  Possibly this practice represents both a communion with the Gods and a form of reincarnation seen as these majestic birds soar upwards to the heavens. This method of human recycling benefits the birds and eliminates the need for an ever-expanding cemetery.

It seems to me that the culture around burial is wholly bizarre and has become a terrible waste of resources.  When someone or something dies what happens to its body of flesh and bones? Most people believe, the evidence being in front of their eyes, that if the thing is a cow, a turnip, or a chimp it rots away or is eaten by maggots, scavengers, or us. There is nothing else. It is the end. However, if the body is that of human many people believe, despite the evidence rotting away in front of their eyes, that there is something more. A soul perhaps, a spirit, a shade, an afterlife, or “just something” intangible which demands that the body be retained to preserve that mysterious thing. No surgeon or pathologist has ever found, in a body, any evidence of a soul or other organism that might survive death. The world is not teeming with the spirits of the 110 billion, or so, humans who have previously lived and died nor with the trillions of other dead creatures that share near identical DNA with us and so should share our ability to possess a soul.

If there is a “Something”, despite it being wholly intangible and invisible, should not believers recognise it as residing in the mind of the still living and forget about the now redundant carcass? If, in truth, there is no form of afterlife should we not adopt a culture that also aims to deal with the human feelings of bereavement whilst quickly disposing of the rapidly decomposing, smelly bodies without delay or waste?

A western-style burial is environmentally unfriendly, using up or wasting land, wood, steel, concrete, copper, and bronze. The decomposition of the interred body is slowed by decades preventing the early re-use of the burial plot. The remains can also poison the soil and possibly groundwater with embalming fluids. The bodily nutrients are effectively locked away and wasted. A Muslim burial is far better in nearly all respects; rapid and without coffins or embalming. Complete decomposition takes only a few years.

In earlier times bodies were buried in shallow graves. They quickly rotted to nothing and, after a few years, the bones were dug up and often placed in a charnel house or an ossuary or, possibly, put on a bon(e)fire. The grave plot could then be re-used. It seems that after the battle of Waterloo, the bodies of tens of thousands of killed soldiers were buried in mass graves. A few years later, all that remained were the bones that were retrieved by “entrepreneurs” and sent to England to be ground up for fertiliser or glue – maybe an unexpected further service unconsciously rendered by the soldiers for their country.

Above-ground burials, in mausoleums or columbaria, are environmentally extravagant, just like the Mausoleum itself or the Taj Mahal. Multi- storey “cemeteries”, such as the four-storey building containing burial niches at the Poggioreale cemetery in Naples, which collapsed recently exposing scores of coffins, are also built. The skeleton, or jar of ashes, inside these museums of death, can hardly be aware of its attempt to impress the living by strutting its marble stuff.

Cremations are an ancient form of disposal and are becoming ever more relevant given the lack of burial plots. On average a cremation emits about 200kg of CO2, some SO2 plus some mercury and dioxins. The human body contains only 15kg of carbon, on average, accounting for only about 45kg of CO2 when combusted! On balance, though, a cremation is better than a traditional burial but not by much.

The ancient Egyptians take the crown for wasteful and pointless funerals with their pyramids – even if not everyone had their own pyramid. The process of mummification was expensive but was of little benefit in any afterlife as most of the necessary internal organs and brains of the deceased, required for their onward journey, were carefully removed in the process.

Other ancient forms of disposal were and still are relevant and effective but underused. “Sky burials” such as the Andean ritual,  allow nature to take over the disposal of the dearly departed. The recycling of the body by carrion such as crows, eagles, foxes as well as insects and microbes of all types is both a food source and fertiliser. Once all the flesh has gone, through eating or decomposition, the bones themselves slowly break down. After a few years, the bones can be ploughed into the field adding more valuable nutrients. The benefits to the local environment don’t stop there as all the creatures and insects attracted to the site bring additional plant and animal diversity to the local biosphere. The micro-biome of the soil is also hugely enhanced. CO2 is absorbed in the process by plants and the soil itself. Possibly 2-2,500 bodies per acre could be dealt with in this way. Just a few acres per year could deal with all the annual dead of North Cyprus in a cycle of just a few years before its re-use.

A variant of a sky burial is the “woodland burial”. Here the body is shallowly buried and a suitable tree planted on top which, in due course, draws on the nutrients being released underground. Choosing the right tree or bush can bring an element of lightheartedness in the bereavement process… walnut for crazy Uncle Walter, Sycamore trees for a hypochondriac, an Ash tree for a smoker?

“Sea burials” have some of the benefits of sky burials although more complex to arrange. Ensuring bodies permanently sink to the bottom of the sea, taking their carbon with them, is an important consideration. Jaws would love to get his teeth into this potential problem.

Modern, low-ish impact, methods of body disposal include composting, dissolution in a weak alkaline solution, or promession – being frozen to about -200C and then, in this crispy state, ground into powder. In each case, the end product becomes useful fertiliser.

The grieving process affects the living not the dead. The undeniable pain of loss can, surely, be mitigated by modern methods. Memories of the deceased can be vividly and permanently recorded, recalled, and shared on phones, photo albums, and the internet. There is no need to have the annual pilgrimage to a grave, on a wet Sunday, clutching wilting flowers just to spend time with someone who is not there, except as a collection of unheeding mouldering bones 6 feet below. The dead person lives inside your head, wherever you are.

Why not record your own life’s story with a message designed to support those left behind? Arrange your sky or woodland burial as a happy event. These steps might reduce the burden of grief of those close to you and will mitigate the environmental damage caused by your life and death. Forget about building multi-story blocks or fancy graves which have no function other than to hold, until the Day of Judgement, expensive wooden boxes full of bones.


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