The New York Times published an article in December of 2022 that discussed the carbon emissions for composting bodies [“If You Want to Give Back to Nature, Give your Body” by Caitlyn Doughty]. The article reported the claim made by the natural organic reduction (NOR) company, Recompose, that they release only 20 Kg of CO2per body. The article said that each composting will save 1 metric ton of CO2 emissions.
Articles like this have put the spotlight on various methods of disposition that are being touted as green burial. Not only are they not green burial (full body earth disposition without impediment), there are some alarming carbon reduction claims—case in point—that require careful examination. Let’s start with the basic question we should be asking: What is the real carbon footprint of central-facility body composting and how does it compare to conservation burial?
Fear of water contamination is as old as human civilization. “Poisoning the well” goes back to antiquity as a war tactic to deprive their enemies of water. In the era before we understood the science of infectious disease, the public assumed illnesses like the Black Death were caused by Jews, lepers and witches (insert any marginalized, scapegoated people of choice here) contaminating wells, springs and streams. Nothing like hanging someone with Hansen’s disease to nip a flea-spread plague in the bud.
As natural burial begins at last to take hold in the US, we must turn our attention to exploring the origins of conservation and our intentions toward developing future spaces with integrity. Not that we have been ignorant to issues of social, racial, and religious justice—in fact, equal access and particular attention to cultural norms have been at the heart of our work at Ramsey Creek Preserve since its inception in 1998.
I need to go back to a post I put up a couple of years ago on green burial options that are not ready for prime time, or that are ill conceived. In my 2nd blog post, from April 2016 (Part 2 of Green Burial Innovations), I was critical of the hype around BiosUrns and Incube and was subsequently censored. Here is the story.
The Weak Go Extinct, the Strong Will Prosper. Does “Natural” or “Native” Mean Anything?: The Contrarians, Part 1
Western science has a tradition of the heroic contrarian who is proved right: Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin come to mind. In his “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962), Thomas Kuhn explored how and why these radical shifts occur. Another more recent “tradition” is the contrarian-science book that is more about political advocacy and book sales than it is about exploring scientific discrepancies. In the past 20 years, contrarians published scores of books aimed at mainstream medicine (most recently against vaccines), and climate science. As Carl Sagan once said, yes, “they” laughed at Columbus and the Wright Brothers, but “they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” In the case of climate science, contrarians are even pushing the idea that increased CO2 will be an unmitigated good thing.
Now contrarians are taking on the idea of “invasive species” and ecological restoration.
One of Woody Allen’s running jokes in the movie "Sleeper" is the schlep who woke up 200 years into the future and discovered how many of our accepted medical and other scientific “facts” were upended. A similar thing is happening with invasive species and ecological restoration; a growing chorus is proclaiming that “novel ecosystems”—landscapes in some cases dominated by non-native, invasive species—are nothing to fear.
I guess I have always seen cemeteries as having very long lifespans. “Lifespan” might seem an odd attribute for a place so closely related to the dead, but it is apt. By “lifespan” I mean how long it can accommodate new burials before it reaches capacity, or in the terminology of cemeterians, uses up its “inventory”. In parts of the world, this is not an issue, as graves are re-used after a few years. When Hamlet is presented with a skull dug up in a graveyard, he says: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”, not “Holy crap, we must be in the wrong place, we dug up Yorick!”
Are Individual Graves and Conservation Burial Projects Even Practical?
In recent weeks I have heard back from a couple of readers who had the same concern: individual graves might be ideal, but physically and economically impractical, so first a quick word about land use and the economics of conservation burials compared to free-standing composting facilities, crematories, Resommation, and freeze-drying/pulverizing bodies. One widespread criticism of conservation burial is that conservation burial “wastes land”, and that even if it doesn’t, land near major metro areas is in short supply and will be prohibitively expensive. Consequently, we should look to hybrid cemeteries (existing cemeteries with a small green section), or go with ideas like Recompose (the former Urban Death Care Project) and create body-composting facilities, or other methods not so land dependent.
Hot and Dry, Cold and Wet, High and Dry, Bogs and Adipocere: Toward a Green Burial Taphonomy, Part 1
Taphonomy is the study of the fossilization process, but more generally is the study of the process of decay of remains and those factors that promote longer term preservation. Forensic taphonomy is the study of the decay of human remains. We need a conservation burial taphonomy: one that integrates landscape-level land protection and with burial services, while ensuring that the remains are recycled to nurture new life.
Why Mushroom Suits Won’t Work and How to Apply Forensic Taphonomy and Cemetery Studies to Make Green Graves One-Use Composting Machines: Green Burial Innovations, Part 3
I trust that artist Rhim Lee is a visionary and all around great person, but I was a bit surprised when her TED talk had almost 1.5 million views. She is a talented speaker, funny and full of energy; her “Great Idea Worth Spreading” is a “mushroom suit” that would help nature extract our nutrients after we die. She has recently launched a company that would use her proprietary fungus that she selected for being the best at breaking down her hair, fingernail clippings, etc.
Dr. Billy Campbell is the co-founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, with his wife, Kimberley. His informed perspective is deeply valued in the conservation burial community.