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 we learned from Covid, the dominance of rational discourse in a time of controversy and doubt is not always guaranteed, and sometimes the loudest and angriest people win, as in W.B. Keats’ cheery words from The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Water is a most precious resource, and when coupled with a cultural aversion to death processes and to science, it’s easy to see why some people make correlations and assumptions that have a lot to do with passionate intensity and little to do with facts.
What follows is what we do know from various studies concerning cemetery plume, how water works, how body decomposition works, and how they all relate to one another. Ramsey Creek Preserve has also served as our personal laboratory for discovery and is proof of the safety of water sources from human burials that eliminate the actual contaminants and polluting materials, such as embalming fluids, polyester fabrics, casket finishes and hardware, and other elements.
A CASE IN POINT
Water contamination fears are not unreasonable, although I will say right out of the gate that such burials do not present a significant public health concern. But in 2008, ‘concerns’ morphed into wild paranoia and speculation that ended in a law banning green burial in Bibb County, Georgia.
Elizabeth Collins had lost her son a couple of years earlier, and visited Ramsey Creek with the idea that she would open a project near Macon called the Summerland Natural Cemetery (SNC). Beth got publicity in a local paper where the reporter prominently featured her speculation about the sort of people who might be buried at Summerland. She thought that “tree-huggers, wiccans and other nature lovers” would be predominant. Those of us in conservation burial know that our client families are not all motivated greens nor members of tree-worshiping religious organizations, although they are welcome.
Unfortunately, the story was enough to stir up a rural Baptist Church not far from the property, whose members worried about naked pagans roaming the woods. One of the leaders in the church seized on water contamination as a way to stop the project.
The speculation about ground water contamination fed on itself with some in the community speculating that the 58-acre burial project could contaminate the entire Florida Aquifer that lies under 100,000 square miles of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. To put it into perspective, 58 acres is less than 1 millionth of 100,000 square miles. The aquifer is anywhere from 100 feet to several thousand feet deep, with an outflow of around 15 billion gallons per day. As a side note, a landfill sits between the church community and the proposed burial site but this hasn’t raised similar concerns.
Summerland had originally planned to provide under 2000 burial spaces to be occupied over a span of decades. As the controversy erupted, the owners tried to bargain, lowering the proposed number of burials to under 800. Keep in mind that contemporary cemeteries generally have more than 800 burials per acre, and the Summerland property is 58 acres. This would amount to a mere 14 burials per acre over decades.
Farms bury livestock, leaking septic tanks remain a problem in that part of Georgia, and the Ocmulgee River has a high fecal coliform count, but none of that had been noted as potential for water contamination. But the idea of natural burials caused Bibb County to take a stand.
The county passed a sweeping law banning green cemeteries, but then went further. It stated that all caskets must be leakproof, something that does not exist. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission forbids morticians from claiming their caskets are leakproof. This law also effectively banned new family cemeteries on private land, a tradition since settlement.
This also had the added twist of requiring that a funeral director be hired if the dead had succumbed to any infectious disease. So if granddaddy has cancer, but pneumonia was the final cause of death, the funeral director must be involved. I have yet to see a dead person coughing. I will even go out on a limb and say that if medical authorities release the body, the funeral director should not get veto power (particularly if he/she/they gets paid for the veto). When the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance sent a letter of protest with references to scientific studies, one of the commissioners allegedly said that he didn’t need a study, he would rely on his own “common sense”.
COMBATTING THE MYTHS OF TOXIC HUMAN BODIES
Shortly after opening Ramsey Creek, and before burying anyone, we had a piece run in the local paper about Ramsey Creek’s high fecal coliform level, based on a sample run that mostly related to cattle and chicken operations upstream. We urged landowners to keep cattle out of the stream and to be careful with farm roads and spreading animal manure. We got a call from a seemingly sweet older woman a few days later who asked if we were the ones who were calling for cleaning up Ramsey Creek. When I said yes, she screamed at me, “Well, stop what you’re doing! No one wants to drink your dead man soup!”
It's clear that the unreasonable—almost superstitious—fear of contamination by dead bodies is not limited to the under-educated in the rural south. The mushroom suit and the mushroom casket both claim to neutralize “toxins” lurking in dead humans. Millions of people saw the mushroom suit TED talk, most of them well-educated and, if you asked them, sophisticated. Google toxins in the human body and you will get dozens of hits related to de-toxifying your body with various diets and purgatives. The vast majority of people don’t have significant, dangerous levels of toxins in their bodies, and the liver and kidneys are pretty good at detoxifying without fancy diets or expensive supplements, if these work at all. If toxins were as deadly as some think, we would all be dead from them.
There are obvious exceptions, like lead. But even there, is it something we need to worry about with burial in a natural landscape? When I was a med student in Charleston, SC, we saw lots of kids with elevated lead levels, mainly from peeling lead paint. It was and is a serious toxin, causing brain damage, among other things. 90-95% of lead in the human body is deposited and sequestered in bone. The average 60-70 year old man might have as much as 200 mg of lead stored in his bones, a number that should decline over time as most of us in that age group were exposed to a lot more lead than kids today. To put this in perspective, a single 12-gage shotgun shell contains about 28 grams of lead, or about as much lead as in 140 older men’s bodies. The lead in the bones of those 140 older men will not be eaten by migrating waterfowl or eagles. The lead will stay in place for a very long time to come. And don’t forget, we still have natural detoxification with burial in the woods with all the mycorrhizae, native fungi, and adsorption by soils.
SO WHAT IS THE TRUTH ABOUT NATURAL BURIAL, GROUNDWATER AND HUMAN HEALTH?
The simple answer is that conservation burial is not going to release a plume of toxic bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, or anything else large enough and dense enough to affect drinking water or wildlife.
What do we know about toxins and infectious agents from burials? Quite a bit, actually.
In a review article from the Journal of Water and Health (Impact of Cemeteries on Groundwater Contamination by Bacteria and Viruses June, 2015), the authors note that the main issue is the leachate, the liquid purged from a decomposing body. Since we are mostly liquid, after death we produce .4-.6 liters of fluid per kg of body weight. In English measurement, the average 165 lb. body produces about 10 gallons of this material. 60% of that is water, 30% is various salts and compounds of various metals, and 10% organic substances.
Of the bacteria present in the human body, most accelerate decomposition and are not harmful. Of harmful bacteria and viruses, most cannot live outside the body for very long at all, including cholera, TB, HIV, and hepatitis C. Cholera remains live for less than 4 weeks. Even among those that can survive longer, almost all are gone in 2-3 years (Creely, quoted in Journal of Water and Health 2004).
The basic parameters that determine any possible harmful effects of burial are burial density and frequency, soil type, burial depth, depth of the water table, burial methods, and who drinks the water where.
Burial density is much lower in conservation burial grounds. In the old section of Ramsey Creek, we will have only 1500 whole body burials on the entire 33 acres we use for burials, as opposed to contemporary cemeteries that often have over 1000 burials per acre. So far, we have buried some 500-600 people (not counting cremated remains). I estimate that we have to worry about 250-500 gallons of leachate per year on the original 33 acres, or about 7.5-15 gallons per acre. While that might sound like a lot, remember that we also get about 1 million gallons of rain/acre/year, or about 78 million gallons for the entire preserve. The acreage in the watershed is many thousands of acres, or many billions of gallons of rainfall per year.
One mitigation technique we use is to line the bottom of the grave with absorptive organic material that wicks the leachate away from the body and sequesters much of it, making it readily available for microbial consumption and molecular mitigation. Some examples of absorptive biomass include dry sawdust, leaves, dried pine-needles, and other native plant foliage.
How quickly any remaining viable bacteria could theoretically get down to the ground water would also depend greatly on the type of soil. Clay particles are about 1/1000th the size of sand grains. Not surprisingly, water filters through this type of strata very slowly, giving the bacteria plenty of time to run its course and die before reaching water.
WHAT ABOUT HEAVY METALS?
Interestingly, water treatment plants generally use an industrial clay to adsorb some other toxins and metals. The smaller particles have a greater cumulative surface area than larger sand and gravel and are charged, meaning that they bind to many toxins.
At Ramsey Creek, we have red clay ultisols that are, in fact, pretty good adsorbers of lead and other heavy metals, depending on pH, temperature and length of exposure. We would expect these soils alone to adsorb up to 100% of lead before it reaches the groundwater far below. (Cadmium and Lead Adsorption Capacities of Nigerian Ultisols, Oluwasola, et. al., Oriental Journal of Chemistry, May 13, 2019).
In areas that have limestone, or access to crushed oyster shells, these materials also adsorb heavy metal ions (Adsorption Characteristics of Multi Metal Ions by Red Mud, Zeolite, Limestone and Oyster Shells, Shin, et.al.,Environmental Engineering Research, March 19, 2014). But the bottom line is that the average adult male body’s lead, mostly stored over a lifetime in the bone, is unlikely to get to Ramsey Creek in detectable levels.
Unless someone is drinking from a well drilled in the middle of the cemetery, the mere presence of low levels of pathogens in groundwater is irrelevant. The ground water must percolate down to a spring, where the groundwater flows out and into the water source. This process could take years, in which time almost all the bacteria and viruses would be long dead. Some of our burials are 200 feet above and a half mile away from Ramsey Creek.
Several studies have shown that contaminants do not go great distances, as quoted in the JWH article (Review of Human Decomposition Processes in Soil, Dent, et.al., 2004) whose findings revealed “low levels of bacteriological groundwater pollution in a moderate climate condition. Irrespective of the bedrock settings, most of the micro-organisms did not migrate deeper than 3 meters.” And only during prolonged rainy periods did they migrate a distance of more than 100 meters. Interestingly, Dent concluded that dry sands, anaerobic conditions, high temperatures, direct sunlight, and low pH all contributed to lower bacterial survival. So hot, dry, semi-deserts are not great places for bacterial survival. However, most authorities say that sandy and gravely soils close to the water table have a higher rate of bacterial leakage in wet climates.
The 100-meter distance has come up repeatedly in the literature. The possibility of clinically meaningful bacterial contamination of wells located more than 100 meters from a conservation burial project is nil.
Cobb Bridge Road where Ramsey Creek Preserve is located is on what the locals call “city water” and no one anywhere near us is dependent on well water. Westminster no longer gets its water from Ramsey Creek, it gets it from the Chauga River above the confluence with Ramsey Creek. The creek carries millions—probably billions—of gallons downstream each year.
And for the record, we are not producing dead man soup.
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.
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