By Patrick Taylor –
As of 2015 the world population sits at approximately 7.3 billion people, and is estimated to be 8 billion by the year 2024. This figure is staggering when considering it will have quintupled from the 2 billion documented in 1927. This increase in the global population has led to many crises and significant strain on the planet. Our ecological footprint does not stop at the grave, however. The ecological impact of a deceased human body, including how we as a society prepare and dispose of it, is exorbitant and unsustainable.
The Urban Death Project, founded by Katrina Spade as the thesis for her masters of architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst, is a modern, ecologically-driven, compost-based renewal system for the environmentally conscious burial. Through the use of crowd funding, Spade has raised over $91 thousand to further her research, demonstrating how truly important this project is to society. Some major US cities have also shown interest in adopting and constructing this project, including Los Angeles—a major metropolitan centre where an average 165 individuals die within the county limits each day, resulting in 60,000 bodies each year.
Dramatic increases in property value make space and associated burial costs increasingly expensive, and traditional burial with a headstone is becoming unrealistic for a large portion of the planet. In the United Kingdom, the average burial plot is currently priced at 3,900 pounds, with a projected 40 per cent growth. Other countries have already reached this dilemma; with spikes in population (and death) there is a burgeoning demand for space that is simply not available. The island nation of Singapore has placed restrictions on graves, meaning that a grave may only be occupied for up to 15 years. Though perhaps viewed as an apathetic approach to the burial of the dead, this reflects a growing fear and reality of our geographical restraints.
“Traditional Burial,” as it is called in the funeral industry, describes the process of embalming, making up, presenting, and burying a body in a lead-lined casket. The industry standard of only burying coffins if they are lead-lined to maintain the structure has no hygienic or safety reasons; all traditional cemeteries require it because unleaded coffins can result in uneven ground, causing difficulty with mowing the grass. This is an exceptional example of society putting ease over sustainability and safety.
Embalming is a harmful process for the body, the planet, and the professionals who perform the process. Embalming consists of draining all the fluid from a deceased body and replacing them with a formaldehyde compound to chemically preserve the body. This process leaves the body filled with hazardous material and heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and high levels of fluoride and other compounds accumulated over the lifespan.
One of such chemicals is besphenol A, more widely known as BPA—a material hardener and synthetic estrogen found in the lining of canned food and some plastics that has been found in 96 per cent of Americans above the age of six. Artist and avid practitioner of decompiculture, Jae Rhim Lee speaks of this and 219 other toxic pollutants found in the human body, comprising of pesticides, heavy metals, and other inorganic material—5,000 pounds of mercury is released into the atmosphere each year from the cremation of dental fillings alone.
Individuals such as Katrina Spade and Jae Rhim Lee have set out to create a new way of looking at death and dying, as well as preserving and protecting the earth.
Their work links closely with “decompiculture”—a term coined by Timothy Myles of the Urban Etymology Program at the University of Toronto. He describes it as followed:
“Decompiculture is the growing or culturing of decomposer organisms by humans. The term is intended to establish a contrast with the term agriculture. In effect, agriculture is human symbiosis with select organisms of the herb-herbivore-carnivore food chains comprising the live plant food web. Decompiculture, in contrast, is human symbiosis with organisms of the decomposer food chains comprising the dead plant-based, or plant cell wall-based detrital food web.”
“Decompinauts” (also coined by Myles) use this concept of human/organism symbiosis as the basis of their work. They are focused on discovering or engineering a simple and effective way to decompose bodies quickly with the aid of bacterium and plant-based detrital. The basic premise has already begun, with a larger awareness for the dangers of traditional burial and an emergence of more “natural” burial options.
Lee is creating an efficient and ecologically sound method of burial, the infinity mushroom. She is bioengineering a mushroom from a selection of other stains of fungi to manufacture a new strain specifically bred to decompose the human body and filter out the toxins. Lee has chosen to work with fungi because it is the only living organism to actively benefit from human remains. Though others have taken this model of burying a body with a plant to feed off it, continuing the circle of life, Lee said if a tree did in fact grow it would be in spite of the body, as the pollutants found in a corpse are detrimental to plant growth.
The future of the death movement is being pioneered by impassioned individuals and a tightly knit group of forward thinking outliers including Lee’s Decompiculture Society, and the inexhaustible work of Caitlin Doughty and her Order of the Good Death, which is spreading death positivity and informing the public about the reality of the funeral industry. Though mainstream society has been slow in accepting and adopting these alternate death practices, and governmental and private intervention has created legislative barriers, I firmly believe this is the future of death. With an increasing population and the current strains on the ecosystem, the future of death must be one of carbon neutrality and a green burial.
When once the custom was to create massive monuments and mausoleums to remind generations to come of their life and accomplishments, the focus is beginning to shift as we seek to return to nature and leave this planet without a trace. Memory Forests made of decomposing seedpods may be a romantic and cathartic expression, but the reality is more likely to be communal composting and human-eating mushrooms. Regardless of what comes to be, the future is one of ecological integrity and a more natural experience with death.
Patrick Taylor was born and raised in Williams Lake and now lives in Victoria where he is studying sociology and technology in society at UVic. His interest lies in our complicated relationship with death and dying, and the future of the death and funeral industry.