Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Urban death project takes "earth to earth" literally

I was headed for Toronto recently when I drove past the cemetery and crematorium at Flesherton. I noticed, surprisingly, that there were several plain vans lined up at the entrance. I know there is construction going on there, but I could also conclude that because of the demand for cremation, the lineup was evidence that further cremation facilities may be needed in Grey Bruce.

I apologize if what I am about to write may be upsetting to readers. In fact, I would suggest that if discussion of the process of what happens to a human body after death is disturbing to you, that you move on to the next page in the newspaper.

The reason I want to raise this matter is that I recently heard about an interesting option being proposed for the treatment of human bodies after death.

The option is called human composting.

While the concept is still in the experimental stage, and with no human subjects yet tested, the concept is intended for urban areas where land is scarce and perhaps better utilised for other purposes than the burial of human remains.

The project, called the Urban Death Project, is the vision of an American architect, Katrina Spade.

She proposes that we erect a special building with a three-story core, within which bodies and high-carbon materials are placed. Unembalmed bodies are delivered to the building within a few hour of death. Loved ones then carry the remains to the top of the core, where the body is then laid to rest in high carbon materials.

According to the project’s web page, over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a rich compost.

The compost would be collected and then used to grow trees, flowers, and memorial gardens. It would not be used on food crops.

The foundational problem the Urban Death Projects is hoping to address is the huge amount of resources used in traditional burial and the relative scarcity of land in urban areas.

The project says that in the United States alone, 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel are used in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper are used in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are used to make vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid are used in the embalming process annually. Canada would probably use a proportional amount. Cremation, it says, is a less wasteful option, but it still emits 540 lbs of carbon dioxide per body into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

There is no legal requirement in Canada for a body to be embalmed, unless it is transported over a provincial border or international boundary. Embalming is, as one funeral director told me, “basically a public health process, where there may be extended time between death and funeral ritual.”

Does composting make a difference?

According to the Urban Death Project, “Compost  - organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer - supports and improves the soil, as well as reducing the need for the petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and additives that can do more harm than good. Composting is a way to take dead organic materials and give them new life.”

As interesting as this idea is, I remain doubtful.

I asked a couple of wise, long-retired farmers if they ever saw any evidence of increased growth on the ground where they had buried livestock who had died and could not be hauled away.

They said they saw no change in the land.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is the traditional way we say farewell to our deceased loved ones. I am not sure composting them adds much to those words or comforts our grief.