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Are Green Burials an Ethical Good?

image of burial mound in field

Roughly 7000 years ago a group of hunter-gatherers in Chile began to mummify their dead. According to Helen Thompson, the evidence suggests that this change was locally driven rather than being introduced from elsewhere. In fact, this cultural practice may have been influenced by climate change, which has spurred other past cultural developments as well. With climate change now becoming a major concern, there are those who argue we now have good ethical reasons to rethink what we should do with the dead. Several new environmentally-friendly ways of dealing with the dead have developed in recent years and this raises a moral question about what we should be doing with dead bodies.

Generally, there are two ways dead bodies are commonly dealt with; they are either buried or they are cremated. Cremation has become far more popular over the last century, and in some countries it is the far more common method. In Canada, for instance, cremation occurs roughly 65% of the time. In the United States the rate of cremation is far lower (only 47%), but this is an increase from only 25% in 1999. One of the reasons cremation is a popular method is because it is fairly cost-effective. In especially populated regions the difference between the cost of a burial and the cost of cremation can be several thousands of dollars. Cremation can also be less wasteful since it doesn’t inherently require cemeteries, headstones, or concrete burial vaults.

However, arguments have made about the moral superiority of burial over cremation. In an article published in the journal The New Bioethics, Toni C. Saad argues that cremation deprives a local community of a shared memory of those who were once apart of it and made the community what it was. He notes,

“of course, gravesite maintenance and location might become tiresome, but the continuing possibility of family memory-pilgrimage is not negligible. Additionally, since the memory of private loved ones is permanently tied to a public physical location, there remains a visual reminder to all, not merely relatives, of the significance of this person who is now dead.”

He suggests that private cremation contributes to a privatization of memory whereas a public cemetery allows us to connect to our local ancestry and allow us to better process the idea of death and mortality.

Both practices of the standard burial and cremation have become socially-engrained and there may be an argument that they are both morally important as part of our culture. However, there is a growing argument that these practices, as typically performed, are not environmentally friendly. Every year 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used to bury the deceased. In addition, cemeteries take up large amounts of land and require pesticides in their upkeep. A single cremation requires two SUV tanks worth of fuel. It can also release substances like dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Such practices do contribute to climate change, and if we have moral obligations to do something to reduce the threat of climate change, then we may be morally obligated to reconsider our rituals regarding death.

In the last few years several eco-friendly alternatives have been presented. For example, instead of an expensive wood casket, biodegradable caskets are now available and can ensure that bodies that decompose over time will become part of the local ecosystem. Instead of burial in a traditional cemetery, burial options are now available in more natural landscapes. Instead of a headstone, a tree may be planted over the burial site. A similar option is available for those who are cremated; ashes are placed into a biodegradable urn that contains a seed. Or, ashes can be placed underwater as part of an artificial reef.

Even the embalming process offers new possibilities. As opposed to formaldehyde, natural and essential oils may be used to preserve the body. In place of the standard cremation one alternative allows for the use of pressure and chemicals to dissolve the body. This process called alkaline hydrolysis uses 90% less energy than traditional cremation. There are new technological possibilities as well. Promession involves freeze-drying a corpse with liquid nitrogen and then breaking the body apart. Mercury fillings and surgical implants are removed and the powdered remains are buried in a shallow grave. This allows water and oxygen to mix with the remains and turn them into compost.

The fact that there are these alternatives and the fact that they may be more environmentally friendly does not necessarily mean that they are more ethical. However, given the climate crisis, there may be ethical reasons to adopt such new practices. In an article for the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Chen Zeng, William Sweet, and Qian Cheng argue that green burials reflect a number of ecological values including a harmonious relationship with nature, recognizing the worth of nature, the rights of all living things, and the limits of resources. They note,

“Green burial offers a way to minimize ecological pollution during the process of funeral, interment, and related religious rituals; it offers a means by which the affected environment can return to its prior, ‘natural’ state in a short time. Thus, the practice of green burial manifests a positive environmental and ethical attitude towards life.”

This only raises more questions. If it is more ethical to adopt eco-friendly practices than traditional practices for dealing with the dead, should we carefully study which practice is the least harmful the planet, and if so, are we then morally obliged to adopt that practice uniformly? As I began, climate change has affected the way humans deal with death. But how exactly should climate change today affect how we deal with death? Are we obliged to change our usual practices regarding death and would be it be morally wrong not to?

Decisions for the Dead: The Moral Dimensions of Body Disposal

Photograph of a graveyard overlooking hills and plains

When Monique Martinot died of ovarian cancer in 1984, her husband, hoping to achieve immortality for his wife through cryonics, placed her body in an industrial size freezer in his chateau in the town of Neuil–sur–Layon, France.  When the husband, Raymond Martinot, realized, years later at the age of eighty, that his own death was imminent, he conveyed to his son that he would like to be frozen alongside his wife until such time that their bodies could be revived.  French courts objected to this method of body disposal and demanded that both bodies be removed from the freezer and disposed of in a method consistent with national law—the bodies must be buried, cremated, or donated to science.

Dead bodies are objects, but they are objects of a fascinating and unique kind—they were once possessed by autonomous beings.  Autonomous beings, according to every known moral theory, are deserving of moral consideration. Once the being has left its erstwhile vessel, does some lingering moral status remain?  Once a person is dead, what, if any, relationship exists between that person’s autonomous choices and the body-object they have left behind? Is there a moral obligation to honor the wishes of the deceased with respect to what should be done with their body after death?  Should Monique and Raymond have been allowed to rest unmolested in their modest freezer without intrusion by the government?

Under certain conditions, dead bodies can be a threat to public health.  If the deceased died of an infectious disease, the infectious agents may still be active and can be transmitted after death.  Because of the threat posed to the public in these kinds of cases, some control by the government over the disposal of dead bodies may be morally justified.  In at least some kinds of cases, then, if an individual has a right to determine what happens to their own body after death, the right of the government to protect the public against threats to general health trumps this right.  It’s worth noting, however, that the commonly held belief that all dead bodies pose public health threats is a myth.  Belief in the myth has carried with it some fairly tragic consequences.  In the aftermath of natural disasters and other mass tragedies, unidentified bodies are often buried in mass graves to get rid of the “threat to public health.”  As a result, many individuals never learn what happened to their deceased loved ones. It seems, then, that the government’s right to intervene may rest on the contingent fact that some bodies spread disease.  In a possible world in which infectious disease is eradicated, we’d need to revisit the question of whether the government can tell its citizens that they can’t keep their dead loved ones in freezers in the basement or under the rose garden in the backyard.

If the government’s right to decide what can be done with a body after death can supersede the wishes of the deceased individual in some cases, might there be others in which governmental intervention is justified?  Consider the case of organ donation. There are currently 114,555 individuals on the waiting list for donated organs in the United States. Twenty people die every day waiting for a donated organ.  Fifty-four percent of people in The United States are registered organ donors.  This might sound like a pretty impressive number, but it is dwarfed by the percentage of the population that donates organs in countries that have an “opt out” process for organ donation.  In these countries, everyone is automatically put on the organ donor list, with the option of “opting out” if they decide they’d rather not donate. In those countries, 90% of the population is on the list of registered donors.  Only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organs to be successfully transplanted, so the more donors the better the odds that lives will be saved.  If the government is justified in determining what happens to dead bodies when their goal is to promote public health, would they be justified in enacting “opt out” policies?  After all, the need for donated organs is also a public health issue. It’s far from clear that the “rights” of the being that once occupied the dead body are a more pressing concern than the lives lost when the organs are wasted.

There are other reasons for the government to step in when it comes to disposal of the dead. The practice of burying the dead in caskets is terrible for the environment.  Many unnecessary resources are wasted in the process, including precious trees for caskets and water to maintain pristine lawns in graveyards. During the embalming process, formaldehyde—a known human carcinogen—is pumped into human bodies.  When those bodies are buried, that carcinogen eventually seeps out, polluting soil and groundwater. Burying bodies also takes up lots of space. The practice is unsustainable. Cremation is arguably better for the environment, but not much. The practice releases harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.  We aren’t without options; there are some eco-friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Bodies can be destroyed using a process of alkaline hydrolysis, used to liquefy human flesh.  The remaining bones can then be ground into ash in a way that uses fewer resources than cremation.  Bodies can also be encased in pods that eventually grow into trees or sealed into a ball that is then sunk to the bottom of the ocean where it will feed coral reefs. These are far more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Given that climate change poses serious threats to public health, would governments be justified in mandating that bodies are disposed of in more environmentally friendly ways?

It seems unlikely that changes to our organ donation or funerary practices would be met with swells of public support.  This reticence should give us pause. Many variables inform cultural practices involving dead bodies. Humans have the capacity to reflect on their own mortality, and, unsurprisingly, many of us find it terrifying.  Fear, grief, and love are powerful and crucial emotions, but they have the potential to motivate the formation of superstitious rituals and guidelines for cultural practice that are ultimately indefensible when challenged.