A Natural Return to the Earth

Divesting our end-of-life decisions from fossil fuels.

This is part one of a two-part series on funeral decisions. Read part two.

For many years I have saved my food scraps and carried them to a local farmer’s market, where I relinquish them to the large waiting pails of a community composting program. I have listened to workshop explanations of how to create and maintain a balance between the “greens” of produce and grain leftovers and the “browns” of leaves, mulch, and paper. Still, I remain content to let others compost my offerings for organic gardening and farming — to remain in the civilian majority, if you will.

photo of roundup
It has never been easy to accept our own bodies as compostable material. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Where caring for the human dead is concerned, I locate myself closer to the front lines. I work as an educational facilitator and volunteer participant to reclaim sustainable, participatory burial traditions, which hearken back to ancient convictions that even the corpse of an executed criminal deserves protection from desecration — as does the earth itself. I seek out others who are willing to support natural burial in the same way that I support composting. Both hinge on acceptance that the organic remains of the living are neither trash nor personal commodities. They belong, and should be brought back, to the earth.

These connections were intensified for me last April with the self-immolation of master composter David Buckel in my local community of Brooklyn, NY. A pioneering civil rights attorney who had exchanged legal briefs for buckets and shovels, Buckel was passionate about involving as many people as possible in community composting powered entirely by renewable energy sources. Over the past decade, he supervised thousands of volunteers in the processing of hundreds of tons of organic material by hand. “My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,” he declared in his final message before setting himself on fire.

Buckel left a shining legacy of LGBT and environmental activism, mentorship, and more. In honoring his life achievements, it is essential to respect the painful mystery that surrounds any suicide. Yet discussion is urgently needed of how “what we are doing to ourselves” with fossil fuels after death causes significant, often unrecognized damage. Paradoxically, we can affirm life by redirecting our end-of-life conversations toward a natural, fossil-fuel-divested return to the earth.

It has never been easy to accept our own bodies as compostable material. Ancient traditions recognized this discomfort, and did not mince words about the spiritual implications. Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has highlighted a Buddhist practice of nine “cemetery contemplations” which visualize the various stages of human decomposition, each one accompanied by the same declaration: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”

When he was first assigned these contemplations as a novice monk in late adolescence, Thich Nhat Hanh resisted them. “Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live — because death is a part of life,” he observed in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975), noting the particularly violent loss of young lives during the Vietnam War.

As a community composter, David Buckel taught “the importance of each toss of the pitchfork or shovel” in turning a windrow (compost pile) by hand. With the same care and concern for detail (albeit in far more private circumstances), Jewish burial fellowship members like me gently turn the human body as we cleanse, dress, lay out, and watch over the dead. We approach all of this as a community service of ultimate kindness. Muslim burial practices are nearly identical, except that immediate family members traditionally participate in the body washing and preparation.

There is no embalming in these traditions. The swaddling at the end of life mirrors the swaddling at the beginning of life. Traditional burial garments and containers are simple, egalitarian, and completely biodegradable. We accompany the dead to the cemetery, and we pick up the burial shovels ourselves. We step forward as a community to offer what we can: compassionate presence and simple, practical actions. The earth takes care of the rest—as it has done throughout human history and eons before.

Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi and physician, is among those spiritual leaders who have confronted well-intentioned but misguided funeral expenses: “We teach the bereaved not to cast materials to waste. Better to give them to the poor than to cast them to maggots and worms. Whoever piles many materials upon the dead transgresses the commandment ‘Do not destroy’.”

The original biblical context of “do not destroy” — our core Jewish environmental principle — is a prohibition against indiscriminate logging of trees in wartime. Today, funeral waste of materials includes not only veneered / laminated / polished hardwood of coffins, embalming fluid, metals and concrete, but also the prodigious energy and chemical inputs of cremation.

Some traditional cultures have reverently cremated their dead for millennia. Environmental activists are promoting culturally sensitive solutions within those traditions, such as reducing the wood and open-air burning of funeral pyres in India. My focus here is on the industrial processes of North American and European cremation — during which, for the most part, the absence of family and community members is as stark as it is standard. When we move beyond product images of urns and plaques, we can begin to understand what the processes involve.

The Cremation Society of America defines cremation as “the mechanical, thermal, or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments.” The average adult body is warehoused and then burned for at least 2 hours at temperatures of 1400-1600 degrees Fahrenheit. The remaining bones are pulverized into the smaller fragments often called “ashes.”

Cremation rates in the United States now exceed 50 percent of all dispositions at death. The marketing of “green” urns and scattering services diverts attention from the primary ecological damage that produces the bone fragments themselves: millions of hours of non-renewable fossil fuels burned at four-digit temperatures, with loosely-regulated emissions and air pollution.

Less than 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. Yet we are responsible for 17 percent of global energy consumption — mostly through the burning of fossil fuels. Cremation appears less expensive, in part, because essential connections between environmental and consumer costs of energy are obscured by government subsidies.

In the US, crematory emissions remain unregulated by the Clean Air Act. Ironically, this is because the Environmental Protection Agency affirms that human bodies are not garbage — so crematories are not subject to federal emission standards for solid waste incinerators. Even so, unregulated mercury, nanoparticles, and other emissions are growing causes for concern in nations with high cremation rates. Longstanding debates about extracting teeth from the mouths of the dead — to prevent mercury pollution from dental fillings — highlight the relative absence of body preparation traditions associated with industrial burning.

Alkaline hydrolysis (dissolution of bodies in lye) is currently legal in 15 states, and increasingly promoted as “green.” It involves significant inputs of hazardous chemicals and extensive waste water disposal following bone pulverization. We should continue to question the sustainability of all such attempts to hasten the natural process of decomposition, with due attention to matters of occupational safety and health.

Meanwhile, environmental justice campaigns have been waged against air pollution from crematories in lower-income communities from New York to California. Many in these same communities would prefer burial over fuel-subsidized cremation, but can’t afford cemetery space. If we are concerned about climate change, we need to connect all of these dots.

As the ancient Buddhist declaration reminds us, “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.” Our deaths impact our natural ecosystems through human ecosystems of funeral arrangements. Each organic, inorganic, emotional, social, and economic element affects all the others. As with composting, the most sustainable, egalitarian dispositions call for broader community awareness and participation on all levels.

David Buckel offered hands-on empowerment at the literal grassroots of environmental justice. His dying conviction was that “no power will match that of individuals in large numbers who change their everyday choices and reduce the harm they cause.”

Our choices about how we return to the earth after death are among the decisions that will determine whether future generations can live upon the same earth. Our quick-cheap-and-clean funeral mythologies must yield to the difficult but vital conversations that they characteristically stifle.

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