Coffin? Coffin? Incineration? How to make your death greener

We can all agree that humans need to reduce their impact on the environment. And while most of us think of this in terms of everyday activities – like eating less meat or being careful with water – this responsibility actually extends beyond life and into death. .

The world’s population is closing eight billionand the amount of land available for human burial is running out ofespecially in small, densely populated countries.

To minimize the impact on the environment, human bodies must return to nature as quickly as possible. But the rate of degradation of some of the more common traditional methods of disposal is very slow. It may take several decades for a body to decompose.

In a first-of-its-kind study, our team analyzed 408 human bodies exhumed from burial pits and stone tombs in northern Italy to find out what conditions contribute to accelerated decomposition.

We conducted research on bodies exhumed from La Villetta Cemetery in Parma, Italy.
Edda Guareschi, Author provided

The environmental cost of traditional burials

Funeral rituals should respect the dead, bring families together and promote access to the afterlife in accordance with people’s beliefs. It looks different for different people. Although the Catholic Church has authorized cremation since 1963, he still prefers funerals. Muslims are still supposed to be buried, while most Hindus are cremated.



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In Australia, however, the latest census revealed that nearly 40% of the population identify as “not religious”. This opens up more possibilities for how people’s bodies can be manipulated after death.

Most traditional burial practices in industrialized countries have several lasting harmful effects. effects on the environment. Wood and metal fragments in caskets and caskets remain in the ground, releasing harmful chemicals through paint, preservatives and alloys. The chemicals used for embalming also stay in the ground and can contaminate soil and waterways.

Caskets made from processed materials like metal and wood are bad for the environment.
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Cremation also has a great carbon footprint. It requires many trees for fuel and produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, as well as toxic volatile compounds.

There are several alternatives to traditional burials. These include “water cremation” or “resomation” (where the body is quickly dissolved), compostingmummification, cryonics (freezing and preservation), space burialsand even transform the body into trees or the ashes in diamonds Where record vinyl.

However, many of these alternatives are illegal, unavailable, expensive, or do not match people’s beliefs. The vast majority choose coffin burials, and all countries accept this method. The question of durable burials therefore amounts to choosing between the multiple types of caskets available.

What leads to faster decomposition?

Caskets range from traditional wooden caskets, to cardboard caskets, to natural willow, banana leaf, or bamboo caskets, which break down more quickly.

The most environmentally sustainable choice is one that allows the body to break down and reduce to a skeleton (or “skeleton”) quickly – perhaps in just a few years.

Our research presented three key findings on the conditions that promote skeletonization of human bodies.

First, it confirmed that bodies laid in traditionally sealed graves (where a coffin is placed inside a stone space) can take more than 40 years to skeletonize.

In these sealed tombs, the bacteria quickly consume the oxygen from the stone space where the coffin is placed. This creates a micro-environment that promotes near indefinite preservation of the body.

We have also found that cemeteries with a high percentage of sand and gravel in the ground promote the decomposition and skeletonization of bodies within ten years – even if they are in a coffin.

Indeed, this soil composition allows for greater circulation of air and microfauna, as well as abundant drainage of water, all of which are useful for degrading organic matter.

Finally, our research has confirmed previous suspicions about the slow decomposition of buried bodies. We have found that placing bodies inside stone graves, or covering them with a stone slab on the ground, helps the formation of corpse wax (or “adipocere”).

This substance is the end result of several chemical reactions by which the adipose (fatty) tissues of the body are transformed into a “soapy” substance that is very resistant to further degradation. Having corpse wax slows down (if not completely stops) the decomposition process.

A new, greener option

While researching innovative burial solutions, we had the opportunity to experience a new type of body disposal in a grave called “airy grave”.

Over the past 20 years, ventilated graves have been developed in some European countries including France, Spain and Italy (where they have has been marketed). They allow abundant ventilation, which allows for more hygienic and faster decomposition of bodies compared to traditional graves.

They have a few notable features:

  • an activated carbon filter purifies gases

  • fluids are absorbed by two separate biodegradable biopowders, one placed at the bottom of the coffin and the other in a drip tray below

  • once the body is decomposed, the skeletal remains can be moved to an ossuary (a site where skeletal remains are stored), while the grave can be dismantled and most of its components potentially recycled.

An ossuary is full of skeletal remains forming a pillar and lining the walls - with a large white cross in the center of a back wall.

Arguably one of the most famous ossuaries in the world, the Paris Catacombs are an underground labyrinth containing the remains of over six million people.
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Ventilated graves are also less expensive than regular graves and can be built from existing graves. They would be simple to use in Australia and meet public health and hygiene standards.

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen to our body after we die. Maybe we should. Ultimately, this could be one of our most important final decisions – the implications of which extend to our precious planet.



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