Below is an analysis of how current mourning practices damage the environment, what sustainable solutions are available, and how we can convince people to adopt them.
Particularly in Western society, the way we mourn our dead has done considerable damage to the environment. From burning up formaldehyde-soaked bodies to occupying up a million acres of land in the US, our mourning methods pose a dire need for change.
Throughout the years, technology has yielded numerous significant, groundbreaking solutions to the environmental/long term effect of grief.
However, today we still suffer from problems like the real estate of death, the carbon footprint of burials and cremation, the toxicity of embalming. This makes it clear that dying sustainably isn’t merely a problem with innovation, it’s a problem with tradition and culture.
Some aspects of these traditions are extremely toxic, and target people in grief in exchange for profits:
"wedding complex” [ˈwediNG kämˈpleks] noun
- the principle that the more you spend on a wedding, the more you love each other.
This same principle applies for funerals, and is taken great advantage of in the funeral industry. While some aspects of culture abuse people experiencing EOL, others damage our environment.
Part of the human condition is the obsession with the corpse left behind. All of our death ceremonies revolve around somehow dealing with the body. There are numerous cultures with numerous methods for this aspect of the funerary practice. Unfortunately, the ones we choose between here in America all do tremendous damage.
As of 2014, US cemeteries occupy about 1 million acres of land
We use over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde annually
115 million tons of casket steel
2.3 billion tons of concrete from burial vaults
Casket wood equivalent to 4 millions acres of forest
According to the UN, .2% of global dioxin and furan emissions are produced by cremation.
Cremation emits into the atmosphere: carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, NMVOCS as well as other heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POP).
see more statistics on TalkDeath
It needs to change, so why doesn’t it?
Death is emotional. Death is taboo. Death is dreadful. It’s because of these characteristics that death is so impossible to talk about, which is why people don’t talk about it. As a result, so many people find themselves wrapped up in the woes of losing a loved one, without an idea of how that person would’ve wanted his/her memory celebrated, and how their body is treated.
Because the treatment of the body of the deceased is such an emotional, significant experience rooted in tradition, it is difficult to discuss, and thus difficult to execute in a satisfactory way. The current coping mechanism reverting back to the comfort of tradition and structure. Unsurprisingly, structure and predictability are rare commodities in a period full of instability and dread. It is a relief to know that all you need to is pick a casket or urn, choose a song, choose eulogizers, and send out invites. And therein lies the source of this issue:
People are unwilling to experiment with this significant process in the midst of uncertainty.
How can we combine dying comfortably and dying sustainably?
Conversely, in the presence of more certainty, people are more willing to experiment. For that reason, the only way to provide love ones with clarity and confidence, is to talk about dying it before the dying die. The only way to encourage talking about death is to make it comfortable and obviously beneficial for both parties.
As a designer, my goal is to remove the taboo behind the topic and prospect of death to allow for progress in the sustainable end of life industry and continue to think of new methods corpse treatment that will protect our environment.
More of my thoughts on end of life can be found on my Medium, where I documented my progress for an independent study in redesigning mourning.