Warning: This column acknowledges death as a natural and inevitable part of life.
Death is a tough sell in our culture, dare we call it a phobia? We push hard to deny it with an extreme focus on perennial youthfulness and anti-aging.
As time goes on we require things to be as manicured, tidy, controlled, and as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Everything-be it our bodies, our environment, even our yards- is required to be a sanitized version of what nature has offered us.
Yesterday I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that read 'Death Positive'. I was curious and googled these words. It turns out there is a movement, probably considered counter culture, that encourages us to be curious and open about death, and not to be a burden on the planet when life ultimately drains from our body.
Let’s consider this.
Embalming uses toxic formaldehyde (a carcinogen) and many other chemicals like fillers and make up to have the body ‘look alive.’
Cremation uses a metric ton of CO2 per person while releasing over 3.6 tons of mercury from dental fillings each year (United Nations Environment Programme).
How are these options not a burden for our planet?
There are many more opportunities available for us to be ‘dead body responsible.'
Here we get to open that can of worms and get into the disordered, lawless mess of death. I recently came across an article about human composting or terramation. And, this is where an “Ew gross” springs forth from our recoiled faces.
Jai Rhim Lee, a TED Talk fellow, “aims to promote ‘acceptance of and a personal engagement with death and decomposition’ by breeding a unique strain of mushroom that promotes environmentally responsible tissue decomposition upon death” (Wikipedia). She explains that the human body contains multiple toxins including lead, mercury and BPA (bisphenol A) that reenter the environment upon cremation and decomposition. Her mushroom suit, called The Infinity Burial Suit, “utilizes human nutrient and remediates industrial toxins in the soil.” (TED talk). Recently deceased actor Luke Perry donned the Infinity Burial Suit for his decomposition.
There are other processes to decompose the human body. Recompose is a US company which has honeycomb style containers where the body, lovingly covered in a delicate mix of wood chips, alfalfa and straw by family and friends, is placed for 30 days to undergo a thermophilic decomposition which also kills all contagions. Families are offered the resulting soil (nearly one cubic metre) or a pot of soil as an alternative to the typical urn of ash received after cremation. In this case, our own nutrients are available to support new life thereby nourishing the precious circle of life. This brings new meaning to the often quoted Book of Common Prayer: “We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
If we can come to embrace our body as belonging to nature, we move a long way towards accepting our mortality and embracing our life, caring for ourself and our planet, and being comfortable in the face of our own inevitable death.