When I say “funeral” this is probably what you think of, right?
The cemetery, the casket, the gorgeous floral arrangements.
Vin Diesel stylishly going two buttons undone on the dress shirt.
But what if I told you that other than Dominic Toretto’s effortless style,
this was probably the worst way you could dispose of a body?
This traditional casket in the ground method most of us are used to
is what journalist Mark Harris calls a “modern burial.”
And that is the chemical embalming of the remains,
the burial of the body or the placement of the body into a metal casket,
and then the placing of that casket and embalmed body
in the bottom of the grave that we call the burial vault.
So that’s pretty much the American way of death.
Aside from being a great name for a novel,
the American way of death actually turns out to be pretty terrible.
The average cost of modern burial runs on average from $10,000 to $12,000.
Although you can talk to families who will tell you they paid a lot more than that.
In many cases, a lot more.
This KISS casket alone will set you back seven grand.
No word on if the amps are included though.
The funeral industry has also been known to engage in predatory business practices,
like selling vulnerable families add-ons and services that they don’t need.
They’ve also been the subject of a number of class action lawsuits,
including one for conspiring to fix the prices of caskets at artificially high prices.
“Modern” burials are also incredibly wasteful.
The average grave site takes up 32 square feet of land in a cemetery.
And that’s just space.
It uses a staggering amount of resources as well.
Which almost sounds kind of fun right?
Grill up some hotdogs, toss some diving rings in for the kids to fetch.
Not so fast.
Formalin, which is the formaldehyde-based preservative solution embalmers use, is incredibly
OSHA deems it a dangerous carcinogen and strictly regulates its use,
and the EPA treats it as a hazardous waste.
Embalmers experience higher levels of brain, colon, and prostate cancer as well as leukemia.
To embalm a typical body it requires 3 pounds of this formalin solution
and sends 120 gallons of untreated “funeral waste” directly into the sewage system,
including blood, water, fecal matter, organ fluid, and carcinogenic chemicals,
as well as whatever unknown diseases the body contains.
Okay cool, so modern funerals suck.
But what are the other options?
Well, let’s start with cremation.
Countries all across the world cremate bodies.
In Great Britain, 75% of people get cremated,
in Switzerland it’s 85%,
and in Japan that number is almost 100%.
Two years ago, for the first time in this country’s history,
more Americans were cremated than buried
and then pretty soon we’re going to hit 50% of Americans being cremated.
For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper.
A typical cremation costs around $1,400 compared to the $10,000 to $12,000 price tag we mentioned
(Again, a little more for that sweet KISS casket.)
Cremating a body also requires much less space,
since there doesn’t need to be a grave.
And it doesn’t require a swimming pool full of formaldehyde either … sorry kids.
You can also do all sorts of fun stuff with your ashes like
put them in fireworks,
spread them in a National Park,
or even turn them into a reef.
But is it actually better for the environment?
So it sounds like cremation is better, although it’s far from perfect.
Is there no way to do this without hurting the environment?
Swedish scientists asked that same question and developed something called promession.
It’s a process where you freeze a corpse in liquid nitrogen,
rapidly vibrate the body so it breaks into millions of tiny particles in just a few minutes,
then freeze dry the particles and remove the harmful metals leftover from your dental fillings.
You’re left with a fine dust which actually looks very similar to cremated remains.
It solves most of the problems of “modern” burial and cremation
but unfortunately hasn’t been approved for human beings yet.
Another option is alkaline hydrolysis,
where a body is put into a chamber which is then filled with water and lye,
pressurized, and heated up to about 320 °F.
The body tissue is broken down in a process that’s similar to natural decomposition,
and dissolved to nothing but a skeleton in about 12 hours.
It’s more environmentally friendly since there’s zero toxic emissions
and it has about one-tenth of the carbon footprint as a cremation.
All that said, the simplest option might be natural burial.
A number of natural cemeteries have sprung up across the country
where unembalmed bodies are buried in biodegradable containers,
or sometimes nothing at all, and allowed to decompose naturally.
It’s inexpensive, natural,
and can actually help preserve and restore vulnerable land and wildlife.
Not to mention it’s how humans have done it for most of recorded history.
No matter what the method, though, it’s clear that we have to reform the way that
we bury the dead.
In less than a quarter-century 76 million people in America alone
will get to the average life expectancy of 78 years.
If all those people were buried in traditional graves,
we'd need a cemetery the size of Las Vegas to accommodate their bodies.
The point is, we're all going to die.
The question is, what are we going to do with all the bodies?