“Dust To Dust, Ashes To Ashes” Is No Longer Sustainable

” We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” [ The Book of Common Prayer]
” You are dust and unto dust you shall return.” [ Genesis]

These quotations from the Bible, which have soothed generations of grieving relatives, are of little comfort in the age of global warming, or, as the UN Secretary-General rephrased it recently, the age of global boiling. For it is becoming increasingly evident that our contribution to the planet’s demise does not end when we shuffle off this mortal and warming coil, it continues even in the process of death.

Burial and cremation are the traditional methods of disposing of our loved and not-so-loved ones, but the Earth can no longer afford them, given the rising numbers of our population and consequent deaths. 67 million people died in 2022 globally. Assuming that half of them were buried, and that each body requires 54 cubic feet of land space for a grave, that means we need 3,618,000,000 cubic feet of land area for their disposal. In just square feet, the requirement would be 1.20 billion square feet or 112 sq. kilometers, which is one tenth the area of Delhi or half the area of NOIDA. Every year, and increasing each year as the baby boomers start returning to the pavilion in ever increasing numbers.

The planet just does not have this kind of space, especially in in its urban areas: we are running out of space for the living, let alone the dead. New York city has already banned burials south of Manhattan’s 86th Street since 1981. The Japanese bury their dead in drawers in cabinets for lack of space. In India, constant demands by Christians and Muslims for more burial grounds have become a source of communal tensions. Burials in graves have other adverse environmental effects in the requirement for wood, steel, concrete and embalming fluid which does not degrade and leaches into the soil. contaminating ground water sources. A study by the magazine Pacific Standard shows that just Americans buy 73000 kms of hard wood board each year, along with 58000 metric tonnes of steel and 3.10 million liters of formaldehyde for burials.

Environmentally speaking, cremation is not much better either, in case that thought had entered your mind, according to a very well researched article in the Citizen (31.5.2021) by Abhay Jain and Sandeep Pandey titled Green Last Rites. The authors tell us that cremation in India consumes 60 million trees each year, generates 5 million tonnes of ash which is washed into the rivers, spews 8 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. A 2016 Kanpur IIT study says that cremation alone contributes 4% of Delhi’s carbon monoxide emissions. Electric/ CNG crematoria are only marginally better, since they only shift the site of the pollution to thermal plants and gas fields where the power to operate the former is generated. In any case, they have not been widely accepted owing to cost and religious reservations.

But globally this problem is now being recognized, and a shift to alternative body disposal methods are emerging. many of them are modeled on practices of some communities/ religions. For example, the Parsis had their Towers of Silence where bodies are laid, to be picked clean by vultures. The Tibetans had something similar. The Lingayats, Shiv devotees, bury their dead in natural graves in a sitting, meditative position. In Anandvan, set up by Baba Amte, all bodies are buried in simple graves with a sapling planted on top. A concept which is now gaining ground is that of “natural burials” in which no wood, concrete, steel or chemicals are used, just a shroud or body bag to wrap the dead, buried in a natural wilderness with no fuss or complex, expensive rituals.

These areas are known as “conservation burial grounds”, could be publicly or privately owned, and serve the twin purposes of zero pollution and conservation of wildernesses or green areas. An example of this is the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in Florida, USA. It is private land, 142 hectares of forest land of which 28 hectares are set aside for natural burials. The income from this is then used to afforest/ conserve the remaining 114 hectares, land which would otherwise have been sold to real estate developers. Many states in the USA have passed laws which allow for the establishment of conservation burial grounds, and the idea is gaining traction.

Another innovative step is human composting, started by a venture called Recompose in Seattle, as reported by an article in The Economist issue of March 2023. This technique requires the body to be placed in a vessel, along with a mixture of woodchips, straw, and other vegetative matter. The chemical reaction within the closed vessel creates a mix of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and moisture which decomposes the body in situ. After about 12 weeks all that remains is a mound of soil which is handed back to the next of kin, who can use it in their garden to plant a sapling in memory of the departed. At least six states have so far legally permitted human composting. Recompense says it has a waiting list running into thousands!

Such sustainable solutions are, as can be expected, being opposed tooth and nail by big business. The size of the funeral homes business in the USA alone is estimated to be US$19 billion per annum. The size of the “death care industry” in India is reported to be US$ 3.5 billion, up from just a billion dollars in 2008. This is a gross under estimation, of course, because most of this business lies in the unorganised sector whose figures are difficult to capture. There is big money involved here, as well as religious patronage and monopolies, hence the opposition to the idea.

In India the funeral business is entangled in a lot of red tape, local laws, all kinds of needed certification, and the stranglehold of the purveyors of religion and its rites and rituals. But, in the year of COP28, the governments need to start addressing this issue of sustainable funeral methods. Governments don’t need to spend scarce public resources for this, but allow the private sector and NGOs to enter the field. One innovation could be to permit this as a legitimate activity under the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) regulations. Allow corporates to purchase tracts of land for conservation burial grounds, for example, or to fund NGOs for human composting.

Give the people, or at least those who care for the natural environment, the choice of deciding how they want to leave this world. To borrow a phrase from the Wild West novels of Max Brand and Zane Grey, many of us, when the ordained hour comes, would prefer “pushing up daisies” rather than disappearing in a plume of smoke. Why, some day we might even be plucked from the field by a beautiful damsel, in true Rubaiyat fashion ! Of course, one can also become a mushroom, but then you win some, you lose some.

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