How often do you think about your own death? The answer is probably “rarely, if ever”. Death denial is commonplace in the United States; In fact, people in western countries tend not to die at all, but instead “pass on” or “slip away.” Our own death in particular is something we try to think about until we really have no choice.
This is perfectly understandable behavior. The thought of death can be frightening for many reasons, from the fear of dying in pain to contemplating what happens after death. Longer life expectancies and medical advances have made it easier to think about mortality. But death denial also has many downsides. Avoidance can actually increase anxiety—not decrease it. We also risk leaving grieving loved ones who are unaware of our final wishes. Death denial isn’t just bad for individuals: there’s ample evidence that it’s also bad for the environment.
Conventional burial options are anything but environmentally friendly. In the US, some estimates suggest that cremation emits about 360,000 tons of CO2 each year. According to the Green Burial Council, heating a stove at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours causes about the same emissions as driving 500 miles in a car. Burials pose their own problems: caskets and vaults consume a large amount of natural resources. Casket wood alone requires 30 million plank feet of lumber to be felled each year in the United States, and thousands of tons of steel and concrete are used to construct vaults. Embalming fluid (which contains cancer-causing chemicals) can contaminate groundwater around cemeteries.
At a time when large corporations are routinely held accountable for their green principles, the funeral industry is one of the few players to evade scrutiny of its practices. A culture of death denial facilitates this situation. In a society where death is considered ‘morbid’, who wants to base their activism on something most of us don’t avoid discussing? Celebrities like Greta Thunberg rarely venture into the murky world of death care. On Instagram, eco-influencers would much rather snap pics of avocado on toast than discuss the dangers of the embalming fluid.
It was not always like this. In the early 1900s, Americans lived in close proximity to the dead and dying. Night vigils, in which the whole family would gather around a dying relative, were common. Most people died at home, leaving family members to prepare the body. Historians argue that this changed when end-of-life care was shifted to hospitals and funeral homes began caring for corpses. Death became much less visible. When people look at an open coffin today, the corpse is altered to hide the physical effects of death. This evolution from death in close proximity to death being hidden and painted over has fueled a tendency toward death avoidance that is a complete anomaly compared to many other world cultures.
Luckily for our planet, change is on the horizon. Several environmentally friendly death care options are emerging in the United States. From water burials to natural organic reduction or “human composting,” the green death care industry is taking root. But to move forward with the process of offering people legalized, environmentally friendly euthanasia options, we must first be more open about death and dying.
In practice, avoiding death talk allows myths and assumptions about funeral arrangements to flourish. Just over half of Americans choose cremation each year, in part due to the (mis)perception that it’s good for the environment. Caitlin Doughty, a prominent mortician and advocate of “death positives,” has also reported cases where bereaved families have been informed that embalming is required by law – it is not. No state requires embalming or even burial in a vault. If you’ve spent your entire life trying to reduce your carbon footprint, understanding what’s legal and what’s not can also help make your death greener.
People often say they “want to be a tree” after they die. But if we don’t examine traditional euthanasia closely enough, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the ashes from cremated remains do not enrich the soil, while traditional burial prevents the bodies from mixing with the earth. Taking the time to explore other burial options will highlight the different ways our remains can help plants grow. “Green burial” generally describes an unembalmed body placed in a shroud or biodegradable coffin that is lowered directly into the ground. This allows the body to decompose into the surrounding earth. No state law prohibits green burial, and a growing number of cemeteries offer this service. Human composting uses a combination of microbes, oxygen, and organic matter to turn dead bodies directly into soil. It’s legal in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, and bills are under review in several other states.
There are some downsides to green death care. At the moment the price can be an issue. For the poorest of society, direct cremation (no viewing or visitation) costs as little as $1,000. Human composting, on the other hand, costs between $7,000 and $10,000. There may also be religious issues related to human remains; Washington’s legalization of human composting was opposed by Catholic groups, who argued that composting did not show enough respect for the deceased body.
However, green death care will only become more affordable and widespread (for those who want it) if we learn to talk about death at all. Of course, it can be uncomfortable at first to think that we ourselves are turning to ashes or dirt. But having as much information as possible on an issue is always empowering — even when it comes to your own death.