Our planet can no longer sustain 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust'

Burial may have adverse environmental effects given the requirement for wood, steel, concrete and embalming fluid, but cremation is not much better either

An 1820 painting by an unknown artist shows a Hindu funeral procession in southern India (photo: Wikipedia)
An 1820 painting by an unknown artist shows a Hindu funeral procession in southern India (photo: Wikipedia)

Avay Shukla

"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 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 sq ft or 112 sq km, 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 banned burials south of Manhattan's 86th Street since 1981. The Japanese bury their dead in drawers fitted into cabinets for lack of space. In India, constant demands by Christians and Muslims for more burial grounds have become a source of communal tension.

Environment-friendly grave in Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Cedar Creek, USA (photo: Wikipedia)
Environment-friendly grave in Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Cedar Creek, USA (photo: Wikipedia)

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 Pacific Standard magazine shows that Americans alone buy 73,000 km of hard wood board each year, along with 58,000 metric tonne of steel and 3.10 million litres of formaldehyde for burials.

Environmentally speaking, cremation is not much better either, in case that thought entered your mind, according to a very well-researched May 2021 article in the Citizen 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 tonne of ash which is washed into rivers, and spews 8 million tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere.

A 2016 IIT-Kanpur study says cremation alone contributes 4 per cent of Delhi's carbon monoxide emissions. Electric/CNG crematoria are only marginally better, since they merely 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 costs and religious reservations. 

But globally, this problem is now being recognised, and a shift to alternative body disposal methods are emerging. Many of them are modelled on practices of some communities/religions. For example, the Parsi towers of silence where bodies are laid out to be picked clean by vultures. The Tibetans have something similar.

Baba Amte with the Dalai Lama during the latter's visit to Anandwan in 1990 (photo: anandwan.in)
Baba Amte with the Dalai Lama during the latter's visit to Anandwan in 1990 (photo: anandwan.in)

The Lingayats, devotees of Shiva, bury their dead in natural graves in a sitting, meditative position. In Anandwan, 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, known as "conservation burial grounds", could be publicly or privately owned, and serve the twin purpose 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 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 The Economist in 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 decompose 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 in the US 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 worth 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, governments need to start addressing this issue of sustainable funeral methods.

A traditional Hindu funeral pyre (photo: 99pandit.com)
A traditional Hindu funeral pyre (photo: 99pandit.com)

Governments don't need to spend scarce public resources, but allow the private sector and NGOs to enter the field. One innovation could be to permit this as a legitimate activity under CSR (corporate social responsibility) regulations. Allow corporates to purchase tracts of land for conservation burial grounds, for example, or fund NGOs for human composting.

Give the people, or at least those who care for the 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.

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com

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Published: 15 Dec 2023, 9:36 PM