12 Dec 2019 19:30 IST

Go green when you go away

At a time of rapid climate change, the concept of ‘green death’ is creeping into people’s consciousness

So you have led a responsibly green life, yes? Very good. Now, die green. Roughly, 1,50,000 people die every day, globally. That is 55 million people every year, 8.4 million of whom are Indians.

We may not think much of it, but disposing of bodies is inherently environment-unfriendly. Cremation mostly uses fossil fuels; burying calls for wood, metals and embalming chemicals. Mostly formaldehyde. An estimate shows that 8,00,000 tonnes of the stuff goes to preserve the departed ones. Formaldehyde is a cancer-causer. So, ironically, as you ‘protect’ the dead, you also pose a risk to the living.

Furthermore, since there are cultures around the world that favour preserving late Mr X or Ms Y as close to the way they were when alive, burial involves concrete holds, metal or wooden caskets and satin inlays for comfort. A lot of effort and money go into preserving the remains. “The more you pay, the less you decay,” says Caitlin Doughty, who runs Clarity Funerals and Cremations in Los Angeles, and hosts a much-viewed YouTube channel called ‘Ask a mortician’, which is all about death, corpses and funerals. However, you can’t win against Nature. You shall, no matter what you do, decay.

This is not to say that people who cremate their dead, as most Indians do, can be absolved of their debt to the environment. Millions of tonnes of wood go up in flames, emitting the dreaded carbon dioxide and some chemicals with funky names — polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and polychlorinated dibenxofurans, to name two. Cremation is greener than burial, but in today’s context of a warming planet, ‘good’ is not much good.

Against this backdrop, a movement of sorts seems to have begun in the United States towards the ‘green’ disposal of bodies.

Which is the greenest way?

The ‘greenest of them all’ is to bury a body in a cotton shroud in shallow earth and allow it to decompose quick and good. Experts say that there is no issue with disease germs leaching out into the soil. Apparently, the process of decomposing generates enough heat to kill the germs. Or, if you are keen on protecting the body, put the shrouded body in an easily biodegradable casket, such as one made of bamboo. You could go a step further and plant a sapling on it. It might give you a sense of comfort — that your father or grandfather is actually living with you, only as that particular tree. You ate plants, now let plants eat you. One could create forests out of such eco-burial practices and then let Nature take its course. “This way, you put your death to work,” says Doughty.

There are some other methods too. The best among them is called ‘alkaline hydrolysis’, or dissolving a body into a liquid — which is probably what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was murdered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul in December 2018.

Alkaline hydrolysis is pretty much the same process as when you make soap. The best way to do it is to put the body in water, add either sodium or potassium hydroxide and heat it to about 200 degrees in a pressure vessel. Hey presto! The body is all gone, except for a few chunks of bones, soft enough to be crushed by hand. All the tissues have become a soapy liquid, indeed, the liquid is soap – the process is called ‘saponification’. The liquid is completely neutral — you can just pour it down the drain or in the garden.

Human emotions

Alkaline hydrolysis is widely accepted for disposing of pets, but there is resistance from using it for human corpses. The issue here, though, is sentiment. How could I pour ‘grandma sludge’ down the drain, is not a question that can be answered easily. Questions of ‘human dignity’ come into play. But once people come to accept this as a green practice, it is good from an environmental and climate action point of view.

Of course, the ways to make death ‘greener’ are limited only by one’s capacity for imagination. As mentioned in these columns earlier, some in Western Europe approach death from a different angle — they cremate the body and use the heat — which is typically as high as 1,000-degree Celsius — to provide heating to nearby villages.

In the coming years, carbon markets could shape the business of death. It is not inconceivable that the greener you die, the more carbon offsets you can get which you — well, your next of kin — can trade in the market and make money.

The concept of ‘green death’ or ‘eco-death’ is slowly creeping into people’s consciousness. It is about time. In the state of climate emergency that we are getting into, we need every warrior to join the battle — living and dead.