With resomation, a new sustainable method of cadaver disposal, being legalised in the UK, we explore ways to lay loved ones to rest without harming the planet.
The climate crisis requires us to consider the environmental consequences of our every move. While the onus is on governments and businesses to drive the change needed, there are things we as individuals can do too. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it on the publication of the latest IPCC report, we need climate action in “everything, everywhere, all at once”, and death is no exception.
Climate-conscious consumers are often wary of how they travel, what they buy and where they invest, but there is one relatively small yet impactful change that is less-often considered. What to do with one’s body after death?
In terms of consumer-choice, we are living in a golden age of commemoration. For those looking to go out in style, the ashes of a cremated body can be turned into fireworks or even a diamond. However, there are a whole host of more environmentally friendly options emerging that you may not have heard of, let alone considered.
For the first time since the Cremation Act of 1902, a new method of cadaver disposal is being legalised in the UK. Resomation, otherwise known as Alkaline Hydrolysis or Water Cremation, will be offered by Co-op Funeralcare later this year, in an effort to offer families a more sustainable choice.
Explaining the process, Resomation outlines that “the deceased is enclosed in a biodegradable pouch and placed in a container filled with pressurised water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide”. Each cycle takes approximately four hours. At the end of the cycle, the soft bones which are left are dried, then reduced to a white powder, similar to ash. The remains are then returned to relatives in a sustainable urn.
After use, the solution has its pH rebalanced, and is then discharged into the usual drainage system. Testing has confirmed there is no risk, and no DNA remained in samples of the water.
Resomation is legal in the majority of states in the United States, Canada and South Africa, with many other countries considering making it available.
Currently, around three quarters of Britons choose to be cremated. The average cremation releases around 150 kg of CO2. The cremation process takes around one and a half hours, and gas flames are used to reach the required temperatures of around 1000 degrees celsius. Furthermore, this process can release toxic fumes, if the deceased had mercury tooth fillings or bone cement (commonly used during surgeries), which are vaporised during the process.
Burial requires the use of embalming fluid which can seep out as the body and coffin decomposes, and pollute the surrounding soil. Particularly in urban areas, cemetery space is scarce, so it is not always possible to be buried close to home.
So, how much better is Resomation for the environment? According to its creator, Sandy Sullivan,“it leaves six times less carbon footprint and uses seven times less energy than burial.”
Are there any other more environmentally friendly options?
Currently, within the UK, there is one other alternative burial practice available which is more environmentally friendly than conventional burial and cremation. Namely, natural burials. These take place in a woodland, bodies are buried much shallower in easily biodegradable coffins and the body is not embalmed.
“The average cremation releases around 150 kg of CO2”
As only certain sites are licensed for natural burials, all of which are necessarily in large natural spaces, they consequently require people to be laid to rest away from their home city. Because of this limitation, Katrina Spade saw a gap in the market for an urban ecological deathcare option, and founded Recompose, a human composting facility.
This process involves storing the body in a vessel for five to seven weeks, accompanied with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. During this time nutrient dense soil is formed. One body creates around one cubic yard of soil amendment, which can be used to enrich forests,conservation land or gardens.
Human composting is not yet legal in the UK, and in the U.S., human composting is only legal in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, New York and Nevada.
Apart from these alternative methods, there are other steps we can take to reduce the carbon footprint of conventional send-offs for loved ones, for example, by opting for a biodegradable coffin manufactured in the UK, or opting not to have flowers in the ceremony (especially not imported flowers) and perhaps donating the money saved to a charity in honour of the person who has passed away instead.
In the face of the climate crisis, even our final journey can become an opportunity to reduce our environmental impact. From resomation and natural burials, to human composting, there are alternative options that tread lightly on the Earth.