sustainability after death
May 31, 2012 5:16 PM   Subscribe

At present, what is the most environmentally friendly way to deal with a human body after they die?

Soon, I'll start to get my house in order and put together a will, medical directive, and anything else I need to related to dying and death (oh, fun!). I would like to not put a financial burden on whomever takes care of my affairs, but would also like to have some ideas about what to do (or others would do) when my time on earth is up, and after any body parts I can give have been donated.

What funerary/burial methods are most "environmentally friendly?"

I come from a Muslim background, and am fond of simple Muslim burials (though not practicing myself), where the body is cleaned and enshrouded in a simple cotton or linen cloth. However, I live in the US, and this is generally not allowed without some encasement due to groundwater issues.

I'm not opposed to cremation, as I don't particularly care what happens to my physical body after death. Though I don't have some grand wish about disposing my ashes in a special place. It's sort of all the same to me.

Are there any other options that will not be incredibly expensive (for whomever takes care of my affairs and estate), but pose a lesser burden on the planet?
posted by raztaj to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe donation to a medical school or body farm or whatnot?
posted by box at 5:21 PM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Jewish tradition is similar to the Muslim one with regard to enshrouding, but the body is then placed in a plain, pine casket with no lining. The casket is meant to decompose in the ground along with the body. You can always speak with a rabbi in your area for more information.
posted by griphus at 5:22 PM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

There are conservation burials available which can involve either a biodegradable box or shroud, no embalming/coffin. Here's a place in Ohio that does them: - I'm sure they're also possible in other locations.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:24 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

And keep in mind when I say "plain" I mean you can get them seriously plain.
posted by griphus at 5:24 PM on May 31, 2012

I intend to donate my body (less any useful organs, which will go to folks who can use them) to a medical school when I die. The students assigned to dissect me will go on to become doctors, and doctors help a lot of people. The net good effect that that has on the world far offsets any environmental burden the process creates.

The only bad part is that once you're dissected they cremate you and send your ashes back to your family, which could happen more than a year later. That, potentially, could be a rough thing for your loved ones to deal with if they're not down with the whole dissection thing.
posted by phunniemee at 5:25 PM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris discusses various options from a US perspective.
posted by dreaming in stereo at 5:27 PM on May 31, 2012

Have you contacted any local Mosques? A friend of mine was buried in the traditional Muslim way in St. Petersburg, Fl. There was a whole section of the cemetery dedicated to Muslim burials so you might want to check if that's available near you.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:41 PM on May 31, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the great suggestions so far! I don't want to threadsit, but do have some follow up questions:

- for donating a body to a science or medical institution, are there any sites or organizations that help people navigate which ones are a better "fit" (region, state, or particular medical issue)

- perhaps doctors or med students can answer this one - once a body is donated for research or educational purposes, are they largely anonymous? i.e, no name, but general health information and stats.
posted by raztaj at 5:43 PM on May 31, 2012

Yeah, the med-school thing isn't a bundle of laughs. I was, and still am, totally down with the benefits, and when my father found out he had cancer and said it was what he wanted, we put all the procedures in place. The whole thing wasn't without problems, and several were unexpected.

Firstly I think most people do have to soldier on through some fairly unpleasant imaginings, and you can only really deal with that by repeatedly reminding yourself that it was a deeply- held wish and that the doctors who got him two extra years needed people to train on - and so forth. More distant family took it worse, and there were some interesting reactions at the memorial service.

Secondly there's a certain urgency to get the body to the med school since there can be some of the standard funeral parlour procedures aren't compatible with some anatomical uses. Thirdly, we found the process didn't mesh well with organ donation, which added another round of phone calls and a visit to sign a release form that we could probably have done without. Fourth, there are a variety of teaching uses for bodies, not all of them involving general dissection, and the med school were very constrained about what they are able to say, perhaps unsurprisingly. And then as mentioned above there's an unspecified delay in getting the ashes back from the coordinating funeral home.

Basically - there's a procedure and it's designed for people who don't have very close relatives. Everyone we interacted with was fantastic, but clearly they weren't expecting to have to deal with bereaved relatives except at the very start of the process. It's not an easy route, although it's rewarding in a peculiar way. I'd thought about it myself, but afterwards I'm now firmly in the plain pine box brigade.

And thinking about it, from an environmental standpoint, it actually has quite large impacts: solvents, power, materials and so on.
posted by cromagnon at 5:51 PM on May 31, 2012 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I just came in to say that it isn't only future MDs who take anatomy and learn from cadaver dissection, other healthcare professionals do, as well. I'm a nurse practitioner and the academic year I spent in anatomy with our 'silent professor' (as my two lab partners and I referred to our cadaver) was truly incredible. I learned more from the woman who donated her body to my studies than almost any of my professors in my academic career. She confirmed for me, every time we dissected a new system, how incredible human anatomy and physiology really is and I grew to truly respect her as the year went on and I learned about how she had lived her life by observing how life had worn her body (she was a very elderly woman when she died, but had lived a healthy life).

I have a name for her, in my mind, which I never shared with anyone, but I often still sort of talk to her, addressing her by name, when I am in exam with a patient (things like 'show me where that tendon is again? Right, thanks.'). I think about her often. I think about what I know about her life from learning her body, and how much I couldn't possibly guess. Every time I randomly have a patient who has an absent palmaris longus (normal variation present in about 10% of population) I get this deep, longing pang of what feels very much like loss or grief associated with her--I remember so clearly sitting at her hand on a rolling stool and realizing that she had this variation.

As long as I work with patients, she'll be present with me, there are even little things I learned from her that I've already passed on to other students. I am an atheist and it has struck me more than once how her generosity and post-mortom vulnerability has created a working legacy of her life and how her body lived it. I think it's really beautiful, that brand of immortality, and I grew to find her very beautiful.

You have to take really exceptional care of your cadaver, so that it stays workable, free of pathogens, and easy to learn from. Towards the end, this care became very ritualistic for my lab team, and nearly reverent. She had been a very small lady, and so we had to be so careful. In the end, there is a very simple ceremony students can attend honoring the life, contribution, and cremation of our subjects. It was overwhelmingly emotional and I remember my lab partner reached over and held my hand, and though I almost hesitate to say so, there is a way that we felt like her family. She had shared so much of herself. It wasn't something we talked about, but it was a palpable feeling.

It's been over three years and I think about her weekly, at least. She gave me a lot of clinical gifts. Since I am in ambulatory clinical practice (versus surgery or imagining, for example), she's still my primary example of the inside workings of people. Even when I do read a plain film or do a minor procedure, her anatomy has a way of being a kind of mental overlay of what I am looking at. There are possibly greater environmental impacts to the study of anatomy than plain burial, but I doubt there are more meaningful educational ones. I carry her in my heart, because I held hers.
posted by rumposinc at 6:11 PM on May 31, 2012 [608 favorites]

Sky burial. Or let your pets consume your carcass.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:31 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Forgive me, cromagnon, because my answer to raztaj is in terms that are probably not much fun for a bereaved family member to read.)

There are basically two kinds of cadaver lab: gross anatomy for advanced health care professional and graduate students, and undergraduate anatomy lab. The difference is that in the former, the students perform their own dissections over the course of the term, and in the latter, dissections are performed by the lab assistants and the cadaver is used as a demonstration model, often for more than one year. Rumposinc has already eloquently discussed the role of the cadaver for advanced students. My experience is with the undergraduate demonstration cadavers. There was no possibility at all we could have identified our cadavers - their facial structures had already been dissected and the phenolic compounds that were used for preservation stained the skin somewhat and darkened as the cadaver aged, decreasing the visibility of identifying marks. Although the lab assistants might have known some of the medical history of our cadavers, the undergraduate students weren't privy to that information.

We were strongly encouraged to be respectful, and honestly, even those who were pretty irreverent by nature were quite subdued. Partly this was because it was stressed, over and over, that these were rare and costly specimens, and partly because, well, that specimen used to be a person. Even with dissection it was apparent that these people had been old and/or sick, and had clearly suffered. It takes a hard heart to be rude about someone like that.
posted by gingerest at 6:35 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Burial at sea?
posted by jquinby at 6:38 PM on May 31, 2012

There is a place in Santa Fe, NM that does the "green burial". Commonweal Conservatory. Their website isn't the best but you can find more info if you google it.
posted by jmd97 at 6:44 PM on May 31, 2012

Take this with a huge grain of salt, as I have no real knowledge of these matters, but I was under the impression that land that is used to build cemeteries essentially becomes impossible to ever reuse for another purpose without a great deal of hassle, at least in the US. This Straight Dope article seems to bear that out. Therefore, if you have no real moral desire to perpetually tie up a small amount of land, it seems the only reasonable choice is cremation. A cynic might say that preventing a cemetery from becoming another Wal-Mart or subdivision isn't actually so bad, but not all land uses are necessarily evil, and you're taking away the choice entirely by choosing burial.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:26 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Green Burial Council and the Centre for Natural Burial can answer some of your questions and point you in the direction of green cemeteries.
posted by dtp at 7:29 PM on May 31, 2012

It seems like burial at sea is the most environmentally friendly way to go, to me. (And very much dust to dust, primordial soup to primordial soup.) Unless you found a crematorium that was somehow carbon neutral.
posted by gjc at 7:48 PM on May 31, 2012

Not carbon neutral but some crematoria use the heat in their own or other premises in the UK and may do so elsewhere. I have seen a few people suggest they would like to be fed to dogs. This would displace some livestock from the food supply chain if done in bulk, with attendant reductions in carbon, feed crop growth, potential contamination of water, etc. No idea of the legality of this.
posted by biffa at 1:17 AM on June 1, 2012

Interesting link about Tibetan sky burials. My uncle had a different kind of sky burial. He was cremated and his ashes taken up in his plane and sprinkled over the county airport where he'd worked and spent so much time. You have to get a permit for this. At the same time, the airport unveiled a memorial bench overlooking the main runway.

We had a cadaver as well in nursing school, although as the first freshman-level anatomy course in the state of Indiana to use a cadaver, we were not allowed to dissect it. That was left to our professor and his TA. Ours was male and his face was kept covered; we only went as far up as his chin. While I don't have such feelings as rumposinc, it was a very fascinating experience and completely changes your idea of what the inside of the body looks like. For example, much like when you're little and your tooth falls out and you marvel at how tiny it is when it felt so big in your mouth, I was very surprised at how small the lungs really are.

I definitely support donation to a medical school.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:16 AM on June 1, 2012

You might want to read the very enlightening and entertaining Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach.
posted by SampleSize at 7:37 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

- perhaps doctors or med students can answer this one - once a body is donated for research or educational purposes, are they largely anonymous? i.e, no name, but general health information and stats.

2nd year med student here, I worked with a cadaver this last year, and aside from a true first name (Ryan, Steve or similar) and a few details (veteran, cause of death, education), they did not release any other general information or stats.

However, I'd like to chime in and say that while I currently am an organ donor, my experience taking medical general anatomy this last year convinced me NOT to donate my body to a medical school for use.

It was a fascinating and edifying experience (as a medical student), to be sure. However, the invasive nature of anatomy and the literal 'stripping bare' of bodies dismayed myself and many other medical students from providing our bodies to medicine after death.

It wasn't disrespect or callousness on part of the students, but the barren nakedness and clinical reductionism one suffers in anatomy lab (and perhaps medical school in general). Despite my best efforts, after hours in chloroform-soaked twilight, barraged by the sheer amount of need-to-know information and lack of sleep, my donated body was reduced to just that – a cadaver useful for learning.

I was respectful, and did my best to maintain Kevin's dignity, but there were too many times I felt almost like an intruder, being far more intimate with my cadaver than even his closest relatives, family or lovers may have been during his life. And it was this that scared me, that I, a stranger even after death could come and violate the most sacrosanct of physical barriers a human could possess, willy nilly and only with the aid of a simple scalpel, cutting and revealing layers, organs and systems not even his own mother had seen. And all this was afforded to me only because I was a medical student. You could not imagine my own incredulity at both the power and responsibility afforded to medical student with a far-too-sharp scalpel and a far-too-untested anatomical skill.

I don't know if it's the difference in courseload between a nurse practitioner and a physician, or maybe just the way medical school tends to chew people up, but I feel that though I thought my time with Kevin was valuable, most of the vignettes and details that I retain now had to do with living cases and people that I had either shadowed or helped. It was just too easy to reduce cadavers to educational and medical purposes, and see them less as once-living and breathing fellow humans, and more as organic textbook analogues.

If you have any other questions or concerns, don't be afraid to MeMail me. I've been out of school for two weeks and I'm still decompressing and thinking about this last year. As a caveat, I'm sure Kevin shared with me many gifts, and it may be that I am still too immature a physician to see them borne out as knowledge or wisdom, but trust me, I'm trying. :)
posted by kurosawa's pal at 8:48 AM on June 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

In the grand scheme of environmental impact that a life in the west lives, a burial or cremation is tiny. While the environmental inputs to a human life are large, the mass, toxicity, bioeffect etc. of of a human carcass disposed of in any way is tiny - negligible almost. Any activity you do along these lines is symbolic. You can step beyond symbolism, though!

It is such a waste of information-rich and life-giving matter merely to allow it to decompose or hasten its decomposition!

In the grand scheme of imapct, organ donation literally can save or rescue a dozen lives. Your action can restore sight to the blind, save people from dying from horrible agonizing organ failures, re-unite families that were about to be torn apart by a death or debilitating disease that could be postoponed for years or decades.

If you want impact after you die, and do good for the world, sign up to donate your and your loved one's organs.
posted by lalochezia at 9:10 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Human composting (freeze body, really really freeze body in liquid nitrogen, shatter it with ultrasound, let the water content sublimate in vacuum, be left with a modest amount of powder you can compost) has been promoted as a more environmentally friendly process than cremation. (And it probably is, but I'd like to see independent number-crunching on its footprint.)
posted by Zed at 4:51 PM on June 1, 2012

I've long told my wife that I want to be poured down the drain.
posted by shen1138 at 9:24 AM on June 2, 2012

Thanks for the great suggestions so far! I don't want to threadsit, but do have some follow up questions:

- for donating a body to a science or medical institution, are there any sites or organizations that help people navigate which ones are a better "fit" (region, state, or particular medical issue)
I found this page listing a few options state by state, search terms via this relevant question to Cecil Adams.
posted by Tobu at 12:53 AM on June 3, 2012

Their directory seems to be lifted from this page actually.
posted by Tobu at 12:58 AM on June 3, 2012

I also posted the directory that Tobu mentions when I wrote a newspaper column about my mom's decision to donate her body. Mom died of cancer, but she was also suffering from an awful neuromuscular disorder that I can best describe as the demon child of Alzheimers and Parkinsons. Called PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy), the disease was not only incurable, but also untreatable - there was no way to mitigate any of the symptoms of muscle weakness, loss of balance, dementia or personality change. Mom could see her deterioration in real time, and was horrified. With that in mind, she donated her brain and spinal cord to the university whose medical school was the leader in research in that disease, and the rest of her body went to the local medical school. She received hospice care at home, and the morning she died, the local funeral home came for her body and executed the arrangement with the two medical schools. My dad had her cremated remains back in less than a year. I don't recall any unpleasantness about mom's choice or the logistics of carrying it out, and our extended family is not known for harmony and tolerance for offbeat decision-making.

Thank you to researchers, students and personnel at medical schools and mortuaries for giving my mom a purpose to aim for with the disposal of her body. She died fairly dreadfully, and I think the knowledge of her usefulness made her feel great dignity in her most undignified circumstances.
posted by toodleydoodley at 1:08 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Not yet mentioned: consider also the environmental impact of any memorial gathering that might take place. If friends and family would do significant traveling to get there, you may be able to have a posthumous teaching moment by leaving instructions for them to find carbon offsets so as to have zero-impact journeys.
posted by beagle at 3:31 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

A follow-up question, if anyone is still reading: what happens to your body if you decide to donate organs? Will your family get a call to retrieve cremated remains, or is organ donation completely final in itself?
posted by Jane Austen at 9:05 PM on July 17, 2012

Since organ donation needs to happen very shortly after one's demise, all the usual funeral choices remain available, even an open casket. (See.) The family pays for funeral arrangements as it would ordinarily.
posted by gingerest at 10:58 PM on July 17, 2012

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