Category: Green Modes of Burial and Environmental Dispositions of Bodies

Differences and Similarities of Green Burial in the United States and Europe

Green burial practices originated in the United Kingdom in 1993 and enabled the dead to reduce the dramatic environmental impact that traditional burials often produce [1]. Since then, environmentalists in both Europe and the United States have developed innovative ecological methods of burial. The interest in these methods in Europe — specifically the United Kingdom — and the United States stems from different cultural burial practices and social movements surrounding death, as well as some similarities in economic pressures. These new dispersal methods were born of the environmentalist desire to posit death as something that not only reduce negative environmental implications but nourish the earth that sustains the living. Despite widespread and growing support for green funerary practices, many factors render the legal implementation of these types of burials a contentious process. We attempt to understand the ethical implications behind the decisions in which the dead’s autonomy affect the future deceased’s autonomy. The main question that needs to be answered is which is more important when assessing the merit of green burial: freeing up land and considering the needs of future generations or maintaining the value attached to traditional methods for people living today.

While natural burial is presented as a new trend in Western Europe and in the United States, it has been practiced for centuries in several cultures all over the world. Native Americans and Muslims traditionally practiced natural burials without embalming or coffins, the Chinese have a tradition of cremation, Greece has a practice of renting graves, and all over Europe, Australia, and New Zealand graves are often reused [2]. Furthermore, Europe’s history of death from several wars and plagues lead to the use of mass graves and church graveyard overcrowding. In the American context, mass graves evoke the images of ethnic cleansing and disrespectful treatment of the dead [3]. However, Europeans can be considered to be more desensitized in seeing the dead treated this way as it was a requirement during times of high death toll and even in today with the lack of land for burials. For example, there are several churches built from bones such as the ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic, in which bones are used as ceiling trims, crests, and for a chandelier [4].

Women demonstrating the preparation of a green burial with the use of a biodegradable cloth that surrounds the body while in a coffin [32]

These practices are heavily contrasted with the United States’ “one time use burial system” which first originated after the Civil War. As many soldiers died on the battlefield, many had to be embalmed for the body to make the journey home for a funeral [5]. This has contributed to the fact that the United States places a greater emphasis on preserving the body than Europe, at the very least for the purposes of delaying its decay until its internment [6]. For example, in Europe, approximately 40% of bodies are embalmed because it is less common to have an extended period of display of the body in funeral rites [7].

Funeral directors present embalming as a positive so that the dead can be put on display for their loved ones at open-casket funerals [8]. Thus, the United States saw a shift from home burials in which families were directly involved in bodily preparation and burial to the beginning of the industrialization of funerary practice in which bodies were prepared by business and death became a display [9][10].

As Americans transitioned to this new style of burial, the ideal lawn-park cemeteries seen today sprung up. As urban elites grew more wealthy, the association with death as display transitioned into having burials sites as a display as well. Grave sites were becoming “monuments to the earthly stature of the urban bourgeoisie and pleasurable retreats from increasingly crowded cities” [11]. However, this type of burial practice requires manicured lawns which are often unsustainable economically and ecologically.  

Embalming, the process undertaken to preserve the body, involves the injection of formaldehyde into the body. Upon burial, this turns cemetery land “chemically manicured” [12].  One study examining whether conventional coffin burial practice affected the mineral content of cemetery soils showed elevated metal concentrations on-site. In some cases, the mineral composition of cemetery soils was higher than off-site land by a ratio of 8:1 [13]. This high soil contamination originates from minerals released by burial loads; toxic chemicals include those used in embalming, varnishes, sealers, preservatives, metal handles and ornaments as well as wood preservatives and lead and mercury found in paint [14]. Thus, the burial of coffins constitutes an environmental hazard as these corroded metal toxins leach into surrounding soils and groundwater. Furthermore, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the national organization that monitors the funeral industry, cites no public health benefit from embalming and there’s no state requirement to provide it [15].

While embalming practices still remain prevalent in the United States and in Europe, cremation has risen to be a popular alternative as it embodies a less ecologically harmful method for burial. Continuing, the popularization of cremation is a huge part of the movement towards green burial methods. From 2000 to 2015, the proportion of Americans choosing cremations doubled as well as in Great Britain [16]. Similarly, Europe saw a drastic rise in cremation rates following World War II to address the land constraints involved in a conventional burial, so the soil suffers less [17].

The popularity of cremation is on the rise in the US [33]

Cremation was first proposed as the “pure and hygienic” alternative to conventional burial, but cremation has environmental negatives of its own regarding energy consumption and emissions, using around 180 liters of gas to reduce the average corpse to ashes [18][19]. Cremation is even more problematic in the United States because the E.P.A. does not regulate or label human bodies as “solid waste,” and thus have implemented marginal regulations for crematoria that allows them to continue to pollute the air [20].

To combat the negative effects of traditional burial, Environmentally-concerned citizens of both countries have developed innovative dispersal practices, greatly limiting the air and soil pollution that comes from conventional burial. One such practice is human composting, which has proponents in both the United States and Europe. The American Recomposition movement converts human remains into the soil through a 20-day process of “natural organic reduction” during which the body is covered in wood chips and aerated, creating the perfect environment for microbes to decompose the body [21]. After the “transformation,” of the body, the family is able to take some of the soil home [22]. Despite its growing following, this process is not currently legal in the United States. In Europe, a Swedish company called Promessa seeks the same purpose of replacing cremation with organic composting by a different mechanism [23]. Through “promession,” the body is cryogenically frozen and shattered, and the resulting pieces are freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub [24]. Both of these companies see death as the possibility for new life, arguing that we should give critical attention to how our means of showing reverence for the dead adversely affect the living.

The tangible differences between standard burial and a natural burial [34]

These ecological alternatives emulate nature’s cycles and regenerative design. Contrastingly, hardwood and metal caskets marketed as protecting the body from the elements of nature, creating a barrier between realms. Whereas the processes of cremation and coffin burial contain the dead within spaces intended to separate the dead from the everyday environment of the living, these movements intend to disperse the dead back into the environments that sustain the living [25].

While there are many proponents of green burial practices, the movement has been met with uncertainty and criticisms from those who worry that composting takes away the “specialness of being human” by treating the body as waste to be turned into soil [26].  An important factor that complicates the ethics of green burial is the fact that those in the funeral industry stand to profit more from traditional burial methods. For historical context, in Great Britain, the response to the overcrowding of church graveyards was the establishment of cemeteries in rural environments. Burial and placement of a headstone was the accepted way of remembering and disposing of the dead, and the wealthy would have large and ornate stones to symbolize their wealth. Thus, unmarked graves were often associated with poverty and the lack of choice in death [27]. As these practices and connotations moved to the United States, the production of death became industrialized and costly. The high price of traditional burials and funeral cost upwards of $4,000 while most green burials can cost less than half. The incentive of low costs is certainly a major factor in the increase of green burials as families often take more active roles in the funeral, there is a lower consumption of resources, and an overall lower cost [28].

Many online sources claim this as a reason for the criticism that natural burials face. A writer from the website “Order of the Good Death” quotes many comments by those in the funeral industry that attack green burial methods, mostly by saying that it is merely a fad and a buzzword and will eventually become obsolete [29]. Yet, it is through organizations such as the GBC that the natural burial movement has been able to reach so many people while at the same time develop a level of professionalism and care that protects the sacredness of burying the dead. In the UK, where the natural burial movement is more developed, the Association of Natural Burial Grounds has been guiding cemeteries across the country with its Code of Conduct [30]. With the Code, the ANBG aims to “ensure that the public can have full confidence in the integrity of the provider and the quality of services offered by them.” The existence of such networks and organizations in the United States as well as the United Kingdom indicates that the natural burial movement is far from being just a fad.

Map of Green Burial Sites in the UK [35]

The moral drive behind the natural burial movement could further be described as wanting to do no harm to the environment and letting nature take its course after a person has passed on. Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company expressed this sentiment when she asked, “what would happen if we all buried ourselves naturally, and put our bodies back where we got them – from the soil, from the Earth itself? What would happen if we just ‘put our stuff back’?” [31]. While these green and natural burial methods have become popularized in recent years, the movement has been met with plenty of hesitation and worry. However, in spite the lack of support and criticism that the green burial movement encounters in both the United States and Europe, citizens are still broadening their scope of conceivable action for the disposal of their bodies. Increasing consciousness of scientific processes that allow death and its associated rituals to be simultaneously dignified and in tune with the natural world might soon facilitate a cultural shift in burial practices as well as mitigate the environmental damage caused by conventional burials for an increasing population.

If interested, North Carolina has one natural burial site, Pine Forest Memorial Gardens. More information about their services and burial styles can be found at https://www.pineforestmemorial.com/

 

1843 Words – Lauren Hutson, Kate Queen, Kevin Johnson Mata

FOOTNOTES

  1. Nicholas Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead; Environmentally friendly burials are popular in Europe and the U.S., but only one Canadian cemetery offers the chance to truly be one with the earth.” The Vancouver Sun (January, 2009): https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/244044522?pq-origsite=summon
  2. Christopher Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US.” Landscape and Urban Planning 178 (October, 2018): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204618304067
  3. Mar, “Rent-a-Grave.”The Slate Group, February 28, 2011, https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/02/the-greek-burial-crisis-with-land-a-valuable-resource-the-state-requires-the-recycling-of-cemetery-space.html
  4. Alex Mar, “Rent a Grave”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Louise Canning & Isabelle Szmigin, (2010) “Death and disposal: The universal, environmental dilemma”, Journal of Marketing Management, 26 (2010): 11-12, 1129, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2010.509580 Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232869409_Death_and_disposal_The_universal_environmental_dilemma
  7. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  10. Richard Yarwood, James D Sidway, Claire Kelly, and Susie Stillwell, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.” The Geographical Journal 181, no. 2 (May 2014): https://rgs-ibg-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/full/10.1111/geoj.12087
  11. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  12. Philip R. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, Social Epistemology 30, no. 3 (2016): 60, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2015.1015063. https://socialepistemologydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/olson_knowing_necro-waste1.pdf
  13. Cornelia Jonker and Jana Oliver, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils: Case Study of Zandfontein Cemetery, South Africa.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 9, no. 2 (2012): 511-520.
  14. Jonker, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils.”
  15. Karen Roberts, “Final Goodbyes Going Green: Nyack boutique focuses on eco-friendly, natural burials.” The Journal News (March, 2017): https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/1872747437?pq-origsite=summon
  16. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  17. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  18. Mary Roach, “Out of the fire, into the compost bin.” In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W.W. Morton, 2003, 258.
  19. Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead.”
  20. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, 60.
  21. Tafline Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting,”NBC News, Dec. 29, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/washington-could-become-first-state-legalize-human-composting-n952421
  22. Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting”.
  23. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 261.
  24. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 262.
  25. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”
  26. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 268.
  27. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”
  28. Mark Harris, Grave Matters (New York: Scribner, 2007), 1 – 9, https://books-google-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=33hZrW3tqPYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&ots=B2PAd_hKZE&sig=gKo-En53vVJWo1PQS6OYfFXy-SY#v=onepage&q&f=true
  29. Caitlin Doughty, “Just How Bad Is Traditional Burial,” Caitlin Doughty, The Order of the Good Death (November, 2012), http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/just-how-bad-is-traditional-burial#.V0IUw2N8a-Q
  30. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds, “ANBG Code of Conduct,” The Natural Death Centre Charity, http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/uploads/Forms/ANBG%20Code%20of%20Conduct.pdf
  31. Natural Burial Company, “About the Natural Burial Company,” the Natural Burial Company – USA, https://www.naturalburialcompany.com/about_us/index.html
  32. “Green In Life and Death,” GreenFuneralsColorado.Com, http://greenfuneralscolorado.com/green-in-life-and-death/
  33. “Cremation Services: What You Need To Know,” Funeralwise, https://www.funeralwise.com/plan/cremation/cremation-need-to-know/
  34. Stephen J. Beard, “A Greener Way to Go,” Indianapolis Star, http://www.stephenjbeard.com/
  35. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”

Green Burials in America and Associated Stigma

 

Green burials can be defined as a practice in which the deceased are buried or otherwise disposed of in any manner that attempts to cause either no damage or very minimal damage to the environment. The nature of green burials excludes any chemical embalming processes or other practices that are designed to render the physical body more permanent after death. Within the practice, there is an emphasis on biodegradability and impermanence.1

The process of embalming is long, tedious, and quite intrusive to the dead body. It takes a myriad of skills and patience to embalm, and it costs a fortune for the family of the deceased. Why do thousands of Americans pay so much to have their loved ones’ bodies altered to such a state, when it would be practical to leave the body alone? Embalming began as a practical measure but has turned into a common practice that many people accept as a cultural norm. Culture in the US concerning burials in the past century has focused on embalming a body and placing it in a wooden casket, but in the last two decades, more attention has been brought to methods of burial that do not require any chemicals and focus more on the relationship between the body and soil.

Humans have always performed alterations on dead bodies for ritualistic purposes. In Northern Jordan, archaeological digs have revealed that people from the PreNatufian/Epipaleolithic period (23,000-11,600 BP) would cut the heads off of dead bodies before burials.4 Historically, embalming was developed as a result of the rise of capitalism and the translocation of soldiers during wars, who died in large numbers and required the development of preservation methods so their bodies could be sent back to their families.

In Europe, during the Enlightenment, people started focusing more on the lives and personalities of their dying children, and with an increased focus on the lives of infants, more people decided to bury them in family tombs, whereas before, it was common to dismiss the death of infants.3

In early American colonist homes, the dead were prepared and laid out in common spaces for their loved ones to pay respects. They were often buried in simple caskets in backyards or local churches. It was not until the Civil War (1861-1865) that people began using chemicals to preserve the body. Soldiers in the war that died had to be shipped over the course of weeks; their bodies needed to last the journey in order to be properly buried at home.

During the time of slavery, one of the few “freedoms” that slave owners gave slaves was the freedom to develop their own mortuary practices. African Americans had little access to materials outside of their environments, and therefore practiced more naturalistic methods of burial. The burial practices of slaves evolved from African cultures, who emphasized the journey of the soul after its body had passed on. In the early 1800s, African Americans began using standardized coffins. This is partially a result of the rise of sanitation standards that occurred in America. The location of cemeteries moved from churches to private municipal lands. African Americans lost a lot of their connection to African burial practices as a result of the rise of the funeral industry. 4

The rising popularity of embalming practices in the 1960s came in opposition to the publication of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. Her book suggested that Americans return to naturalistic modes of burial that had been lost in the last century. Many of Mitford’s justifications for green burials were in her questioning of the funeral industries intentions. As a result of the publication, funeral businesses promoted their practices and attacked Mitford as a radical that was unworthy of attention.5

The term ‘green burial’ has only been used in the past twenty years. It stems from a rising culture of environmentalism with an emphasis on maintaining natural processes of life. There are many advantages to doing away with embalming and moving toward green burials. The chemicals used in embalming are carcinogenic and toxic to the ecosystem.14 Besides having less of an impact on the environment, green burials have the potential of reducing cost of death. People may also treat death with more acceptance and understanding when they acknowledge the decomposition of the body into soil.

Embalming practices explored as a culture reveal a disassociation between nature and the physical human body. Embalming rose in popularity also due to the fear that many Americans have of death. People who embalm their loved ones shut them off from the outdoor elements that break down cells and tissues. They feel as if the body should be preserved, which can be demonstrated with the practice of cryopreservation.

Popular American culture demonstrates Green burials reflect a growing awareness of the connection of the body to the forces of nature. There still remain ritual associated with green burials, but it focuses more on the life that the deceased person lived rather than the physical state of the person’s body.

Green burials are, in principle, a practice of conscious disregard for the typically modern and technologically advanced burial processes that are integral to North American conceptions of propriety of managing the dead and respecting the memories of the deceased. Typical modern burials include the use of embalming chemicals and techniques to delay or prevent decay of physical remains; this theme indicates a strong connection between the physical body and the concept of personhood. In the North American collective conscious there is, then, the notion that the loss of the physical body correlates to or causes the loss of the memory of the deceased person and their personhood. Any burial practice that actively promotes the natural decay of the physical body, such as green burial does, will then be received with some suspicion and will face stigma because of the potential threat to customary practices that it constitutes.

Although the green burial movement seems to promote the return to burials devoid of modern scientific interference, and by extension to an idealized past, it can also be examined with the additional perspective of looking toward a different type of modernity. While the practice excludes the use of chemicals and other components of a modern burial, it does so with the goal of being environmentally responsible; thus, the movement combines practices of the past with ideals of the future. The emergence of the green burial movement reflects a changing social conscious and perception of the surrounding world.6 This emerging social transformation is a sign of a societal liminal state- ideals and perceptions of matters of importance are shifting, which creates rifts between diverse demographic groups, and can lead to ethically ambiguous grounds of debate.

The societal disruption with changing burial practices is a projection of the smaller-scale disruption of the social fabric that is rendered by the death of a person. In this more personalized liminal state, funeral practices and mourning rituals help to repair the social fabric after the loss of a person. If such practices are threatened by the emergence of alternative practices, then it stands to reason that such alternative practices will be regarded with reluctance, distrust, misunderstanding, or even fear.7 Green burials, with the focus of environmental respect, tend to be presented from a position of moral superiority; an individual who chooses a green burial will be acting according to his or her own ideas of virtue or beneficence ethics; the most morally responsible way to live and die is one that exists in accordance with protecting and preserving the environment. This line of reasoning implies that all humans should also exist in such a way or else pose a threat to the entire environment and the human species by extension. Such a ‘holier-than-thou’ position tends to generate negative responses from those in the out-group, along with increased reluctance to accept the alternative practice.

In addition to the adverse position of green burials to contemporary traditional burial practices, there is the additional consideration of personal obligations to confront death. Green burials are intended to actively cause the decay of the physical body, which used to be a very natural and well-understood part of death until the movement of Romanticism, which sought to sanitize death and dying. After this social shift, people in North America became removed from the physical processes of decay.8 This lack of contact with decay makes the green burial movement more difficult to accept because of the associations of discomfort with the physical realities of death; this can be morally irresponsible because it makes the acceptance of death more remote or unattainable, thus extending or complicating periods of mourning for the bereaved.9

Additionally, much of the stigma surrounding green burials stems from fears and misconceptions about death and bodily decomposition. Mainly, this includes concerns that bodies can spread diseases during decomposition if they are not embalmed or contained in an airtight conventional casket.10 These concerns are often instigated by the ways in which the funeral industry have reacted to the growing popularity of green burials. Determined to protect a billion-dollar industry, funeral providers have lobbied the government for new regulations on the burial of the deceased and perpetuated the idea that a resource-intensive funeral is the “right” way to bury people. There are currently no laws requiring bodies to be buried in a coffin and very few federal laws regulating the handling of bodies at all. This is beneficial to those that want a green burial but detrimental to the funeral industry. Consequently, this industry has increasingly advocated for legislation that would mandate embalming and only permit burial in established cemeteries.11

Also, many people are skeptical of green burials because they want to feel as though they’ve left a legacy upon their death. This is threatened by the way in which bodies decay more rapidly when buried outside of the more traditional casket burial practice. However, green burials can counteract this issue by utilizing green cemeteries as nature preserves or park land in addition to their role as a final resting place. This allows those buried there to have a lasting legacy as being able to contribute to the local community, even in their death.10

Changing physical landscapes and climate in the present time period are demonstrating the evolving threat to the environment and human existence caused by humans. Contemporary burial technologies are part of the environmental threat in that chemicals can leach into the ground, physical bodies takes up valuable space, and nutrients aren’t recycled into the environment. Especially in an urban context, physical space is at a premium; green burials could prove to be a viable solution to this pressing need for space in urban areas by freeing up land that would otherwise be reserved for body internment purposes.12 In this situation, green burials are ethically utilitarian; the greatest good is provided for the greatest number of people. In an environmentally precarious future, it is imperative that any and all environmentally responsible practices be pursued to the greatest extent possible.

Cemeteries have historically been sources of environmental contamination due to the presence of coffins and other grave contents. Synthetic and inorganic materials that are used in the production of coffins can be discharged into the environment as casket components degrade and decompose over time. These materials often include metals such as steel, bronze, nickel, copper, zinc, and iron, as well as other synthetic materials such as rubber, glues, paints, and velvet. Additionally, as human bodies decay, toxic chemicals used in the process of embalmment can further be discharged into the environment. The leaching of these materials into the soil can contaminate groundwater, vegetation, and surface water and cause health problems for humans and other organisms. Numerous studies have found groundwater within the vicinity of cemeteries to be contaminated with both inorganic metals and harmful pathogens, as well as heavy metal contamination in the soil surrounding many cemeteries. While these effects can differ based on the local geography of the burial site and the type of materials used for internment, it is evident that casket burials contribute to soil and land pollution.13 In order to avoid this pollution, many have turned to cremation as a more environmentally friendly burial practice. Although cremations are considered to be a greener option than the traditional casket burial, it is estimated that one cremation uses as much energy as a 500-mile car trip and releases 250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.10 On the contrary, research shows that green burials which lack a formal casket and embalming processes do not pollute the environment in these ways. Using a lower density coffin, such as a simple wood coffin, or no coffin at all, lowers the environmental impact of the burial in terms of manufacturing processes and decomposition products. Additionally, accelerating decomposition, as green burials do, helps to avoid soil and groundwater contamination15. In light of this information, green burials are clearly the most environmentally conscious choice for burials. Since we have a responsibility to prevent further environmental degradation as much as possible, green burials are a viable option to fulfill one’s obligation to the planet.

Bryn Walker, Sarah Ashworth, Mary Frank

 

 

 

Works Cited

  1. “Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council. Weebly. Accessed April 8, 2019. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/green_burial_defined.html.
  2. Bacqué, M. F. “Stillborn children and infant death. History of funeral practices and rites in Europe stem from the affective and social expression of grief. Second chapter: From the Enlightenment to the present ages.” Neuropsychiatrie De L’enfance Et De L’adolescence, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.neurenf.2018.04.005
  3. Clements, S. W. “Dead and green: Discourses of death from Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” to modern green burial” ProQuest Dissertations Publisher, 2016).
  4. Jamieson, R. “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices.” Historical Archaeology. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616423
  5. Maher, L. A., Stock, J. T., S. F., Haywood, J. J., & Miracle, P. T. “A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan).” PLoS One, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.001581
  6. Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996.
  7. Habenstein, Robert, and William Lamers. The History of American Funeral Directing. Milwaukee: Bulfin Printers, 1962.
  8. Canine, John. The Psychosocial Aspects of Death and Dying. Stamford, Connecticut: Appleton & Lange, 1996.
  9. Kastenbaum, Robert. The Psychology of Death. New York: Springer, 2000.
  10. Chiu, Allyson. “Green Burials Bring Awareness to Environmental Concerns.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, March 4, 2016. www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-03-04/green-burials-bring-awareness-to-environmental-concerns.
  11. Yeo, Sophie. “Natural Burials Are Rising, and That’s Good for the Planet.” Pacific Standard, July 30, 2018. https://psmag.com/environment/bury-me-under-the-weeping-willow.
  12. Marrall, Rebecca. “Urbanism and North American Funerary Practices.” PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal 2, no. 1 (2006). https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1096&context=mcnair
  13. Aruomero, Amuno, and Oluwajana Afolabi. “Comparative Assessment of Trace Metals in Soils Associated with Casket Burials: Towards Implementing Green Burials.” Eurasian Journal of Soil Science 3, no. 1 (2014): 65–76.
  14. Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.
  15. Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal 27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-6593.2012.00330.x.

Tibetan Air Burials as a Mode of “Green Burial”

Before going into the gruesome details of the process of Tibetan air burial, we will first dive deeper into the decomposition process that human bodies undergo after death.  During the first three days after death, the organs within the body start to decompose, a process called autolysis (self-digestion).  This process is initiated by the stopping of blood circulation as well as respiration, which means that the body has no way of taking in oxygen and letting out carbon dioxide, and therefore triggers the cell membranes of cells in the body to rupture and die.  Rigor mortis also starts to set in during the first three days, which is the stiffening of the muscles in the body after death.  Three to five days after death, the body starts to bloat up as the enzymes from the ruptured body cells start to create different gases and the bacteria in the body start to cause skin discoloration.  This is also around the time when the body starts to smell very unpleasant which is due to a process called putrefaction.  Each part of the body decomposes at different speeds, but a month after death, the body starts to liquify and all that remains in the hair, bones, and cartilage remain of the dead body.[i]

Air burials are done in a manner where the majority of the decomposition process is skipped and the body of the deceased person is eaten up and digested by vultures before it has time to decay on its own.  The process of a air burial starts as soon as someone passes away, and it starts with the body being kept in a sitting position for three days.  During the first 24 hours of “sitting,” the body is accompanied by a lama, which is a spiritual leader of the Tibetan tribes.  The lama recites prayers from the “Bardo Thodol,” which is a book of spiritual literature and prayers that are used during spiritual rituals, like the process of air burials.  After the three days of being in a sitting position, the body’s spine is broken, which makes it easier to carry the body to the burial site, called the dürtro, where the rest of the ritual will take place.  By this time, only the first part of decomposition has started, and the body has not started to smell unpleasant yet.  As the body is carried to the burial site, family members will usually follow and chant and play drums.  When they reach the burial site, the body is laid face down on the ground and juniper incense is burned to attract the vultures as the rogyapa, started to cut apart the body.  He first cuts off the hair on the body and then disembowels the body and cuts off the limbs.  After chopping the body into smaller chunks with an ax, the vultures are given time to eat the body of the deceased and leave the bones.  The rogyapa then takes the bones and pulverizes them and mixes the bone powder with barley flour so the even the bones can be consumed by the birds.  This is the conclusion of the air burial and it is considered to be successful when the entire body is consumed by the birds.[ii]

So why do the Tibetans use this ritual process in order to dispose of their dead bodies?  There are many different factors that may be in play here, but one of the biggest reasons why the Tibetans use air burial is the fact that they are totally incapable of burying their dead.  The “soil” of Tibet is just a layer of permafrost that is centimeters thick that lays on top of solid rock, which would be impossible to dig holes in.  Tibet also has a very limited number of trees, which is due to the fact that Tibet has a very high elevation and most of Tibet is above the tree line.  Therefore, Tibetans are unable to cremate their dead using fire and extreme heat.  Tibetans aren’t the only people who use the method of air burial.  There are also other cultures in parts of India and Iran, specifically the Zoroastrians, who also opted for air burials in order to “bury” their dead.  They believed that corpses are dirty and impure, and also able to be possessed by demons.  Therefore, they didn’t think it was appropriate to bury them and risk contamination of their water sources, or to cremate them and contaminate the air with the fumes/smoke of the dead bodies.  In Australia, certain tribes also performed a variation of air burial, where bodies would be put on raised platforms until only their bones were remaining, but this was mostly because of their fear of ghosts, and they thought that this process would keep the ghosts of the dead from haunting their villages.  Surprising, this ritualistic process was also used in America, specifically by the Native Americans, who put corpses in trees for up to two years before taking the remains down and burying them in the ground.[iii]

Air burials are significantly more environmentally friendly than ground burials and cremation when it comes to the different methods of getting rid of dead bodies.  Both ground burials and cremation processes have been proven to negatively influence the areas around where they take place.  Cremation, for instance, increases the air pollution around the crematories due to the smoke and fumes that they create from burning the bodies.  This increase in air pollution in these areas are proven to be caused by the crematories because the highest concentrations of air pollution are where it is closest to the crematories.[iv] Ground burials also cause problems for the people who live around burial sites.  They have been tested and proven to impact the groundwater around them when they aren’t in the most ideal conditions for decomposition, which is bad because people usually rely on groundwater for drinking water and water to use for cleaning and bathing.  This is a big health hazard since harmful pathogens could possibly be transported through the groundwater from the cemeteries where the dead bodies are buried.[v] On the other hand, air burials have no such implications because the body is being consumed by vultures in a matter of minutes and digested by the birds, which is a natural process that would occur with anything that a vulture would eat.

In understanding a custom such as air burials, it is imperative to view the custom in context of the culture in which it exists. In the case of Tibetan air burials, Tibetan Buddhism plays a primary role in the formation and continuation of the tradition. Without understanding Buddhist beliefs and the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, air burials may be gravely misunderstood.

Air burials are practiced in several regions around the world, but most notably, perhaps, in Tibet. The use of air burials’ time of origin in Tibet is unknown, but the custom was cited in the Book of the Dead, a 12th-century Buddhist work.[vi] The tradition is believed to have developed to satisfy Buddhist beliefs (most of the population follows Tibetan Buddhism) and as a practicality of disposing corpses in Tibet.

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet from India around the seventh century, but did not take hold as the major religion of Tibet until the ninth or tenth century.[vii] Today, over half of Tibet’s population follows Tibetan Buddhism. There are several different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, each with varying beliefs and practices, but the overall spiritual ideal of Tibetan Buddhism is “the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for all beings”.[viii] Prominent features of the tradition include its deities (qualities of enlightenment such as wisdom, compassion, etc.), meditation practices, and extensive teachings on death and dying.

Teachings on death and dying within the Buddhist tradition, specifically on one’s acceptance of death, focus on the idea of impermanence and non-attachment. Most Buddhist traditions stress the idea that one should not be attached to things in this world, because the nature of everything is temporary–impermanence is the only permanence.

Buddhists have a set of beliefs that surrounds physical death. At the time of death, the consciousness may take up to three and a half days to leave the body after physical death occurs (this refers to the cessation of all vital signs), according to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.[ix] For this reason, many Tibetans believe the body should not be touched for at least three days, so as not to disturb the consciousness in its journey. The consciousness then moves into a state of bardo, where it awaits reincarnation. When juxtaposed with the custom of air burials, one can see how the Buddhist belief system aligns with features of the burials ceremonies.

The initial part of the actual ceremony involves dismembering the body. In most cultures, especially those of the western world, this practice may be viewed as vulgar or barbaric. For Buddhists, however, it signifies the impermanent nature of existence and the practice of non-attachment to the physical realm. To face death and other tragedies of life, one must understand and accept the impermanent nature of everything. Death is viewed as a transformation or transition, so it is approached with a sense of serenity. Since Buddhists also believe that consciousness continues after death, the body is not of much importance. Thus, the symbolism of breaking the body is more important than any emotional attachments to the physical body.

The second portion of the ceremony involves feeding the dismembered body to birds, usually vultures. This portion is symbolic of the Buddhist virtue of compassion for all beings. Feeding the body, which no longer has function for the person to which it belonged, to the birds serves as a final act of charity on behalf of the deceased–he or she is providing food for living beings.[x]

Several issues can arise regarding the morality and ethical reasonings behind Tibetan air burials. Cultural differences in general pose questions to how ethical air burials are because of a difference in values and morals between societies. One ethical issue regarding Tibetan air burials is the influence the Chinese have on the process. During the video entitled “Sky Burials: Traditional Becomes Controversial Tourist Attraction”, a member of the Tibetan Buddhists comments on the immoral display of actions by Chinese tourists who visited the sacred grounds to witness a burial.[xi] Whilst there, the camera captured multiple tourists laughing and joking about the process as if it were a show. Regarding ethics, this is observed as being extremely disrespectful and irreverent. While this practice is not a primary mode of burial in China, laughing at a dead body being eaten piece by piece by vultures as a religious and sacred ceremony may be deemed as highly unethical.[xii]

While many Chinese view the Tibetan air burials as possibly grotesque and brutish, the process is a religious ceremony. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the vultures are like angels who take the souls of the deceased to heaven where they then await reincarnation.[xiii] Therefore, scoffing and belittling the sacred ceremony is not only offensive to those present for the burial, but also to the recently deceased who is completely vulnerable and has no voice to defend themselves.

Although it is unethical to intrude on this religious ceremony and mock it, the Chinese have made several legislative adjustments in order to ensure the physical safety and health of the vultures. This legislation is in place to ban air burials for bodies which have been infected or diseased in order to attempt to protect the vultures involved in the practice. Through the Tibetan air burials, there have been many cases reported of vultures with unexplained death.[xiv] This can be viewed as unethical treatment to the parties involved, such as the vultures. Therefore, but introducing new legislation to hopefully reverse this occurrence.

Another ethical concern of Tibetan air burials is the process in general. To many in different cultures, this procedure could possibly be viewed as grotesque and inhumane. Ethically, some could say that this mutilation of a body and feeding to animals could be seen as a disrespectful act which doesn’t properly honor the recently deceased. However, in many cultures cremation serves as a similar practice for the disposing of the deceased. Whereas in the Tibetan Buddhist culture they carve the body of the deceased and allow the vultures to eat the pieces as a gateway to the afterlife, in other cultures, such as the American culture, it is a common procedure to cremate the deceased to where their remains are ashes.[xv] Although air burial seems very blunt and gruesome to some, possibly even unethical, in the Tibetan Buddhist religion it is merely a traditional ceremony to allow their loved ones to pass peacefully. Similarly, the environmental implications that result from cremation can be argued to be unethical with regards to environmental health, whereas air burials are free from emissions and therefore more environmentally friendly.

There is intersectionality between morality and culture regarding Tibetan air burial. What some cultures deem as unethical may in turn be completely ethical in another culture. This is the case with the Tibetan Buddhists and more Westernized cultures. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer as to how one should proceed to dispose of the deceased, however, there are cultural differences that make these questions more prevalent and highly discussed. While there are certain ethical issues or question that may arise in regards to Tibetan air burial, determining whether or not they are valid or not is frequently a subjective issue to discuss.

 

[i] “What Are the Four Stages of Human Decomposition?” Aftermath. 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.aftermath.com/content/human-decomposition/.

[ii] Lamb, Robert. “How Sky Burial Works.” HowStuffWorks. July 25, 2011. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/cultural-traditions/sky-burial.htm.

[iii] Huygen, Meg Van. “Give My Body to the Birds: The Practice of Sky Burial.” Atlas Obscura. March 11, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sky-burial.

[iv] Wang, Lin-Chi, Wen-Jhy Lee, Wei-Shan Lee, Guo-Ping Chang-Chien, and Perng-Jy Tsai. “Characterizing the Emissions of Polychlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans from Crematories and Their Impacts to the Surrounding Environment.” Environmental Science & Technology37, no. 1 (2003): 62-67. doi:10.1021/es0208714.

[v] Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira Da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99-106. doi:10.1111/j.1747-6593.2012.00330.x.

[vi] “Sky Burial.” Wikipedia. February 19, 2019. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial – CITEREFMartin1991.

[vii] John Zijiang Ding. “A Comparative Study of Han and Tibetan Views of Death.” Brigham Young University. April 1 2016. Accessed March 21, 2019. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1982&context=ccr

[viii] “Tibetan Buddhism.” The Buddhist Society: Tibetan Buddhism. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/tibetan-buddhism-1.

[ix] Sogyal, Patrick Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider Books, 2017. I referenced “The Practices of Dying” and “The Process of Dying” from Part two of the book. http://www.freespiritualebooks.com/uploads/5/0/5/8/50589505/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.pdf

[x] Marinasohma. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. November 15, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/sky-burial-tibet-s-ancient-tradition-honoring-dead-007016.

[xi] Geographic, National. YouTube. February 06, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BreEms4m_6U.

[xii] “Sky Burial in Tibet ,Tibetan Funeral Customs.” Tibet Travel and Tours – Tibet Vista. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.tibettravel.org/tibetan-local-customs/tibetan-funeral.html.

[xiii] Carney, Matthew. “Stumbling upon Ritual of Feeding the Dead to Vulture ‘angels’.” ABC News. September 16, 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-16/stumbling-upon-ritual-of-feeding-the-dead-to-vulture-angels/8948332.

[xiv] Beijing, Richard Spencer in. “China Clamps down on Tibetan Sky Burials.” The Telegraph. January 13, 2006. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/tibet/1507762/China-clamps-down-on-Tibetan-sky-burials.html.

[xv] “How Is Cremation Done?” Cremation Resource. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://www.cremationresource.org/cremation/how-is-cremation-done.html.

 

 

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