Mr. Green is busy on his world-wide publicity tour for his new book. In the meantime, here's a Mr. Green classic column from January 2007.
After I wrote that "I'll have all the lawn anybody could ever want soon enough in my cemetery plot," Herb from Ithaca, New York, wondered why I plan on being buried under conventional turf when greener options are available. Other readers have suggested that I arrange to have my corpse composted, or to recycle the usable parts by donating them to medical research. Some have just demanded my corpse.
In considering these matters, I realized there's more to this topic than I thought. Looking for connections between death and the environment led to some rather dark philosophizing. I've already suggested that lawns are a type of death denial, in that they're replicas of cemeteries where the owner glides on the mower, godlike and immortal, over the pristine green, enjoying the illusion of immunity from burial below. Replacing lawns with a variety of plants requires us to cope with dirt, death, and decay--literally as well as figuratively.
On the other hand, I cherish the custom of setting aside sacred places or objects that help us commune with the dead, a tradition that unites so many cultures, from Chinese to African, Mexican to Native American, with my own Catholic brethren--though the spirit of the latter's All Souls' Day, like Christmas, seems to have been subjugated to the vulgar commercialized frenzy of today's Halloween. I'm just waiting for the kiddies in their $200 designer costumes to start demanding gourmet candy, at which point, they'll get one raisin per bag (which overprotective parents will promptly throw away, convinced it's laced with poison).
Anyway, while cemeteries are obviously not a very good idea from a strictly environmental point of view, their usefulness in remembrance rituals is perhaps ultimately beneficial enough that the trade-off is worth it. Being more in touch with our mortality might help us to reduce the desperate consumption that is often driven by fear and the urge to banish death. Owning the "safety" of an SUV, building trophy homes with elaborate alarm systems, "protecting" our families with guns under our pillows (while electing right-wing politicians who loathe gun control and the environment), taking drastic medical measures to maintain our loved ones in a vegetative state--maybe these are, at their essence, tricks to distance ourselves from death and the dead.
Greener burials--which I strongly support--might be more popular if there weren't as many misconceptions about the disposal of remains floating around as there are myths about where your spirit goes to hang out after you're dead. For example, some people think that embalming is required by law. This is only true if your corpse is being transferred across state lines. A requirement for embalming would violate the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, whose faiths forbid the practice.
Why is this important to know? Because embalming is probably the most environmentally hazardous aspect of how we handle our dead. Treating the typical corpse takes about 2.5 gallons of embalming fluid, in which the active ingredient is formaldehyde, a toxic substance and possible carcinogen. With about 1.7 million corpses being buried each year and eight ounces of formaldehyde per gallon of embalming fluid, we're talking around 250,000 gallons of the poison. (Little wonder the European Union is considering a ban on formaldehyde use for embalming.)
Other concerns that often come up are relatively minor in the big scheme of things. Though there are certainly a lot of resources spent on conventional caskets and burial vaults--about 105,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and around 35 million board feet of hardwood--that's but a fraction of the materials used annually in building, road, and automobile construction. A three-ton SUV contains ten times as much steel as the casket you'll ride in if you get killed when it rolls over.
In terms of land use, the typical cemetery can hold between 1,000 and 2,000 dearly departeds per acre, so we're devoting a maximum of 1,700 acres of new cemetery ground each year. Not much land compared to what we dedicate just to parking lots. As always, though, Mr. Green favors a minimalist approach. If there were ever a time to avoid conspicuous consumption, it would be after you're no longer around to enjoy it!
Even cremation, which is more environmentally sound than conventional burial, has come under, um, fire by environmentalists. Some fret about the amount of energy it takes to go from ashes to ashes. Others worry that vast amounts of toxic mercury escape from dental fillings when the bodies that held them are heated to the necessary temperatures. On the first point, thermal processing of a body, starting with a cold furnace, takes an amount of energy equal to that in 16 gallons of gasoline--or about what an SUV burns through in 200 miles. And even this figure is high, because once the furnace is stoked for the day, later customers require far less heat. As for the fillings fear, let's do the math: The average American has 7.22 fillings, each of which contains 50 to 100 milligrams of mercury, for a maximum of 722 milligrams per mouth. With 721,000 folks choosing cremation each year, that's a maximum possible mercury total of 520,562 grams, or about 1,100 pounds. That's also assuming that all fillings contain mercury--and that all the cremated geezers had any teeth left anyway.
One EPA study put the figure at a more realistic 278 pounds per year from all the crematoriums in the country--a fraction of what's emitted by power plants and other industrial facilities. Far more mercury escapes just from fluorescent bulbs that are tossed out instead of recycled. Environmentally, you just can't make up for living poorly by dying well.