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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 11:10 am

Underground movements

New solutions to the old problems of human remains

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In the 1973 movie set in an overpopulated New York City of 2022, Charlton Heston feeds Edward G. Robinson the mysterious food called “Soylent Green.”

Watching TV around Halloween — when so many rotting corpses rise from the grave to threaten the unwary that it is easy to think that it is an election year — reminded me that dead people are a waste disposal problem. Call them corruptible or call them putrescible, they rot.

Frontier-era settlers learned to their regret that putting either Pa or the outhouse too near the drinking well is dangerous. Usually the first environment protection regulation passed by towns was an order to dig up old graves in the middle of towns and move them to the edge of town. That’s what happened to Springfield’s “Old City Graveyard” on the block bounded by what is now College, Pasfield, Adams and Washington streets in the mid-1850s. The occupants’ eternal rest was interrupted when they were moved to a nicer neighborhood at Oak Ridge.

Such measures ended the health threat to the public. Now, some people are more worried about dead bodies making the planet sick. Manufacturing caskets and burying them uses a lot of energy and produces lots of CO2, as does cremation. There is no escape from the First Law of Thermodynamics; one can leave a carbon footprint even when one has no foot left to make it with.

What is the environmentally evolved survivor to do? Proposals to use solar energy for cremation won’t work everywhere. Burning bodies on outdoor pyres using sustainable fuel such as wood reckons without the air pollution. (Having the relatives get under your skin is bad enough, but into your lungs?) At a minimum, the waste heat from conventional cremation could be reused, as has been proposed in Denmark. While all these methods save energy, alas, they waste the body itself.

Recycling is the obvious answer. Donating healthy organs is a crude recycling scheme, but its effect on the larger problem is minuscule, and in any event, what do we do with the leftovers? The plot of the 1973 film Soylent Green turns on a scheme by which the bodies of euthanized humans are processed into yummy and nutritious wafers, which would quiet remarks back at the house after the funeral about Grandma passing. Monty Python played the same grim scenario for laughs in the sketch in which the undertaker says to the bereaved son, “Look...we’ll eat your mom and if you’re feeling guilty about it later...we’ll dig a grave and you can throw up in it.”

The sketch ended with a (fake) uprising by the studio audience. The squeamish will find some of science’s proposed remedies not much inferior in gruesomeness. One is to convert bodies into safe-to-use compost by freeze-drying them, another by speeding up decomposition using heated alkalines. That saves the body, but wastes energy.

There is a way to save both. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” could be the motto for what might someday become the “natural burial” industry. In Illinois, it is perfectly legal to have someone buried, unembalmed, in a simple wood box or even cardboard, as long as the body is covered by at least 18 inches of soil.

Versions of the method are becoming popular on the coasts, and interest has been expressed in the Carbondale area, which has had more than its share of back-to-the-Earth types since the 1960s. One of them is to bury the body sitting upright, in a hole covered with a bale of hay (to speed up the decomposition) beneath a long-lived tree like an oak. (Not in the vegetable garden, please; human bodies don’t pass the EPA’s toxic wastes tests.)

Natural burial is a tradition of long standing in Illinois. Native American burial mounds such as those at Dickson Mounds protect complete skeletons laid out in correct anatomical order. However, the mounds also contain many secondary burials in which incomplete skeletons were placed in a jumble in pits. When someone died at a time that made burial inopportune — say in midwinter when the ground was frozen or when the group was away at a hunting or fishing camp — the body was “buried” on scaffolds in trees where the flesh decomposed or was eaten by animals or both, after which the important bones were gathered and taken away for permanent burial in the mound on their return.

Think of the benefits. It’s cheap. You get carbon uptake. You can rake the leaves into a pile and let the new kids play with Aunt Clarissa anytime they want. Cousin Cliff, who was never going to become angel, will be transformed into a tree and offer comfort in this world that he never did while alive. These are forms of transubstantiation that even the godless among us can believe in.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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