I am grateful for those individuals who think outside the box, whose creative minds are searching for solutions for this crazy human race. I was listening to CBC Radio during a drive home from Halifax on a Monday evening. It was the re-airing of that morning’s The Current. On the program was Katrina Spade, founder and director of the Urban Death Project. I found the whole program fascinating and hopeful, an example of real forward thinking.
Ms Spade thoughtfully explained her idea and the benefits thereof. Essentially, it is the composting of human bodies after death. Now don’t react until you hear the facts. This would be a respectful handling of the body of a deceased loved one. When the conditions are perfect as to oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and moisture, a human body decays rather quickly, within four to six weeks. Spade says we should consider leaves decaying on the forest floor, adding soil for future growth, a real benefit to the environment.
The environmental benefits of burials of this kind are substantial. According to the Urban Death Project, in the US alone each year more than a million bodies are placed in the ground and with them goes the following: “enough metal to build San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes; enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools”. Cremation emits “as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as 70,000 cars driving the same length of time”. Each year! Disturbing.
We have become quite separated from death in our current society. We let others handle our deceased; we aren’t involved in the readying of their bodies for burial or cremation. There has been a definite disconnect in many or most situations.
When my mother passed away in October 2013 my sister and I stayed by her side for three days while her body came to its end. When she died Sherry and I bathed her body, placed a fresh pink (her favourite colour) nightgown on her. We played her favourite music including Andrea Bocelli singing The Lord’s Prayer. We cried. We cried a lot. Cried hard at times, the child in us wanting our mother back. But it was the single most moving privileged honour of my life, even perhaps greater than the birth of my children, to care for my mother in death as she had cared for me in life.
My mother was cremated and the following May we buried her beside my father in Riverview Cemetery. I wanted to place her urn in the ground, the final step. I wanted to have that very last contact with her, but all that was there was a sonotube covered with plywood and when I moved back the wood, the sonotube was filled with water due to the time of year. I couldn’t do it. I so badly wanted to.
In the Urban Death Project the family would deliver their loved one to the top of a three-storey core. The body would be placed in its own chamber on wood chips and covered with shavings, a solemn respectful part of this final chapter. An intimate moment would be had, those last precious seconds with the vessel that carried someone we love. In these ideal conditions the body is transformed from flesh to soil. At the end of decomposition the family would return to collect some of the resulting soil to place in a memorial garden or whatever would best suit the deceased’s wishes.
It seems so simple and so loving and so gentle. I think it would be freeing to not think of those we love imprisoned beneath the soil but rather becoming part of it, enhancing the soil in death, making the earth better for having lived. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is something to think about for sure.