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About 60,000 people die in the city every year. What happens to their bodies?

Q: What do you want your loved ones to do with your body?

The Future of Death is Approaching…Fast

Society is approaching a paradigm shift in dealing with human body disposal

Many current body disposal practices were developed during the industrial age. Ancient Egyptians embalmed bodies, but modern embalming was invented by Dr. Thomas Holmes during the Civil War. Holmes’ innovative method allowed Union soldiers killed in the South to be sent home without decomposing. To this day, toxic chemicals, which eventually reach the soil, are used in embalming. Caskets were made to last and prevent the natural world from retaking the body. These methods represented a triumph of humans over the natural process of decay.

Our current view of nature is much less adversarial: we seek to live in harmony with nature more often than we seek to subvert its processes. When we can, we eat organic food, use recyclable packaging, and drive electric cars. Our death practices are beginning to change, and reflect this new relationship.

The biggest shift in the last 50 years has been the rise of cremation, which is often seen as a way to return the body to the natural world through the spreading of ashes. In 1960, the U.S. cremation rate was less than 4 percent; today more than 44 percent of bodies are cremated. The Cremation Association of North America projects that number to hit 55 percent by 2025.

But while cremation might seem natural, it is far from environmentally friendly. The energy costs to turn a body into ash are enormous – about the cost to power a U.S. household for a month.

Natural burial, also called green burial, has become popular as a solution to cremation and other modern burial practices that are harmful to the environment. A burial is considered natural when the body receives no embalming treatment and is buried in a biodegradable container.

Natural burial is increasingly popular, especially among baby boomers. A 2008 funeral industry survey found that 43 percent of those polled would consider having an eco-friendly burial. In a 2007 AARP poll, 21 percent said they would be interested in options that are more environmentally friendly than traditional burial or cremation. But for city dwellers, natural burial doesn’t help solve the problem of a lack of space. Natural burial still requires a plot.

Thankfully for urbanites, there are innovators around the world developing new processes for body disposal. They require minimal space and energy and allow for humans to return to the eco-system while ensuring that remains are treated with dignity and respect. Some are years away from widespread use. Others are already being practiced. Taken together, they are a harbinger of things to come. — Josh Keefe

The Urban Death Project

Natural burial solves many of the environmental and ecological problems associated with traditional burial and cremation. Natural burial is carbon neutral. It keeps embalming chemicals out of the soil, and it allows the body to reenter the ecosystem.

But it doesn’t solve the biggest issue with body disposal in urban environments: space.

“I love living in a city, and it seems a little odd that I have to be brought far out of the city to find a natural burial location and be buried that way,” said Katrina Spade, founder and director of the Urban Death Project. “Is there a way to connect us to nature in the city itself? And also have this process that is ritually based in the natural cycle?”

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Promession

One problem with natural burial is that it’s missing a critical element found in nature, according to Promessa Organic founder Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak.

That element is teeth. When an animal dies in the wild, it doesn’t just sit and decompose. It gets torn apart by scavengers and carnivores, which allows the body to be absorbed back into the soil, instead of rotting and giving off a noxious smell.

“Carnivores are the soil’s teeth,” said Wiigh-Mäsak a Swedish biologist. “Whenever you walk in nature you don’t smell dead foxes or elk […] My process was to say ‘I need to figure out how the body can be made into smaller pieces without offending anyone.’”

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Burial at Sea

As long as humans have been sailing the seas, they’ve been disposing bodies by dumping them in the ocean. The U.S. Navy provides a burial at sea option for current and former members of the armed forces, but until recently sea burial was not a realistic option for civilians, in spite of the fact that almost 40% of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties.

Captain Brad White, owner of New England Burials at Sea, is changing that.

“In 2009, there were only two sea burials done in the country that were reported to the EPA,” said White. “We now do an average of two to three per month.”

White’s company, which is now in its 11th year and has expanded to both coasts, provides full-body burial at sea services for around $10,000.

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Microbial Digestion

Microbial Digestion

Microbes, tiny one-celled organisms, eat dead things all the time, including human bodies. Kartik Chandran, a Columbia professor and 2015 MacArthur Fellow, is trying to harness that appetite to not only dispose of human corpses, but turn them into energy.

The key to creating energy through microbrial digestion is making sure it is done in an environment with zero oxygen. The process is described as “anaerobic” when it happens without oxygen. With oxygen, microbrial digestion produces CO2. But when it occurs without oxygen, the hungry microbes produce methane– a gas that can be converted into energy.

“Anearobic spelling technologies are very mature. They are used across the globe to create biogas,” Chandran said. “The leap will be to take this technology and apply it to our objective.”

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Alkaline Hydrolysis

Alkaline Hydrolysis

Turning a body into ash with fire takes a great deal of energy. Turning a body into sludge with water requires a whole lot less.

Alkaline Hydrolysis, also known as bio-cremation, flameless cremation, or resomation, is the process of pressure cooking a body in 95 percent water and 5 percent lye at 320 degrees, which turns a human body into brown sludge and bones. Proponents say alkaline hydrolysis can eliminate 35% of a crematorium’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The process has had trouble catching on in the U.S. It’s currently legal in just 15 states, according to Barbara Kemmis, Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America.

In 2011, a bill was introduced in the New York legislature that would have made the process legal. It was opposed by the Catholic Church.

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Carnivores are the soil’s teeth. Whenever you walk in nature you don’t smell dead foxes or elk. My process was to say ‘I need to figure out how the body can be made into smaller pieces without offending anyone.’

Wiigh-Mäsak

Swedish biologist

In 2009, there were only two sea burials done in the country that were reported to the EPA. We now do an average of two to three per month…People don’t really visit graveyards anymore. This way every time they look at the sea they can think of their loved ones.

Captain Brad White

Owner, New England Burials at Sea

I love living in a city, and it seems a little odd that I have to be brought far out of the city to find a natural burial location and be buried that way. Is there a way to connect us to nature in the city itself?

Katrina Spade

Founder and Director, Urban Death Project

BODY AND ORGAN DONATION

Body and organ donation is often seen as an act of charity and philanthropy, and it is: last year organ donation saved over 30,000 lives nationwide. And those are just direct lives that have been saved. The bodies that are used to advance the cause of science through research, or help train the next generation of doctors help save thousands of other lives.

Body donation has other benefits, too. It is a practical way to dispose of one’s remains and eliminate burial, cremation and sometimes funeral costs. Not only is donating one’s body to science good for the world at large, but it can also save family members and one’s estate thousands of dollars. — Suman Bhattacharyya

Full Body Donation

New York state is home to 16 medical schools, and each of them requires cadavers for use in anatomy classes. Cadavers are poked, prodded and dissected by first-year medical students. Those cadavers are acquired through whole body donation.

“Having the opportunity to learn from an individual’s body is a very special privilege,” said Dr. Jeffrey Laitman. “In many parts of the world the cadaver is called the first patient.”

Laitman runs the body donation program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Meanwhile, the Associated Medical Schools of New York is a statewide consortium that ensures a sufficient supply of bodies are available for educational purposes across New York. Read more

Organ Donation

Despite the relatively large proportion of New Yorkers who are registered organ donors, demand far outstrips the supply. Over 600 people in New York State died last year while waiting for organs.

The New York State Department of Health estimates that over 10,000 New Yorkers are currently on waiting lists for organ donations. Among them, over 8,000 await kidneys, 1,300 need livers and over 300 need hearts. Read more

New York Organ Waiting List

Kidneys

Livers

Hearts

CREDITS

Reporters

Suman Bhattacharyya

Megan Cerullo

Monica Espitia

Mary Hanbury

Anthony Izaguirre

Josh Keefe

Alejandra O’ Connell

Matthew Shortall

Anna Roberts

Matthew Shortall

Sumeja Tulic

 

Editors

Megan Cerullo

Josh Keefe

Video producer

Sumeja Tulic

Web Producers

Monica Espitia

Alejandra O’Connell

Project Manager

Mary Hanbury

Faculty Advisors

The End was produced for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism‘s NYCity News Service under the guidance of Judith Watson and Christine McKenna.