HEALTH April 2016 Senior Wire News Service
A Healthy Age
By Amy Abbott
Many of us have purchased funeral and burial services for loved ones. We are familiar with shopping in a dimly-lighted room where spotlights cast yellow beams on rich wooden caskets and gleaming vaults.
But the familiar traditions – embalming the body or cremation – are transitioning as awareness of the environmental cost of modern cremation, embalming, and burial increases. While dying is a constant, the way we handle death is changing.
- In Indiana, Abbey Caskets sells the monastic casket, a traditional European-style box often used without a vault. Modeled after the traditional monk’s caskets from the St. Meinrad Archabbey nearby, the caskets are handmade by local craftsmen.
- A Saskatchewan, Canada, funeral home offers a water cremation process, using lye and water to break down the body. The National Post said the process of “alkaline hydrolysis” or water cremation doesn’t involve embalming chemicals that may leach into the ground. Many Canadians like the idea of a water cremation, though the family of a man with a fear of drowning deferred to the standard fire cremation.
- A Swedish biologist spent 20 years developing an elaborate decomposition system that freeze dries a body, which eventually turns to dust. Moreover, for the ultimate in returning to the earth, the dust is filtered for toxic chemicals like mercury and heavy metals and placed into a pod made of potatoes or corn starch. Grist magazine reports the pod is buried close to the ground surface. Relatives can plant a tree or place a memorial above the pod, which then literally returns your body to the earth in full, unfettered fashion, no chemicals to stave off decomposition.
For generations, families kept dead relatives in the home, in the family parlor, and then buried them in the family cemetery. After the Civil War, many Americans stopped using their home as a funeral parlor, and the local funeral home became a centerpiece in many communities. The funeral industry grew as we purchased elaborate wooden or metal caskets, embalming services, and vaults that delayed inevitable decomposition and kept water from the body.
Embalming is popular in the United States and Canada, and while not required by law, is often done to preserve the body for viewing. Embalming only delays decomposition, which is the natural process of returning the body “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as the Old Testament describes.
Cremation has gained favor, in part because families today are nomadic. Adult children often move far away from their place of birth; older adults retire to warmer climates. The cost of moving a body from one part of the country to another is expensive. Reducing a body to ashes that can be moved in an urn seems a likely solution.
According to the Cremation Society, in 1999 only about 25% of Americans opted for cremation. In 2013, the last year complete data was available, the U.S. cremation rate was 45.3%. By 2018, the U.S. cremation rate is projected to reach 50.6%.
More individuals are concerned with the energy used for cremation. The Peaceful Return site, devoted to information about burial, notes cremation systems may use between 1.2 and 2.2 million BTUs (British Thermal Units) per hour. One gallon of gasoline provides 124,000 BTUs, so cremation uses precious fossil fuels. Cremation can also release 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of California.
Funeral.org shared some facts about death services you may not know.
- You do not need to hire a funeral home to care for your deceased loved one. Forty-two states allow family members to handle the entire process, including filling out death certificates and burial permits.
- The law does not require embalming for the first 24 hours, and the process of embalming may create a health hazard by exposing embalmers to toxic chemicals. The site noted, “A dead body is less of a threat to public health than a live one that is coughing and breathing.” Refrigeration is, however, suggested.
- Caskets do not protect a body from decomposition. Likewise, vaults do not preserve a body and are not required by law. Most cemeteries, however, require vaults so the ground does not sink.
- Cremains are not like sand, but more like pulverized seashells, and can be legally scattered on private property.
Regardless of the choices we make in life about death; we can do our children a favor by making those wishes known in writing and putting aside funds to cover final expenses. Nothing will ease the pain of loss, but planning and pre-payment can eliminate some frustrations.