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The way you get buried could save the planet - here are five eco-friendly ways for the final goodbye

Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jun 29, 2021


The coronavirus pandemic has swept through the world bringing with it pain, suffering and the untimely deaths of millions of people.

This massive loss of life in a relatively short period has placed immense pressure on traditional cemeteries and crematoriums internationally.

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During its devastating recent wave, India experienced a shortage of burial space and crematoriums.

Wealthy families bribed funeral services and officials for available space while poorer members of the community were forced to bury dead family members in their backyards or dispose of them in rivers because they could not afford to bury or cremate them.

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News reports, including one from The Guardian, spoke of human remains being washed up along the Ganges River with more buried along the riverbanks. Many people from poorer communities could not afford a funeral and simply wrapped the body in white cloth and pushed it into the river. In some cases, the bodies were weighted to ensure the body sank, but most were not.

Closer to home, eThekwini Municipality is experiencing a critical shortage of burial space. Thembinkosi Ngcobo, head of eThekwini parks, recreation, and culture department, said: “Demand for burial space has sky-rocketed, and this comes at a time when we are already imploring people to explore new, unconventional ways of laying loved ones to rest – simply because, in eThekwini, we have run out of space.”

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The city has held discussions with traditional and religious leaders regarding the option of cremation as an alternative to burial, but this reportedly did not go down well.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the performance of traditional last rites for families who have lost a member. Under the Covid-19 health and safety protocols, a bereaved family may not handle or transport a body home to perform traditional rites. This is because the body can still transmit the virus even a few days after death.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the body of someone who has died of Covid must be placed in a leak-proof triple body bag. The first two must be transparent and sealed while the third one must be opaque and unsealed and have handles. The body must be labelled with a biohazard warning tag with the words "hazard group 4 pathogens" before it is transported to a designated mortuary.

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Zulu cultural expert Professor Jabulani Maphalala said: “The souls of the victims of the virus will never find peace if they are buried according to the NICD's guidelines. According to Zulu culture, the body of a deceased person must spend the night at home before being taken to a cemetery the following day. When you fetch the deceased person from the mortuary you must communicate with him or her and say that you are taking them home.”

The conservation of our traditions and cultural heritage is an important aspect of nation-building and for future generations to have a connection to their roots. But there are times when positive, sustainable change can only come when people become more open-minded about alternatives to traditional practices.

Toxic chemicals from the embalming, burial and cremation process seep into the air and soil, and expose undertakers to potential hazards while maintaining the green cemetery plots is heavy on land and water use. For this and many other reasons, scientists and conservationists have been looking into more eco-friendly ways to dispose of bodies.

Here are five innovative and eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burial and cremation:

Natural Burial

Possibly the simplest way to be eco-friendly after death. No expensive coffin or casket, the body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or cloth and buried. This will allow the body to decompose naturally into the ground, enriching the soil with nutrients and minerals.

Heavy wooden coffins are treated with chemicals that prevent them from naturally breaking down. In addition, embalming fluid is poisonous to the soil and living organisms and slow down the decomposition process. Burying a loved one without embalming is more eco-friendly.

Mushroom Suit

A mushroom suit is a burial suit lined with mushroom spores. These spores will grow into mushrooms which feed on soft tissue. Our human bodies have quite a few chemicals in them which are toxic when released through burial or cremation.

The mushrooms will absorb these toxins and purify the body as it decomposes. The mushroom root networks will distribute your nutrients throughout the soil, contributing to the health of nearby trees and plants.

Human Composting

The body is placed in a large vessel made specifically for the process of turning human remains into composted soil. The idea came from architect and environmentalist Katrina Spade who wanted to find an eco-friendly alternative to burial and cremation.

Spade learned that farmers have been composting animals for decades and wanted to develop a similar process for human remains. Recompose was born. Bodies are composted within warm steel vessels containing a vast array of microbes and insects which aid in the decomposition of the body. Once the process is complete, all that is left is compost and soil. Many families have opted to spread the soil over protected areas contributing to the enrichment of the natural soil.

Donating to Science

Many people choose to donate their bodies to science to further knowledge and discovery. Medical schools need human remains to teach students anatomy and surgical techniques.

Some bodies are used to study neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Remains are also used in safety studies such as in crash tests. Forensic studies observe the decomposition of a body within various environments.

This has advanced criminal forensic science around the world by providing law enforcement with the necessary tools to investigate certain crimes. Once the institution has completed its studies, the remains are cremated and returned to the family or disposed of according to the family’s wishes. This would also save the family thousands of rands in funeral and burial costs.

Burial Pods

A burial pod is similar to natural burial. The body is placed in the foetal position within a biodegradable egg-shaped pod. The pod is buried, and a tree sapling is planted over it.

This usually happens within a protected forest. The tree will use the nutrients from the decomposing body as a form of organic fertiliser. Burial pods are an environmentally friendly option for those who would prefer a natural burial without embalming. By doing this, we can transform cemeteries into biologically diverse forest ecosystems.