Mom was cremated. Some of the more religious members of my family disapproved (it's a Jewish no-no), but my dad honored her wish. I was fine with it. I never cared for the superstitious aspects of Judaism, or any other religion for that matter.
Burial or cremation: it's cultural but arbitrary.
In Judaism and Christianity, cremation is considered a desecration, and they have the usual scriptural support for that. In Hinduism and Buddhism, fire is a symbol of purity and considered a sacred path to the great beyond, and they have their own backup, too.
In my dream religion, my body would be frozen inside a large block of ice and dropped into a giant martini, from which all loved ones would be required to take a sip and say, “Too much death, not enough vermouth.” Afterward, the inebriated loved ones would argue about what do with the remains, and those willing to argue the longest while my corpse lay there thawing out would get to choose.
But if forced to decide between the top two disposal methods for my own lifeless flesh husk, I have long felt I'd prefer to go in a blaze like my mother did. I like the idea of being reduced to a little boxful of ash that my aforementioned loved ones could be required to do something meaningful with, like serve as a frozen-yogurt topping at the Shiva, or scatter over the Vegas Strip (not the real one; the miniature one at Legoland).
Since it is the person's life that matters, and not the death, love will create understanding out of whatever choices we make for our leftover bodies.
But then here comes biology professor Roger Short from the University of Melbourne telling us that cremation is contributing to global warming and should probably be done away with. According to Short's study, reported last week by the Australian Media Science Center, during cremation the average male produces over 50 kilograms of CO2 as the body is heated to 850 degrees centigrade for an hour and a half. Add to that the carbon cost of the fuel, and of the emissions involved in producing and burning the coffin-and look out, ozone layer. “What a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide,” said professor Short.
His argument is qualified with the admission that cremation's contribution to global warming is minor and that folks should be free to practice their ceremonial rituals. His point is simply that when it comes to the environment, there is a better way to go.
Short recommends burial in an upright cardboard cylinder, next to one's favorite species of tree. This would allow the remains to enrich the growth of the tree and contribute to the reforestation of the planet. Going down vertically presumably saves space.
If you read about Short's proposal only in the Western press, you'd walk away from the story all tree-huggingly ready to be transformed into a hunk of mulch. But you can often catch the slant of a news item by seeing who gets the last word. Here's Short's quotation that ends the Yahoo News pickup of the AFP wire story: “You can actually do, after your death, an enormous amount of good for the planet.... The more forests you plant, the better.” Makes you want to drive around back of Sears and see if you can snag a nice you-sized carton from the dumpster, right?
But in the East, where cremation is big, it's a different story. The Times of India follows its summary of Short's argument with a counter-claim from 'critics'that 'burial [is] also a known source of certain environmental contaminants.'Embalming fluids can contaminate groundwater with mercury, arsenic and formaldehyde, they point out. And contamination from radioisotopes that entered the body before death or burial (from stuff like radiation therapy) could cause environmental pollution as the body decays. In addition, 'the coffins themselves are [a] known source of contamination.'And, in the tell-tale last line of the article: 'traditional burial takes up a great deal of space.”
The Times overlooks Short's call for cardboard caskets and upright burial, but nonetheless, the article leaves the reader thinking something like, Burial sounds just as bad for the environment as cremation, and transforms the body issue into the paper v. plastic of final decisions.
The Western bias for burial and Eastern bias for cremation shape and filter how the story is told. Most news is like that. That's why it's good to read multiple sources, do some research and form your own qualified understanding of issues.
So what's the answer on this one? If you replace the coffin with cardboard, take away the embalming fluid and get buried upright, it sounds like Short's proposal is a pretty good one. I'm not sure if the danger from radiation seeping out of decaying bodies into the soil is as much of a danger as dumping all those CO2 bubbles into the atmosphere, but if the forest could be the new cemetery, Shortian enviro-burial sounds promising. Still, it's very unlikely to catch on in overpopulated, overcrowded countries with centuries-old cremation traditions like India and China, so what's the point?
The point is that Short's call for feeding our dead selves to the trees has the potential to raise consciousness about the multiple ways we affect the fragile Earth-body we live and die on. The point is not to achieve purity-not even fire can do that anymore-the point is to contribute what we can to the global effort to keep the planet livable.
If you want to learn more about why you should become human fertilizer when you die, you can go to the Australian Science and Media Center website www.aussmc.org/ end_cremation.php and listen to audio files of Short's April 18 presentation at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne.