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Feature - issue #2

End of Life Environmentalism

US environmentalists are challenging established death conventions by demonstrating alternatives to managing the end of life. These ecodeath advocates hope to ‘green’ the system by reducing or eliminating the environmental harms associated with current practices and finding creativeways for humans to reconnect with nature through death.

Death is a complex and sensitive matter. Losing our loved ones deeply affects us. But we also know that mortality stands as an unavoidable part of life. When encountering death we draw on our cultural beliefs and traditions to guide us. These norms and values can provide us with well-worn paths for dealing with dying and death, but they help us only to the degree that we find comfort, security, and meaning in them. As norms and values change, so do our practices.

We are now seeing major shifts in how we understand and practice death and dying in the west. Researchers have observed how, during the 20th century, dying changed from a publicly-visible experience, managed by family, church, and community, to a much more private matter. Death has been increasingly hidden away from daily experience, behind the walls of hospitals and mortuaries where death professionals manage the dying process on behalf of the public. Culturally, we have come to interpret death more as a health issue to be managed by medical personnel, while diminishing the roles played by family and community. Now, our professionalised ‘death systems’ efficiently manage the process for millions of individuals and families every year. But this efficiency has its limits.

Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first conservation burial ground in the US.

Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first conservation burial ground in the US.

Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first conservation burial ground in the US.

Myriad voices have emerged to critique these systems on a number of fronts. In the 1950s and 1960s, counter-cultural death reformers began to highlight concerns about the rights and dignity for the dying, reframing dying as a normal, affirming, and even a happy or positive experience. They gradually developed into loosely connected networks to form the death awareness movement. Prominent figures such as Swiss-born American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her contemporaries pushed for patient-centric end-of-life care with more aesthetically pleasing, homelike spaces within hospitals and nursing homes. Their efforts led western medical providers to incorporate hospice care, which began with a handful of fledgling organisations and now provides services to more than one and a half million people in the US each year.

Today, death reformers continue to challenge our modern, rationalised, and medicalised end-of-life systems. Broadly, they advocate for more open, public, death-positive, and even pleasurable experiences for the dying, their loved ones, and those managing deaths. Many death reformers also incorporate an explicit ecological perspective in their claims about how and why death system practices should change, promoting more environmentally-sustainable and humanitarian alternatives in their place.

‘‘Green burial harnesses the biological decomposition from dead bodies to nourish nature for all.’’

In our study for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Ecological Death Reform and Death System Change, which was published in the Omega – Journal of Death and Dying in August 2019, we identified what we call an ‘eco-death ethic’ shared by eco-death advocates,that emphasises the importance of limiting environmental harms associated with conventional death practices. The ethic centres on reducing the physical and perceptual distance between death, people, and nature.

Eco-death advocates concretise the ethic in wide-ranging practices. Some draw on pre-modern rituals, such as ‘green’ or ‘natural burial’, which relies on hand-dug graves in natural settings, avoiding chemically-toxic embalming, and conserving cemetery lands as nature preserves. Billy and Kimberley Campbell established Ramsey Creek Preserve, the nation’s first certified conservation burial ground, on 71 acres in South Carolina. Similar to the UK’s woodland burial practices, green burials on the preserve require a shroud or biodegradable casket, hand-dug graves, natural stone markers, and native wild flowers or shrubs on the gravesite. Green burial harnesses the biological decomposition from dead bodies to nourish nature for all. Advocates say the practice also creates opportunities for families and friends to engage more intimately with the dying process and foster deeper human and ecological connections.

A CGI projection of a future Recompose facility. The natural organic reduction law ESSB 5001 goes into effect on 1 May 2020.

Other eco-death alternatives spring from innovative technologies and design. For instance, ‘green cremation’ uses a special chemical process to decompose the body, which greatly reduces the carbon footprint compared to standard cremation, avoiding environmentally-damaging particulate emissions. The Decompiculture Society offers a biodegradable cotton suit that is woven with fungi spores, chosen specifically for its ability to decompose and detoxify bodies and transfer nutrients to plant life in green burial spaces.

Focusing on urban death systems, Recompose represents one pioneering project among these eco-death efforts that has found some recent success. The organisation, based in Seattle, Washington, and led by designer and entrepreneur Katrina Spade, envisions human bodies as compost that can return ecological wealth to communities and nourish new life in public parks and gardens.

According to its website: “Recompose… gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die. Our modular system uses nature’s principles to return our bodies to the earth, sequestering carbon and improving soil health. In fact, we’ve calculated carbon savings over a metric ton per person.”

Creating social change is never easy and Recompose has faced a number of challenges. No legal codes exist that explicitly cover above ground human decomposition. The established death-care industry bristles at new challengers to conventional practice. And talking about death reveals public anxieties about the topic, making it difficult to promote new ideas and practices, despite the community benefits that they may bring. Regardless, Recompose has gained traction. On 21 May 2019, Washington became the first US state (and likely the first jurisdiction worldwide) to legalise human composting, opening the way for Recompose to construct and operate their first facility.

CGI projections of Constellation Park - a public memorial, embedded within the urban life of the metropolis. The proposed system transforms individual biomass into a constellation of light under the Manhattan Bridge in New York City

‘‘The shifts pivot on how we collectively answer a fundamental question: how should we live and die?’’

Based in New York City, DeathLAB, Columbia University’s transdisciplinary futurist-oriented design group, describes itself as an incubator for mortuary infrastructure ideas to address declining cemetery space, growing urban populations, and environmental concerns. According to the group’s website, their projects aim to “integrate emerging science and visionary architecture, reweaving the cycle of life and death into the fabric of the city while considering ways to support grief, memory, and the processes of acceptance”. Their most prominent design, Constellation Park, pictures a memorial with hundreds of ‘memorial vessels’ suspended along a series of plazas and staircases underneath New York City’s Manhattan Bridge. The vessels give off light from the anaerobic digestion of decaying biomass (that is, dead bodies). For DeathLAB, the project “conveys acceptance of the physical finality of death, while recognising both the endurance and transience of remembrance, and the cyclical nature of organic life”. The designers claim that the memorial park could accommodate 10% of New York City’s annual deaths. But, like all eco-death advocacy efforts, DeathLAB faces the challenges of encouraging the public to break with long-standing tradition and to consider new, more sustainable ways of memorialising death in urban spaces.The group publicises ideas through both academic and public outlets, but has yet to see its designs built, used, and experienced.

Eco-death advocates see death as an opportunity to personalise one’s final act, connect with nature, mitigate environmental problems, drive community action, and diminish death’s high economic burden. They invite people to choose from a broader array of options, while exposing political and cultural fault lines along which contemporary death systems are shifting. The shifts pivot on how we collectively answer a fundamental question: how should we live and die?

CGI projections of Constellation Park - a public memorial, embedded within the urban life of the metropolis.

The eco-death projects and the systemic change that advocates strive for highlight broader issues about culture, politics, and social justice at the end of life. Like other events along the life course, death is a political terrain where power indelibly shapes what we judge as important, credible, and justified. Eco-death advocacy challenges the prevailing ways we ‘do death’ in the US. While they are but one portion of much broader processes involved in how western death systems are changing, they have made inroads into the mainstream. In the US, conventional funeral providers are moving to align their practices with eco-death advocates’ goals. According to its website, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the world’s largest funeral service group, now offers its members information and services for “greening your business” and even a trademarked NFDA Green Funeral Practices certificate programme. And, as the ‘silver tsunami’ of baby boomers moves closer to the end of life, they may again counter conventional culture by embracing eco-death alternatives.

Eco-death advocates imagine extensive cultural, political, economic, and organisational transformations that will fundamentally rework end-of-life practices. Their success hinges on the extent to which the public incorporates their ideas into thinking about and managing dying and death. Just how much they will reshape the US death system remains an open question, but we expect to see an increase in the number of people embracing eco-death options as their last gesture.

To find out more about the organisations mentioned in this article visit:

DeathLAB: www.deathlab.org

Ramsay Creek Preserve: www.memorialecosystems.com

Recompose: www.recompose.life

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