Human bodies for fertilizer?

November 14, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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I thought I had an original idea recently only to find that thousands of others were way ahead of me. I got to thinking about cemeteries and their potential for garden farming while making death a little less abhorrent. That’s when I had this “new” idea that actually is very old but is now a new movement.

Have you heard about “green burials”? A growing number of people want to be buried without toxic embalming fluids like formaldehyde, in a shroud or cardboard box or cheap, wooden, readily-biodegradable coffin. Since our bodies are going to decompose no matter what (even in mummification), why not let them return to life-giving humus naturally, thereby enriching the soil?

So I’ve been entertaining myself with a bizarre vision of cemeteries as gardens and orchards of lush food plants fertilized by all that nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, trace elements and organic matter that dead bodies would provide. Could human culture advance toward the true definition of immortality, the enfolding of our remains back into the food chain to contribute to the health of the environment even in death?

I see on Google that every year we are burying 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults, 2700 tons of copper and bronze caskets, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete, and some 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, mostly formaldehyde which destroys microbial life in the soil. Even if these numbers are not quite accurate, they make the point very well.

Green burial is not a new idea. Jewish law forbids embalming and if I’ve got my research correct, Islamic law encourages burying bodies in a simple shroud. It seems to be more a Western culture thing to make a big show of trying to slow down the decomposition of human remains. England requires coffin burial by law, for example. In the U.S., there are many regulations in some areas and remarkably few in others, considering our penchant for making rules about everything. The green burial people are working this all out to keep everything legal.

My imagination leaps forward to a time when enlightenment finally comes to the human race. Cemeteries become lush gardens of fruits, grains, vegetables, and trees for food and for building materials (coffins?) with a farmer’s market at the entrance to sell the produce. Tombstones could be shaped like benches (there is a cemetery in Washington D.C. where this is already true) for visitors to rest from weeding their cemetery garden plots, or from pruning their cemetery trees, or just to relax while eating lunch or engaging in idle conversation. That just might encourage them to share memories of their loved ones now enriching their plants. The dead in this way would achieve a real kind of immortality. Cemetery gardeners might even rest there in their lovely Edenic surroundings and say nice things about living people, even the ones they differ with politically.

Cemeteries could be oases of wildlife as some of them already are. Rare native prairie flowers sometimes show up in old Midwestern cemeteries. A couple of winters ago, the cemetery just down the road from our place had a rare visit from flocks of red crossbills, eating seeds out of the cones of hemlock trees which are not native here like they are in the crossbill’s arboreal forests in the far north. There was a shortage of crossbill food in the far north that year and the birds found life in our sanctuary of the dead.

I wonder if anyone has calculated the fertilizer value of all the human bodies we encase in metal and concrete every year, or in rare, moisture-resistant woods from endangered tree species.

Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on farm-related issues, and believes sustainable pastoral farming is the solution for our stressed agricultural system.

Tags: death, fertilizer, green burials