The pollution of death
Having gotten a little depressed about not being able to find relevant employment, I have decided it is time to publish this item:
We hear a lot about death caused by pollution but, have you ever stopped to consider the pollution caused by death? One of the many advantages of environmental protection legislation and effective regulation is that this is not seen as too much of a problem in most developed countries around the world. However, that is not to say that it is not recognised by the relevant authorities as a potential problem.
In 2004, the Environment Agency (the appropriate regulator in England and Wales), published Assessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Developments and, no doubt, the American EPA has done something similar. In addition, of course, in our increasingly post-Christian society, more and more people are opting for unconventional and/or “green” methods of disposal and/or dispersal of their mortal remains. However, is there such a thing as an environmentally-friendly and/or ecologically-sound solution to this problem?
In less developed countries where, entirely coincidentally I should stress, Christianity is a minority faith compared to say Hinduism, open air cremations are commonplace. I was very fortunate to be able to go to Nepal 3 years ago and, before being flown into the world’s scariest airport at Lukla in the Himalayas (with a 400m cliff at one end and a 4000m mountain at the other), our trekking party was given a tour of Kathmandu. This included visiting Pashupatinath; the most important location outside India where Hindus conduct public cremations in the open air.
However, leaving aside the culture shock, it was also quite alarming to see the impact of such repeated activity on the river next to which it is carried out (especially at times of low flow). But again I ask, is there a better way? In densely-populated developed nations we tend to bury the problem or burn it (in a way that we see as more appropriate); and the pollution it causes is delayed and/or unseen but, with burials at least, we are undoubtedly causing groundwater pollution in the process. The fact that this may yet become a serious problem is therefore yet another consequence of overpopulation. With regard to cremations, there are already well-documented examples of places that are popular locations for the scattering of ashes that are becoming polluted as a result (almost to the extent that they could legitimately be classified as contaminated land).
As far as I can see, the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial is about the most ecologically-sound form of disposal but, for reasons that will become obvious, this is only practical in areas of extremely-low population density: Sky burials mimic what happens in nature; in that the body is left in the open to be “recycled” by animals who feed on carrion. Apart from the obvious problems of visual pollution and odour, this therefore results in no long-term pollution of the environment.
However, as with our response to all other forms of pollution and environmental problems, given the reality of human overpopulation of our planet, the days in which a Frontier Mentality were appropriate are long gone: What we need now is sober acceptance of reality; and serious and sustained collective action to deal with all the problems we face.
I believe we need to start with climate change.