Burial remains an important option for many people (though only about one in four deaths in the UK) and it is often believed to be more environmentally friendly than cremation. This depends partly on the return of the body to the natural cycle. We have looked at this and other aspects of burial.
- The dead body is not just a waste product. It was our home and after death it is rich in nutrients. It is not usually dangerous.
- Decomposition is likely to be faster and more likely to feed the soil in shallow graves. But this depends on the soil.
- We are interested in finding out how shallow burial would need to be, to enable normal decomposition to happen and how long any nutrient enrichment would last.
- Land is expensive and scarce and having a plot for ever will be rare for most people in the future.
- If the environment is your concern, driving a long way for a ‘green’ burial might not be any better than a local cremation. But it might be very good for other reasons.
- We did one piece of research looking at the carbon implications of different scenarios for burials and cremations. The biggest factor was car travel. However, burial in a beautiful spot may help preserve the landscape and make good use of the earth and may bring healing memories.
- Carbon-rich materials such as cardboard, sawdust and certain fungi can help decomposition. As a culture, we are a little squeamish about rapid decomposition and the taking up of bones, but possibly we shall need to look at this if we want to achieve better land use through burying the nutrient-rich corpse. Have a look on YouTube for the famous mushroom suit!
- More experiment on how the body’s nutrients can actually benefit the soil. We have completed pilot work on this. Corpses and the Soil - PUBLIC REPORT This shows that shallow burial of corpses does benefit the soil but this is not automatic and the effects are complex. See also Corpses and the Soil - PRESS RELEASE , Corpses and the Soil - MAIN REPORT and Corpses and the Soil - appendices. Our pilot study suggests more research would be useful.
- More burial where there is another land use, such as grazing.
- More public debate about the re-use of graves. This is done without fuss at the City of London Cemetery, east of London.
- Continuing experiment with composting the body. In the USA, the Urban Death Project is developing a form of rapid and above-ground burial in compost for city dwellers and this may be worth watching.
Our conclusion is that burial will continue to be important for many people. We need to know more about when it is the greener option and we have to be realistic about how much land is available in the future. We advocate an informed and truthful public debate about the pros and cons of burial.
Read the research
- Soil science related to the human body after death: Literature review produced for The Corpse Project, March 2016 (PDF)