Leaving only yourself behind

It’s the strangest Christmas present I’ve ever helped to give. This week, my mom and I will be putting our beloved cat, Bobo to sleep forever. He’s been suffering with a tumor and can barely lap up food any more. After months of treatment, we have decided to call it quits and give him our own holiday gift: an end to his suffering.

Pets bring a lot of comfort and we’ve been lucky to have one of the best cats ever over the last ten years. Like everything on the planet, everything has its final hour. With this bleak holiday message, it brings to mind what will happen with everything else we may be leaving behind.

The holidays are a conundrum of giving, taking and waste. At the end, we leave behind our own trail of consumerism. We have the power to diminish our impact on the planet, but what about when we die? What legacy will we be leaving behind when we’re  committed  to the earth?

The last straw is the process of embalming our loved ones in a fluid that preserves them for a short period of time. Blood is removed and replaced with disinfecting fluid. This process was important for protecting the public when cases of typhoid fever and malaria were abundant. Now, it is used to prolong the state of a dead body for funeral viewings.

Embalming fluid is a chemical mixture containing 5-29% formaldehyde, ethanol and water. Fomraldehyde is a known carcinogen, which is no big deal for the person pumped with it, but let’s not kid ourselves, we know that the environment doesn’t like to contain things in simple packages. Formaldehyde, the main preserving component in embalming fluid, leaches into the environment and binds with the soil. Over time, the accumulation of leaked formaldehyde magnifies and we’re left with a minefield of toxic sludge.

Other resources and materials are used for the funerary process (from Wikepedia):

Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:

30 million board feet (70,000 m ³) of  hardwoods (caskets)
90,272 tons of  steel (caskets)
14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
2,700 tons of  copper and  bronze (caskets)
1,636,000 tons of  reinforced concrete (vaults)
827,060 US gallons (3,130 m ³) of  embalming fluid, which most commonly includes  formaldehyde.

There haven’t been extensive studies performed on the effects of embalming fluid on the environment and the practice isn’t mandatory in Quebec, so let’s look at some alternatives that are guaranteed not to leave behind a legacy of poison for generations to come.

Promession is a method invented eleven years ago by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. Bodies are freeze-dried, shattered into tiny pieces and left to decompose aerobically. The remains are sorted for  recyclable  materials (rings, watches, and other dangles left behind), then the remaining powder is placed in a biodegradable casket and placed in a shallow grave.

Everything  in this process is eco-friendly and is based on the natural biodegradation life cycle found in  terrestrial  ecosystems. The shallow burial allows oxygen to further decompose the body’s remains. Traditional burials place bodies too deep for oxygen to reach them, which putrefies and rots the bodies over time. Facilities for Promession will be opened in Sweden, Great Britain & South Korea in 2011. North America will have to wait a bit longer before using this method, but there are still some good options close to home.

A regular old natural burial can be as simple as burying the body in a shroud, a  biodegradable  coffin, or check out the resources that Toronto’s  Natural Burial Coop has to offer.  They say that your burial can even help improve the environment around you by using native plants as  memorials  rather than tombstones or metal plaques.

Cemetery  legislation protects the site so no development can occur where loved ones are permanently rested and over time, each new addition helps create a full Canadian ecosystem.  Natural burials can also take place in standard cemeteries.

Death isn’t an easy issue, which is why it’s important to plan ahead of time. When put face-to-face with a loss, you’re hardly thinking of ecological responsibility, so plan ahead of time when that final hour comes. As for Bobo, he has been cremated. Cremation is another more ecologically-friendly alternative to burial. Much less space is used, preserving land and contaminants are burned away, although more study is needed on cremation’s true effects on the environment. For the time being, we’ll save Bobo’s remains and bury him in the spring when the ground is soft again when we can plant a native shrub to  commemorate  the life of an amazing cat.

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