Raking the Dead

Mary Roach's Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers is an insightful and entertaining look at what happens to our bodies after we die. The text ranges from the practical, such as the use of cadavers as teaching tools in medical schools and as stand-ins for test crash dummies, to the bizarre, such as the attempts of a doctor to measure the weight of the human soul.

“Stiff” is a great read. But the chapter on the Swede who wants to compost corpses got me thinking. What would happen if we applied the solid waste hierarchy to the disposal of our final remains? How should we apply reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery and landfilling to our dead bodies? After all, every culture in the world has its own way of disposing of its dead. What is ours?

Let's start with reuse and recycling. Here the options are easy. Kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs can be transplanted. Corneas, bones and other tissues can be grafted. Many reuse and recycling options exist, such as the Lions Club's Gift of Sight campaign and Lifesharers, a non-profit voluntary network of organ donors. In the United States, organ donation laws require the donor to make an affirmative statement during their lifetime that they are willing to be a donor. The beauty of organ donation is that donors help to save lives. Estimates of the number of patients waiting for organ transplants exceed 90,000 people.

Another reuse/recycle option is to donate your body to a medical school for use in teaching or research. And here, too, a need exists. Medical schools usually are short of teaching specimens. Perhaps that's why anatomy teachers traditionally will their bodies to their medical schools.

Composting is a relatively new option. The Swedish technique involves freeze-drying to take the liquid out of the corpse, making it easy to shatter into smaller, more easily compostable pieces. In one sense, of course, composting is a very traditional method of disposal, assuming you are buried at sea.

Waste-to-energy for the dead? Let's not go there. Cremation (without energy recovery) is increasingly popular, in part, because burning is less expensive than burying. And it's worth noting that more than a century ago, some of the original interest in cremation grew from concerns that we were running out of space for cemeteries (sound familiar?). Downsides? The Swedish composting company was motivated in part by concern over mercury in crematoria emissions. Interestingly, Roach claims in “Stiff” that the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate crematoria emissions because it does not want to define a corpse as solid waste.

Which leaves us with land disposal without gas recovery, because an embalmed body in a casket in its own plot or a mausoleum is unlikely to produce methane. If you are a hierarchy junkie, cemeteries are all wrong, but you might be able to find peace of mind in a “green” cemetery, where your unembalmed body will be buried without a casket.

As for myself, I intend to donate my organs to as many recipients as possible. Not only will this save lives, but it also will keep some of me around a little bit longer.

I did leave one option out. For fans of Charlton Heston, we have the Soylent Green solution. Let's hope we never get to that point!

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.