Dying for a green funeral? There are options

With the rise of sea level, pollution, social media and, of course, Greta Thunberg over the climate ecosystem, humans have taken a green turn in their journey to mortality


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 6:41 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 6:48 PM

Death has lost its sting. Its values and dignity, too. Once upon a time, the number of days declared to mourn a personality insinuated how dear or important he or she was to society or to us individually. We gave ourselves enough time to come to terms with the loss and to reminisce and celebrate the life that had just passed.

Forget about India, where Yamaraj, the red-eyed Deity of Death and Justice who is armed with a mace, stick and noose, comes riding a water buffalo, uglier than the life we had just lived on the subcontinental side of the earth. In the West, which always had a head start in inventions and innovations until the dotcom revolution of the ‘90s, death is perceived to be riding a chariot. And if I’m to believe Emily Dickinson, he was so gentle he even kindly paused for those of us who could not stop for death.

There’s been some civility in the way death is perceived and agony is handled in the West. Black-clad undertakers would choreograph a befitting farewell while a hearse of the same shade carry the decorated coffin on the last journey of the departed soul. As is seen in Hollywood movies, relatives — composed and dressed in full mourning clothes and wearing dark shades — would hug each other as encomiums are read out one after another and singers chant dirges in a rueful chorus. A spasmodic burst of sobs would add a dash of personal grief. The soul is thus allowed to rest in peace in the graveyard of memories. Call it dignity in death.

In contrast, until a few years ago or as recently as in the pre-covid era, funerals in the subcontinent were a cacophonous affair, loud enough to resuscitate the dead. Hired mourners as well as amateurs from the immediate neighbourhood and family circles would battle it out to make their grief heard far and wide. Photogs and videographers would jostle to film the maelstrom of agony where the bereaved have been pushed into. Chants of prayers by priests would rise over the burning pyre as mourners wash away their anguish in a sea of tears.

Isn’t it pure melodrama? A cultural thing, say merchants of death who have spiked cremation charges by 50-60 per cent in the time of Covid. Cultural advocates argue that such a visible outpouring of agony and an elaborate farewell party that families throw post-death offer the much-needed closure for the bereaved families. Forget life, the poor find it expensive to die in many parts of the world.

With the rise of sea level, pollution, social media and, of course, Greta Thunberg over the climate ecosystem, humans have taken a green turn in their journey to mortality. Gone are the days when the dead was remembered with a dozen women spending more than a week on the mourning mat and liters of ghee were burned to keep the eternal flame burning until the rituals are over. Women who have been empowered find no reason to waste their priced manpower on a boondoggle that has just been put to sleep. Gone are the days when scores of messengers would cycle for hours to deliver the death notice to scattered families. Gone are the days when taxis fitted with loudspeakers would roam the countryside with obituary announcements, causing hazardous noice pollution.

Life is in the fast lane. So is death. The New Gen who straddles multiple platforms immortalises their grief by watching Zoom funerals and placing digital wreaths on socials. Words of sorrow are borrowed from Pinterest and images from Canva. The higher the number of likes, the greater the departed soul. Condolences are home-delivered over WhatsApp and Telegram. They argue Green, Green Grass of Home writer Curly Putman might be the pioneer who envisioned an eco-friendly funeral in 1965.

Gone are the days when mortal remains were consigned to flames, a process that required around 350kg of wood — mango to sandalwood, depending on the status of the deceased — to burn a body weighing nearly 80kg. Just a call away are caretakers in India who could send a mobile crematorium that can burn a body in one and a half hours. No one has the time and patience for an overnight weight for the pyre to crumble down before collecting ashes. Gone are the days corpses were accorded last respects, not thrown into muddy waters wrapped in a PPE.

The Thunbergs of funeral activism are up in arms against the use of cremators that consume about 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity on average per body — roughly the same domestic energy demands as a single person for an entire month, according to a Guardian report.

Amid the burning debate of how sustainable are funeral services, the industry is offering the third option, besides burial and cremation: dissolve yourself. While a cremator releases 260kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning a single body, a new technique called resomation uses just one-seventh of the energy required for cremation.

In resomation, according to its developers, the body is placed in a steel pressure chamber along with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. And you are done and dusted at a temperature of 180 degrees Centigrade in three hours.

Freeze-drying the dead into brittle, compostable remains using liquid nitrogen as well as solar-powered crematoria are the other alternatives proposed to help save millions of tonnes of wood and stop the release of emissions that are carcinogenic.

Leaving a trail of carbon foot print on the beautiful planet that we once called home would be the last thing on anybody’s mind. It’s your call how you want to say good night at the end of the curtain call. Dissolve or be damned. Or park yourselves in the green, green grass of home on the Metaverse? Zuckerberg, are you listening?


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