Popular Science
Death Corpse Cremation Postmortem Image Credit: Popular Science
Death Corpse Cremation Postmortem Image Credit: Popular Science

What You Take With You

Death might be life’s natural and unavoidable conclusion, but humans have ensured that what happens to our bodies afterward is anything but.

Nicole Wetsman

For more than a century, the circle of life in the United States has looked more like a horseshoe, with burial practices preventing the Earth from reusing our precious raw materials after we shuffle off this mortal coil. But there are alternatives, and a growing number of future corpses might rot as nature intended.

Embalming may be our worst offender. The practice of filling bodies with chemicals like formaldehyde to preserve them dates back to ancient Egypt, but it caught on stateside in the mid-1800s as a way to transport fallen Civil War soldiers. Today, U.S. morticians embalm roughly 1 million people every year. It takes between 3 and 4 gallons of chemicals to preserve the average body. That’s a lot of carcinogens to leave floating around for the sake of the dead.

The ripple effects are numerous and nasty. Conserved corpses can go on display in caskets that, collectively, use tons of wood and steel, which we then bury in concrete containers. Instead of returning bodily nutrients, like potassium and calcium, to the ground, we slowly molder while shielded from the dirt. Lack of oxygen causes wasting flesh to release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than the carbon dioxide we’d produce in open air. Meanwhile, embalming fluid can leak into soil and make its way into our groundwater, potentially at hazardous concentrations. Our final contribution to humankind: toxic ooze.

Many countries favor an option lighter on chemicals: cremation. It&


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