There’s been an intriguing call from the United Kingdom for planners to design green “burial corridors” along major roads and rights of way, to ensure that there will be room for the dearly departed in coming decades.
John Ashton, an independent public health consultant in Liverpool, pitched the plan as part of an overall call to change the way humans both live and die. His article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine urges more strategic land use – including the motorway corridor plan – as well as a range of climate friendly, end-of-life solutions.
“Necropolis in Crisis” notes the diversity of religious and cultural tradition that makes up the various ways people choose to express their grief and respect privately, as well as what rituals and wishes people have when communities lose their loved ones. Ashton, however, also notes that there’s a positive trend in people seeking sustainable solutions. Places like Washington State in the United States have passed new laws that allow for more organic and “compostable” burials that allow for a natural decomposition.
The practices are meant to reduce land use for burials, as well as toxic chemical use and caskets that can leach into the earth. They can replace cremation, which causes carbon emissions. They’re also more needed than ever, Ashton argues, because there are about 55 million deaths each year on the planet.
“Finding optimal ways of ecological disposal of the inevitable increase in the numbers of dead should be seen as something requiring public health attention,” he argues. “At home, British graveyards and cemeteries are rapidly running out of room and, despite the increasing use of reclaiming graves for further use, matters are likely to come to a head over the next five years.”
The environmental and human health impacts of the fluids and materials used in embalming are of growing concern, and Ashton notes examples including traditional Muslim burial that instead opts “in favor of rapid ritual disposal and the use of simple cotton shrouds as more universally favored in earlier times.”
About 80 percent of people are now cremated, leaving 20 percent needing burial – and that reality, among other things, means that there will always be a demand for burial rites in some way. Reusing graves, as the UK has done in recent years, helps.
Yet the UK alone has 500,000 deaths per year in England and Wales, and Ashton argues that “as we face a new crisis, there is an opportunity to recast our approach so that each of us can contribute to saving the planet as the last act of our short lifespan.”
With that, he argues for wider acceptance of a return to natural practices.
“Surely what is needed now is a grand strategic vision for green burial places to reclaim our cities with urban and peri-urban woods and forests, and for it to be a requirement for trunk transport routes to include linear wildlife burial corridors alongside them,” he said. “It is time to revisit the public health roots of human burial and connect them to a new vision of a planet fit for future generations.”