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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

little ghosts

My body is filled with little ghosts and memories. It is strange to think about these little ghosts decomposing into the earth.

Amy Cunningham, a “green” funeral director, says in an article for The Atlantic that people “really don’t like the idea of the body disappearing into the soil and they’re fighting it in every single way.” Allan Kellehear also talks to this idea in The Social History of Dying. He writes about how, in thinking about modern death, there is an obsession with trying to buy more time, as well as eternal youth and beauty. The obsession with youth and beauty extends beyond death, and we are often embalmed and filled with chemicals to keep us looking alive at our most beautiful so our friends and family can spend more time with us.

I do not want to do any harm when I die, but I still am self-obsessed and want to be preserved as my most beautiful self for as long as possible.

Embalming is important for the emotional needs of friends and family, but this process of stopping ourselves from decomposing when we die is harmful; as Cunningham explains, the chemicals put in our bodies make the potential energy of our bodies inert. When we embalm our bodies we make it harder for the earth to reuse our energy in a positive way. Not only do we ruin our body’s energy potential, but the chemicals used for embalming, like formaldehyde, are harmful when leaked into the earth during decomposition, or when released into the air during cremation. Embalmers also have a higher chance of getting cancer, as formaldehyde is a carcinogen.

I think about bugs eating the scars on each of my knees. How these scars are memories and how it would be nice to have these memories preserved.

There are alternatives to embalming. One of these is a “green funeral” (also “eco funeral”, “green burial”). In a green funeral you are not embalmed, and are instead buried in an eco-friendly coffin that will decompose with you. In New Zealand these coffins must be made out of native “sustainably grown softwood with no preserving treatment” —  they’re not allowed any artificial or synthetic materials. This means the body will decompose more easily into the earth with less harm to the environment.

This means the bugs will eat my body more quickly.


In the past few years green funerals have become a viable option for New Zealanders. There are currently five certified natural burial sites in New Zealand, in Wellington, Kapiti, Carterton, Marlborough, and New Plymouth. Green burials are becoming popular, but there are only a small number of sites available due to limited council approval in different areas, so it can be tricky to arrange. It is also illegal to bury people on private property if there is a cemetery within 31 kilometers. This means that a green funeral has its limitations. If the body is not close to a site, it becomes hard to transport, especially since embalming is not allowed and decomposition will happen faster. It seems like an extra amount of effort for loved ones to arrange who would already be going through a hard time.

Finding a burial site in New Zealand is becoming hard. Newshub reported this year that many cemeteries in high density areas are filling up, with over half the cemeteries in Auckland being full and the operational ones burying up to three coffins and eight urns on one plot. There are also no certified green funeral sites close to Auckland, despite a demand for them.

Even with a green funeral your body can still do harm to the earth. Artist Jae Rhim Lee delivered a TEDx talk about the human body being a storehouse for environmental toxins, and that when we die these pollutants are “returned to the environment one way or another, continuing the cycle of toxicity.”

She started the Infinity Burial Project which lets people be buried in suits filled with mushroom spores that will grow and eat your body to help clear these toxins. Your dead body’s energy will turn into mushrooms and you can live forever renewing energy as a mushroom ghost. Jae Rhim Lee hopes that this will be the start of “true environmental responsibility.” This seems like a good option to do no harm to the earth as a dead body, and being eaten by mushrooms is slightly more appealing than being eaten by bugs. In The Social History of Dying, Kellehear describes a good death as dying with your responsibility to your community in mind. Jae Rhim Lee’s Mushroom Suit is a good way to take responsibility, but buying a suit would add extra costs to a funeral so it may not be affordable for all.


Embalming is still an important part of many traditional cultural practices, and to implement these types of burial responsibly would require adjusting these cultural practices. The Parsi community in India is a good example, having adapted their practices to a changing environment. Khojeste Mistree, head of Zoroastrian Studies at the Institute of Mumbai, talked to Elliot Hannon for NPR about this; he explained that the usual practice is to have the corpse “exposed to the rays of the sun, and the corpse is consumed or devoured by birds of prey — vultures, kites, and crows.” This practice was affected when the vulture populations started to disappear. The Parsi community adapted by introducing solar concentrators to dehydrate the body faster to be more easily consumed by smaller birds.

Environments changing due to climate change is something that has affected many burial sites. In New Zealand burial sites are being washed away by higher tides. Steve Bagley talked to Radio New Zealand about this, saying that “coastal erosion over the years has frequently turned up kōiwi and bones,” and he expressed concern that this could have a big impact on historic and archaeological records.  

Tree pods are another new idea that is being developed by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel. The concept is that your body is placed in a seed-like pod with a tree planted on top of you, and that your body will act as a fertiliser for the tree to grow. The creators hope that we will start to have forests instead of graveyards. Earlier this year they led a workshop at Te Papa Tongarewa where traditional Māori weaving techniques were used to create these pods. These pods are not currently available in New Zealand but there is potential for this idea to take off.

The Eternity Reef Project in the United States cremates your body and mixes your remains into a concrete ball. It is then placed in a construction called a reef ball, a structure that is being used to help rebuild dying reefs.

There are also places that compress your body into a diamond, make it into a firework, a bead, a pencil, or you can be loaded into bullets.

You can also avoid the decision of how to dispose of your body altogether by donating your body to science. In New Zealand you can donate your body to Auckland or Otago University when you die. However, this bequeathment can be vetoed by your family.


It seems that there is no good universal way to dispose of a body, but there are many new thoughtful ways to do it. Most of these are also ways in which your ghostly energy is used to create or grow something new.

Jae Rhim Lee says that “accepting death means accepting that we are a physical being intimately connected to the environment.” It would be nice to become a diamond or a coral reef, but I will probably become a mushroom. In any of these circumstances the little ghosts in my body will become something new and I think I can get over not looking pretty when I die if I think about how my energy can be reused.


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