I was about 12 years old when my great aunt Gilda died.
She was this tiny Italian-American lady: 5-foot-nothing, black hair, sparkly mischievous eyes. She had an open-casket Catholic funeral, which is how it’s always been done on that side of my family, but it was the first one I was old enough to remember. I walked up to the edge of the casket with my brother and looked in.
And there she was. Aunt Gilda. But there was something weird about her.
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She had foundation makeup all over her face that gave her this artificial dark tan coloring. On each cheek was a big round circle of blush. She was dead, but it was like she’d been remade in technicolor to look aggressively alive.
It wasn’t just the makeup that unsettled me. It was how unnatural everything seemed.
Great Aunt Gilda’s body had been filled with embalming fluid to preserve it, placed in an expensive hardwood casket and then put into the ground in a concrete-lined space. A theatrical production to mask that not only was she gone, but her body was starting to decay.
In this episode of terrestrial, we look at what we do with our bodies after we die. We’re examining this from an environmental perspective, because that’s a question some people who study death and burials are currently asking: What if we could compost our dead?
I adored my aunt Gilda – she used to sneak me candy from her purse when no one was looking and then smile, impishly, at our secret — so it’s hard to look back at the day of her wake and think about the environment. But truth is, what we do with our bodies after we die impacts the environment.
That embalming fluid my great aunt was preserved with? It’s made with formaldehyde, a carcinogen. And, according to some estimates, in the U.S. we pump about eight Olympic-sized swimming pools of the stuff into dead bodies every year, which we then put underground.
And the wood that made Aunt Gilda’s casket? When you tally up the people who choose a wooden casket like hers, we’re putting enough wood underground to make an estimated 1,800 single family homes — every year. Think about that for a moment.
Now consider the space cemeteries take up. Some big cities around the country have banned new cemeteries, because there just isn’t any more room.
There’s cremation — my family could have burned great aunt Gilda’s body instead of burying her — but that would have released hundreds of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention small amounts of heavy metals.
All of this is why architect Katrina Spade started thinking about composting human bodies. She's the founder of the Urban Death Project and has designed a “recomposition center," basically a facility where multiple bodies could be composted at a time.
She has gathered a team of experts to figure out how one of these could be built, and they're experimenting with real human bodies at an outdoor research facility in the hills near Western Carolina University.
In this episode of terrestrial, we head to North Carolina to see a body laid to rest, in a compost pile. It was … an experience worth hearing.
Listen on for that and a discussion: Is composting bodies even legal? And how might people of faith see this option?
And finally, a question for you: Would you compost your body? We’ll hash that out over at our Facebook group.