Friday, August 29, 2014

a modest disposal proposal

I was standing around in the car park at Greenmeadow Golf Club with my friend Huw the other day having a conversation about death, as one does. Not, to be fair, a subject plucked out of the air on some morbid whim, but prompted by the evidence of a funeral wake just finishing in the golf club bar. Greenmeadow does what I would imagine is a pretty good business catering for funeral groups, since it's right next door to a crematorium.

Anyway, the question arose: what arrangements should the avowed atheist make for the event of his or her own demise? This is really a question about two different things:
  • what sort of an event do you want to organise and invite people to to pay their respects, express their grief (which you'd selfishly hope there might be a little bit of) and generally give you a bit of a send-off? 
  • what do you want done with your physical remains?
Death is arguably even more tied up with religious and magical thinking than birth and marriage are, and I suppose that's not surprising. One of the ways in which religions get their adherents to do as they're told is to dangle the carrot of eternal blissful reward in some imaginary better life that occurs after death. So since death is therefore an essential part of the process, indeed the essential part of the process, religion is able to make a big claim on overseeing the ushering of people from this life to the next. After all, you need to be sure that the right voodoo incantations are said at the right time, otherwise there could be a last-minute hitch and the deceased ends up in the wrong place.

Actually the two questions above aren't completely separate, since means of disposal of the physical remains often forms part of the massed send-off activities. Think of the countless comedy sketches involving massed mourners and coffins either being lowered into graves or trundling along the conveyor into the crematorium incinerator. Alternative methods are available, principally involving burial of the remains in some supposedly more "natural" way. In practice this means methods not involving embalming the body, and using more easily degradable containers for burial, either a fabric shroud or an easily degradable coffin.

While the "greener" burial options seem clearly better, burial in general seems to me absurdly wasteful of space. In these times of soaring world population and competition for space do we really want to be reserving significant areas for the burial of dead people? Take Newport as an example: there are three council-run cemeteries, two very big ones and one smaller one up in Caerleon. The Americans have this weird thing for above-ground burial, as well, which is profoundly strange. Just pop the deceased in a cupboard and pop back in to see them anytime! Except that certain natural processes will still occur, and there is a thing called exploding casket syndrome which sounds extremely undesirable.

Moreover, as anyone who's watched The Matrix will tell you, the human body has a considerable amount of energy locked up in it, and it seems a shame to allow this to go to no more useful purpose than feeding some worms and warming a patch of soil up a bit. I don't have the figures for how much energy a dead human contains, but when you consider that something like half a million people die in Britain every year, that's a lot of unexploited potential energy there.

So what are the options? Well, there are some obvious ones like just feeding the dead down a conveyor belt straight into power station furnaces. A milder version of this has already been tried, in Redditch, where the heat generated by the local crematorium was used to heat a nearby swimming pool. The fact that this proposal was met with some quite serious opposition from people who thought it was "weird" and/or "sick" just goes to show that people are intensely weird and irrational about death.

So what else? Well, here in Newport we recycle all our food waste, including discarded raw and cooked meat. Couldn't something on a larger scale work for dead people? You know, green-topped bin for general refuse, orange-topped bin for garden waste, pink-topped bin for deceased relatives. Other options are also available, but, well, you've got to draw the line somewhere.

I actually do think that the default option should be that the body becomes the responsibility of the state for disposal, and would be carted off for either composting or incineration at some central facility where any energy released could be captured and used for other purposes. You could still do the individual cremation or burial thing if you wanted, but at punitive cost. As far as my mortal remains are concerned, assuming you're not going to go with this idea I'd be quite happy to give them up for the greater good once all the re-usable organs have been harvested.

No comments: