Death & the Salesmen

| 1st December 2003
Expensive, polluting, unnatural and booming.
Jeremy Smith investigates the ‘death-care industry’

‘If you desire an everlasting connection and closeness to the one you have lost, the LifeGem is right for you. Each LifeGem, as a celebration of life, tells a unique story and represents a new beginning. This closeness and mobility, offered only by a LifeGem, will help you keep your loved one with you and in your life at all times.’

A Lifegem is a diamond created from the carbonised remains of a corpse. The ‘closeness and mobility’ refers to the fact that once set in a ring, your loved one will be very much close at hand wherever you go.

Should a LifeGem not appeal, then Eternal Reefs could mix your ashes with concrete to create an artificial reef (with a brass plaque bearing your name), which will then be sunk onto the ocean floor. Or the Summum Organisation could wrap you up like an Egyptian mummy, a process it believes ‘could be appealing to anyone who works hard at staying in shape’, adding ‘With the increasing number of people joining health clubs and becoming more health conscious, why not end up on a high note?’

Not dramatic enough? Then, for $5,300 the Celestis Foundation’s ‘Earthview service’ will shoot ‘a symbolic portion of the cremated remains of a loved one’ (their ‘cremains’) into orbit, so that they will circle the earth for nearly 50 years before re-entering the atmosphere ‘blazing like a shooting star in final tribute’.

Worth over $20 billion in the US and over £1 billion in the UK each year, business in the ‘death-care industry’ is booming. In the States, three giant firms handle a quarter of all funerals. The largest is Service Corporation International (SCI), which owns funeral companies across five continents, conducts some half a million funerals a year and employs over 35,000 people. Based in Houston, Texas, the firm’s CEO Robert Waltrip is a close personal friend of George W Bush. A few years ago Waltrip and SCI were named as defendants in a whistleblower lawsuit over allegations that Bush had intervened on SCI’s behalf to help stop an investigation by Texas’s regulatory agency. SCI was also a big financial contributor to the Bush presidential campaign, and Waltrip has given $100,000 to the George Bush Presidential Library set up in honour of Bush Sr.

Not that all of SCI’s friends are Republicans. While SCI was busy funding Bush’s campaign, Tony Coelho, the chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign, was sitting on the firm’s board of directors. He also owned more than $450,000 of shares in the company.

However, you won’t see SCI’s name when you visit a funeral parlour. Sensibly, it hides behind the family names of the businesses it buys up, aware that people want the personal touch when it comes to dealing with funerals.

People don’t want to know, when discussing what will happen to their dead loved ones (or ‘prospects’, as the industry calls them) that their willingness to pay over the odds at such a moment is an ‘attractive industry fundamental’. But that’s how Loewen Group, the second largest funeral services company in the world, puts it. Nor would they necessarily want to know that in 1995 Loewen bought out nearly 200 locally owned Canadian funeral homes and went on to post a 41 per cent profit.

If the costs of confronting death seem expensive, they are nothing compared to the costs of doing your utmost not to. For $28,000 the Cryonics Institute guarantees ‘reliable and affordable cryonic suspension’ (or freezing of corpses) until such a time as science is ready to give you once again a ‘youthful and healthy new life’. More affordably, companies like Genetic Savings & Clone are offering all-inclusive pet cloning services (from $895 – shipping excluded), allowing doggie years to be relived again and again. And now these same firms are waiting for public attitudes and legislation to shift so they can offer you cloned granny – only this time she’s 40 years younger than you are.

Passage of time

Our attitude to death was not always like this. In the past, before the Victorians came over all squeamish, families took care of their own. A woman would learn from her mother how to lay out a body once it had died, and how then to care for it. A father would teach his son how to build a coffin and dig a grave. And all of this was watched and understood by the children, themselves learning from a young age not to fear the bodies of the dead, but simply to see death as an inevitable part of life.

Most importantly, all of this took place in the home. Everything was done cheaply, quickly, and locally. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, these domestic rituals began to be replaced. The funeral parlour removed corpses from the household, beginning a process of distancing people from the corporeality and immediacy of death. Today, the Vancouver Crematorium in Canada boasts to its clients (for that is what the bereaved now are) that it offers a 24-hour within-the-hour pick-up service.

In fact, it is no longer enough just to shut out death. Now, with the increased medicalisation of our world, the dying are shut out too. Most people no longer die at home. They die in hospitals, maintained and cared for not by their families but in bland wards monitored by white-coated professionals. Worse still, ‘home’ has become a euphemism for somewhere to deposit the old once their living has become too death-like, too much of a reminder for us of our own mortality, too much of a burden. As the late Ivan Illich wrote in Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, ‘when hospitals draft all those who are in critical condition, they impose on society a new form of dying’.

Unnatural preservatives

Few people today have even seen a corpse, let alone washed one. When we die, nearly three quarters of us are embalmed in the hope of preserving us in as lifelike a state as possible rather than allowing the natural process of rotting to take place. The result? Each year the US alone buries 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid. In half of all embalmings this means formaldehyde, a potent carcinogen that causes flu-like symptoms, rashes, asthma and neurological illness, and which cannot be made non-toxic. Hospital workers involved in embalming and people working in funeral homes have a 30 per cent greater chance of catching cancer of the throat, nose or pharynx. And although it takes only three days after embalming for the body to start decomposing, and two to three years for the embalming substances (volatile organic compounds known to contribute to smog, ozone depletion and global warming) to seep into the surrounding soil and water aquifers, we would rather this than confront the reality of our bodies’ decomposing.

Decomposition is further delayed by coffin design. In the US Oak Grove International’s ‘Summerfield’ coffin is made of thick, reinforced fiberglass, meaning it’s not biodegradable and allowing the company to boast on its website that it is ‘thereby protecting the body from the environment, and the environment from the body, for countless tomorrows’.

Our modern attitudes to death are not just about separating ourselves from death, they are about separating ourselves from the processes of nature, from the cycle of decay and rebirth – from life. As psychologist Robert Jay Lifton observed in his book The Broken Connection: on death and the continuity of life, we have lost the ‘psychological relationship between the phenomenon of death and the flow of life’.

For many years anthropologists have realised that one of the best ways to study the life of a culture is to study its attitudes to death. What, for example, is the perceived role of the dead on the affairs of the living? Is the process of dying a public or private event? To what level is a social stigma attached to those dying, dead or bereaved? Is the prevention of death a central goal? Is the frank discussion of death taboo?

On the one hand Western philosophy sees life as the material reality, with death as the end of existence and what goes after illusory. For Buddhists and Hindus, however, death is not the most painful of events, but something that constantly recurs and leads to rebirth into a cycle of lives; it is the end of rebirths that is their goal, not the end of death. As a result, Hindu and Buddhist cultures are less obsessed with seeking medical extensions to life, and more concerned with living life correctly. In such cultures material life is illusory, maya, with the only reality being nirvana – the loss of individual ego into a greater collective good.

Ashes to ashes

The eminent cultural critic Lewis Mumford saw even more striking parallels between a culture’s relationships with death and life. For Mumford the growth of the city, and all that urbanisation brings with it, are presaged in the growth of communal cemeteries. In The City in History he writes: ‘Early man’s respect for the dead… perhaps had an even greater role than more practical needs in causing him to seek a fixed meeting place and eventually a continuous settlement. Though food-gathering and hunting do not encourage the permanent occupation of a single site, the dead at least claim that privilege. Long ago the Jews claimed as their patrimony the land where the graves of their forefathers were situated; and that well-attested claim seems a primordial one. The city of the dead antedates the city of the living. In one sense, indeed, the city of the dead is the forerunner of the city of the living.’

Far-fetched? If we look closer at cemeteries and crematoria, and the rituals and practices that take place in them, we see that these cultural institutions do indeed reflect much of the value of the society they belong to. Compare our attitudes to disposing of the dead with our attitudes towards the disposal of waste.

In City Limits, the mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s 2002 report on London’s ecological footprint, it is revealed that the city’s inhabitants generated 3.4 million tonnes of household waste in the year 2000. Of that, 71 per cent is now piling up in landfill, 20 per cent was incinerated and just 9 per cent was recycled.

For the vast majority of us what happens to our waste once it leaves our house is somebody else’s business. In our minds it is gone for ever. But, of course, this is not the reality. In truth, the 91 per cent that is either landfilled or incinerated has not vanished, but merely moved. And, though we cannot or refuse to see it, it is polluting our and our children’s world with toxins. We think our waste is our past, but really it is our future.

So too with our dead. Now that landfill is out of vogue with the dead as well as the living, we send 73 per cent of our corpses to be incinerated; that’s up from just 4 per cent immediately after WWII. The effect is just the same as with our waste. According to the EU, 12 per cent of UK atmospheric dioxins resulting from combustion come from crematoria. The World Health Organisation describes the dangers of dioxins thus: ‘Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer.’

 Furthermore, 11 per cent of mercury vapour in the atmosphere originates from mercury amalgam in fillings burnt during cremation. (If we carry on as we are, this statistic will have increased to over 30 per cent by 2020.) Mercury pollutes marine environments in the form of highly toxic methyl mercury, which accumulates subsequently throughout the food chain. A 10th of the mercury in the North Sea comes from crematoria.

Exposure to methyl mercury, even in small amounts, can result in devastating neurological damage and death. It is also thought to affect unborn children in the womb. Spread throughout the marine food chain, from plankton to fish, it is ultimately bound to proteins in fish tissues, and no method of cooking has so far been found to eliminate the danger to consumers.

Fifty years ago in Minamata, Japan, 1,400 people died from seafood contaminated with mercury. Higher than normal concentrations of mercury have also been found in European soils, and increasing temperatures from global warming could accelerate its release from soil and sediment storage into the atmosphere. Researchers in Northampton have discovered twice the normal level of mercury in the hair of crematoria workers. And for women living near crematoria the risk of having a stillbirth are 4 per cent higher, and the chance of the baby having a brain abnormality up 5 per cent.

Recycle your corpse

But again, as with our approach to waste, so with our approach to death. In recent years there has been an increase of people wanting more natural funerals through which the cycles of life are not resisted, but embraced. The fastest growing type of natural funeral in the UK is woodland burial. In January 1996 there were 17 woodland burial grounds. By January 1997 there were 52. By May 2000 there were 100. Now there are over 180, with more and more people each year opting not to be encased in dead wood, but to be part of the nutrients that help new trees grow.

At woodland sites there are no headstones and no metal. The most popular coffins are biodegradable cardboard, with many people opting for a simple woollen shroud. Trees are planted on each grave. We are not taking from the earth as our last act; we are giving back.

This understanding and appreciation of death as a process not of departure but of regeneration is nothing new. JG Frazer’s anthropological masterpiece The Golden Bough is, for example, filled with stories of cultures whose death rituals and associated imagery were all about regeneration. Perhaps a better understanding of death might be the beginning for a better understanding of life.

Natural funeral alternatives

The Compostorium

The compostorium is an urban method of disposing of human remains. A compostorium is similar to a crematorium, except that the deceased is allowed to decompose naturally into soil rather than being incinerated into carbon dioxide. Deposited in a large urn with four parts vegetable matter to one part human matter, the cadaver is allowed to decompose for several months. After a period of six months or so, the entire contents have become high-grade soil.

Biological materials of the deceased’s choice can be incorporated into the composting process – lawn clippings, tree trimmings, his/her favourite foods, well-used leather shoes, water from a river or the sea, flowers from the funeral, soil from the backyard, etc.

The Corpse as Fertiliser

A Swedish biologist has come up with a process whereby bodies are freeze-dried into about 30 kilograms of organic and nutritious powder. The powder is placed in a box, buried and covered with topsoil. The deceased’s favourite plant can then be grown from the soil.

Jeremy Smith is the deputy editor of The Ecologist. For more information about woodland burials, contact: The Natural Death Centre, 6 Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, London N4 2BT; tel +44 (0)20 7359 8391; fax +44 (0)20 7354 3831;

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2003



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