The pollution of death

Having gotten a little depressed about not being able to find relevant employment, I have decided it is time to publish this item:

Flower sellers at Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath - the colourful but disconcerting district of Kathmandu

We hear a lot about death caused by pollution but, have you ever stopped to consider the pollution caused by death? One of the many advantages of environmental protection legislation and effective regulation is that this is not seen as too much of a problem in most developed countries around the world. However, that is not to say that it is not recognised by the relevant authorities as a potential problem. In 2004, the Environment Agency (the appropriate regulator in England and Wales), published Assessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Developments and, no doubt, the American EPA has done something similar. In addition, of course, in our increasingly post-Christian society, more and more people are opting for unconventional and/or “green” methods of disposal and/or dispersal of their mortal remains. However, is there such a thing as an environmentally-friendly and/or ecologically-sound solution to this problem? In less developed countries where, entirely coincidentally I should stress, Christianity is a minority faith compared to say Hinduism, open air cremations are commonplace. I was very fortunate to be able to go to Nepal 3 years ago and, before being flown into the world’s scariest airport at Lukla in the Himalayas (with a 400m cliff at one end and a 4000m mountain at the other), our trekking party was given a tour of Kathmandu. This included visiting Pashupatinath; the most important location outside India where Hindus conduct public cremations in the open air. However, leaving aside the culture shock, it was also quite alarming to see the impact of such repeated activity on the river next to which it is carried out (especially at times of low flow). But again I ask, is there a better way? In densely-populated developed nations we tend to bury the problem or burn it (in a way that we see as more appropriate); and the pollution it causes is delayed and/or unseen but, with burials at least, we are undoubtedly causing groundwater pollution in the process. The fact that this may yet become a serious problem is therefore yet another consequence of overpopulation. With regard to cremations, there are already well-documented examples of places that are popular locations for the scattering of ashes that are becoming polluted as a result (almost to the extent that they could legitimately be classified as contaminated land). As far as I can see, the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial is about the most ecologically-sound form of disposal but, for reasons that will become obvious, this is only practical in areas of extremely-low population density: Sky burials mimic what happens in nature; in that the body is left in the open to be “recycled” by animals who feed on carrion. Apart from the obvious problems of visual pollution and odour, this therefore results in no long-term pollution of the environment. However, as with our response to all other forms of pollution and environmental problems, given the reality of human overpopulation of our planet, the days in which a Frontier Mentality were appropriate are long gone: What we need now is sober acceptance of reality; and serious and sustained collective action to deal with all the problems we face. I believe we need to start with climate change.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Civilisation, Climate Science, Environment, Ethics, Limits to Growth, Optimum Population and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The pollution of death

  1. Donald says:

    is there such a thing as an environmentally-friendly and/or ecologically-sound solution to this problem? In Australia we actually have a new form of disposing of bodies which very much resembles sky burials … they are called “Body Farms”, at first there was only one but now they are numerous and growing. They just dump your body in a secluded bush area and leave it there to rot, then scientists and students come in a use the bodies for research …. very useful and environmentally friendly … except for the smell šŸ™‚


    • Rick_Altman says:

      Thanks Donald. Yes, I was aware of body farms (comedian Stephen Fry came across them during his self-drive tour of the USA a few years ago; and they have more-recently spawned a BBC TV detective series). However, as an option, I thought this only arises when an individual specifies in their Last Will and Testament that their body be made available for medical/scientific research?


      • Donald says:

        Yes, one must make such arrangements before death, most of the science done on the bodies is done for police forensic research so there isn’t too much room for everybody. However, in about 50 years time I can see sky burials all over the place. Did you know it is in the Bible? Towards the end of times 200 million people will be dead on the streets and in the hills and so on, apparently it will take humanity two years to find and burn them all …


      • Rick_Altman says:

        Is this yet more over-interpretation of the book of Revelation? Is the number 200 million actually stated? Give me chapter and verse (e.g. 12:2 – not a 1000-word summary!) šŸ™‚


  2. Donald says:

    No, it is not in revelation, I can’t remember the actual book it is in, it has to do with Jesus coming back, killing all of Satan’s angels and so on … then it says that the corpses of the dead will be all over the place and the stench will be around for a long time and so on, I will look it up for you and give you the book and chapter and so on soon. The actual number of the dead is 200 million, that part is in revelation … leave it with me, I shall look it up for you.


  3. Donald says:

    That didn’t take very long … šŸ™‚ Ezekiel 39 … here is a short quote … trust me, this is short, the passage would fill your blog site “‘On that day I will give Gog a burial place in Israel, in the valley of those who travel east toward the Sea. It will block the way of travelers, because Gog and all his hordes will be buried there. So it will be called the Valley of Hamon Gog. 12 “‘For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them in order to cleanse the land. 13 All the people of the land will bury them, and the day I am glorified will be a memorable day for them, declares the Sovereign LORD. 14 “‘Men will be regularly employed to cleanse the land. Some will go throughout the land and, in addition to them, others will bury those that remain on the ground. At the end of the seven months they will begin their search. 15 As they go through the land and one of them sees a human bone, he will set up a marker beside it until the gravediggers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon Gog. 16 (Also a town called Hamonah will be there.) And so they will cleanse the land.’ 17 “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Call out to every kind of bird and all the wild animals: ‘Assemble and come together from all around to the sacrifice I am preparing for you, the great sacrifice on the mountains of Israel. There you will eat flesh and drink blood. There are nuclear weapons involved …. sometimes I wonder šŸ˜¦


  4. Pingback: The future is already here « Anthropocene Reality

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