Critical awakening around death: Exercising agency over our mortal remains


Abstract

What happens to our bodies after death? This is a discussion we often avoid in our sanitised Western culture. We would perhaps rather bypass it and allow funeral experts to manage key death care choices and simply provide us with perfunctory choices about coffin handles and funeral hors d’oeuvres. However, our dead bodies can have a significant impact on the earth, and the choices we make for our final disposition can be personally empowering whilst connecting our loved ones to the process in a manner that can be deeply healing. This paper highlights the need for a critical awakening around death care practices and suggests that becoming aware of our choices, and the impact of those choices, can help us exercise agency over our mortal remains. In this, our deaths can become a legacy of our lives and a way of reinstating our commitment to values we hold dear.

 

Introduction

Community development is often defined as a process that enables people to live lives that have value to them (Kelly, 2021; Sen, 1999). The focus is on facilitating a means for people to exercise power over decisions that affect their lives by supporting empowerment through active participation, self-determination, and collaboration (Ife, 2016; Kenny & Connors, 2017). As such, this approach values the knowledge and experience of people and acknowledges them as experts in their own lives. This paper extends lives to include the space our bodies continue to occupy after death.

What happens to our bodies after death in Australia, and most other parts of the world, still tends to be something that is done to us, not with us. We are oppressed by our lack of knowledge around this topic, which allows us to be led by dominant ways of doing. We have our funerals in places of worship or funeral homes and our bodies are either burned or buried deep in the earth, encased in layers of concrete, wood, plastic and toxic chemicals.

Paolo Friere’s (1972) concept of conscientisation is highly relevant as there is a general complacency around the topic of death and what happens to our bodies once we have gone. In death, and choices surrounding what happens to us after death, we become objects of a standard method of body farewell and disposal, rather than subjects in our last phase of life. Conscientisation is a process whereby people become critically aware of their oppression and how to free themselves from those bonds. Through collective dialogue, we can uncover the ways we have surrendered our self-determination and agency, and unpack unfreedoms we have internalised through generations of submission to the will of convention. To reclaim our individual and collective power, Freire (1972) outlines the need for critical awareness raising, or conscientisation, as the first step toward social transformation. In this global era where people are becoming more aware of the planet and our role in protecting it, the time is ripe to wake up about the impact our bodies have after death and ensure the values that we live in life continue in death.

Over recent decades there has been an increasing interest in alternatives to conventional after-death practices in Australia and beyond, with many turning to more environmentally friendly and cost-effective methods (Beard & Burger, 2017). Despite a growth in alternative death care, death is a topic many prefer to avoid. By outlining some of the options available throughout this paper, with a specific focus around green burials as one set of alternatives, we hope to catalyse a critical

awakening. In this, we seek to encourage people to assess what is important to them in life and consider how they can create a plan for death that maintains their values and connects their loved ones more deeply to the process of dying, death, and earthly reclamation.

Body preparation and death rituals have several connections with rituals surrounding birth. In both cases the main caregivers were women in the community with experience in the practices. Slowly but surely these women were pushed out of their roles by patriarchal influences, taking birth and death away from the families and the home and moving them into hospitals and funeral homes (Laqueur, 2015). Dislocation and sanitisation have become increasingly pronounced, with pain medications and elective caesarean-sections in birthing practices mirroring the institutionalisation of death practices such as embalming and elaborate coffins. In Australia, women are slowly reclaiming their rights to home births or interference-free labours with the assistance of a midwife or birth doula; the next frontier is the reclamation of death rights. Critical awareness raising and education is vital to people recovering their legal rights in the death industry. The more we can talk about death and dying and alleviate the uncomfortable feelings surrounding the topic, the easier it will be to reclaim agency in how we plan for ourselves and take care of our loved ones in death.

 

Body removal and preparation

It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. In spite of the fact that it happens all the time, we never see it. When a person dies in a hospital, he is quickly whisked away; a magical disappearing act does away with the evidence before it could upset anyone. (Kübler-Ross 1975, p. 5)

Dying has become institutionalised in Australia, with the vast majority dying in hospitals or residential care (Swerissen & Duckett, 2015). Such places are equipped to efficiently remove the body and have it collected by a funeral director. Once the body is in the custody of the director, they contact the family to advise they have it and to guide them through the funeral process. It is often comforting to have an authority figure take control at this point, especially for Westerners conditioned to avoid conversations about and planning for death. Lack of education and prior discussion leaves the family vulnerable and unlikely to shop around or look for alternatives to conventional burials. For example, some families are likely unaware they do not have to choose the funeral company that contacted them, and that even though the deceased is in their custody the funeral company does not have any legal rights to the body. The family can (dependent on the law of the relevant region) go through an alternative funeral home or hold a home funeral and the body would be transferred accordingly.

Even in death the next of kin has legal rights to their family member. After a person dies away from home, assuming they have not died from a serious infectious disease, that person can be given over to their next of kin’s care, placed in their car (covered up is recommended to save any unwanted attention) and taken to the desired location (Larkins, 2007). Most hospices and aged care homes have their residents fill out a death care plan before they are accepted. In Australia, the deceased can remain in the home as long as they can be kept in a reasonable state (except for in New South Wales where they must be interred within five days). The body can be preserved for a short time through the use of dry ice placed around the torso, cooling plates/sheets, or a good air conditioning system. In an exposé by Choice magazine, a family was erroneously informed that the body had to be embalmed (at a cost of AUD$1000) before they could be brought home (Potter, 2016). In fact, a

body need only be embalmed for above ground burials, such as in a mausoleum, or if they are to be repatriated (Larkins, 2007).

Embalming is relatively uncommon in Australia, partially because the embalming fluids have been proven to greatly increase morticians’ risk of cancer and other serious diseases (Larkins 2007; Cowling, 2010), and can leech into the soil surrounding the burial location, which can damage the delicate ecosystem and affect the body’s ability to decompose (Sullivan et al., 2011). Another misconception is that un-embalmed bodies are dangerous but, unless they have died of a serious communicable disease, they are not a biohazard and only basic hygiene practices are required (Larkins 2007).

Shrouding a body is considerably more environmentally friendly than any other options (Cowling, 2010), as well as costing a fraction of the price of a coffin or casket. When a body is prepared for a coffin burial it may be dressed in absorbent plastic under-clothes, the coffins are plastic lined, and morticians regularly scrunch large quantities of plastic under and around the body for stabilisation. Even the eyes are sometimes closed with barbed plastic eye caps to avoid a sunken appearance for viewings. With shrouded burials, the body is placed directly onto the shroud, either naked or in simple clothing made from natural fibres, it is then carefully swaddled and placed onto a carrying board for transportation. Some people find the outline of the body confronting, especially in our death adverse society. This can easily be overcome by covering the body with a pall, which can be a rug or a quilt, perhaps something that holds cultural significance or special meaning to the deceased or their family.

 

Funerals

As we critically awaken, we realise we are not as restricted in our after-death choices as we may have believed. As one aspect of consideration, green burials and home funerals can drastically reduce the cost of conventional funerals (Beard & Burger, 2017). In Australia, most people are unaware these environmental and cost-effective options are available, and they do not yet feature predominately in the conventional funeral sale repertoire. Most funeral homes will offer at least one basic green burial item, usually a pine or wicker coffin, and are able to access the green burial sections of hybrid cemeteries.

Furthermore, funerals do not have to take place in a funeral home or a place of worship, they can also be held in the home or another location, pending permission from the landowner. But if the customer does not know to ask, then it is unlikely they will be offered these alternatives. Additionally, through deliberating the funeral plan, people may consider other ways they can reflect their values during their funeral. For example, people who care about their environmental impact may wish to avoid the use of cut flowers and single use items such as cups, plates and straws. They may wish to use a local burial ground to reduce driving, and ensure non-biodegradable mementos do not join them in the grave.

 

Burial

Burials make up about a third of after-death practices, with cremation being the preferred method for most Australians (Allday, 2020). Graves are dug out by heavy duty machinery to a depth of around 1.5 to 2.5 metres, depending on the occupancy. This hole is then lined with a concrete, steel or plastic grave liner or vault to shore up the sides. At this depth, having the family lower the body

into the earth is not safe and this action must be completed by another heavy-duty machine called a Casket Lowering Device, which can safely and steadily lower the body to the base of the grave. At this stage the family will often participate in a ritual of throwing cut flowers and handfuls of soil down onto the coffin to represent the action of filling in the grave.

The depth of these burials hinder the decomposition phase, as bodies are buried too deeply to be of benefit to the plants, trees and insect life that thrive at a shallower level. Decomposition is also encumbered by the use of copious amounts of plastic wrapping, thick concrete coffin vaults, impervious and lacquered solid wood coffins, and toxic embalming fluids. As mentioned by Cowling (2010, p. 180) “It’s a poor way to commemorate someone, to turn them into a bio-hazard”. In the green burial alternative, people are buried at a shallower depth with the required soil barrier (to protect against odours and wildlife interference) varying across the country. In Victoria, for example, there need only be 750mm of soil over the coffin or shrouded body (Victoria Government, 2020). At this depth, it is not only possible to dig the grave manually, but in some cemeteries (currently not in Australia) the families are allowed to perform this part of the ritual, either digging or filling in the grave, or both. Lowering the body by hand is also possible at this depth, using lowering straps or lengths of fabric to settle the body into the earth. The families can then sit around the grave, dangling their legs in or lying on their stomachs with their hands still touching their loved one until they are ready to say a final goodbye.

 

Other forms of body disposal

When asked about alternatives to burials most people would immediately think of cremation. Cremation is a popular option for people wanting a less expensive and fussy death care plan than a conventional burial. It is also considered a greener option by many, mainly due to the negation of gravesite maintenance such as mowing, watering, and the use of chemical fertilisers and herbicides (Potter, 2016). Although cremation is more environmentally friendly than conventional burials, it is not as green as often believed, and green burials remain significantly more eco-friendly (Haneman, 2020). As noted by Potter (2016, n.p.) “Cremations are a significant polluter, emitting 160kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. Other pollutants include dioxins from the coffin finishes and veneers, [and] heavy metals such as mercury and carbon monoxide.” Additionally, cremation ashes (cremains), which are often sprinkled under plants of remembrance, are toxic to plant life as they have a high pH level, high concentration of sodium and a poor balance of the essential nutrients required for healthy plant growth (Geng, 2018).  

A relatively new alternative to traditional cremation is called aquamation, water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis. It uses a hydrolysis system to breakdown the soft tissue of the body, which leaves only bone material. This bone material is then pulverised into fine powder ashes. Aquamation uses less than 10% of the energy of traditional fire cremation and produces no emissions (Haneman, 2020). It is now an available option in several Australian states and territories. While largely environmentally friendly, aquamation often requires shrouding in animal-based materials, such as leather or silk, ruling out this method for people seeking a vegan send-off.

A new option gaining popularity in America is called recompose or natural organic reduction. It is essentially a body composting system. A large tubular cocoon is lined with wood chips and organic material and the unclothed body is placed inside. The body is climate controlled and turned at set times to achieve optimal composting. Within four to six weeks the body is fully broken down and the family is given a box of fertile soil in place of damaging cremation ashes. This option is currently not

legal in Australia, nor are other options such as open cremation pyres and sky burials where bodies are placed on a mountain peak to be consumed by birds and insects.

Burial at sea is a possibility, but the permit is difficult to secure and often only provided to those with a proven connection to the ocean, such as naval personnel. There are several rules that dictate the required location and depth to avoid bodies returning to shore on the currents. This method is very environmentally friendly as long as the body is prepared in a sustainable way; for example, the body must be un-embalmed and wrapped in a weighted shroud.

 

Cemeteries

In essence our cemeteries today are toxic landfills, even the ones that are beautifully kept and peaceful and serene on the surface. (Herring, 2019, p. 113)

This quote from funeral director Lucinda Herring refers to the masses of toxic, unsustainable and non-biodegradable materials interred with bodies. Extrapolating American figures (Fournier, 2018, p. 24) to calculate Australian use of resources for burials, noting that Australians’ are 90% less likely to embalm, we calculate that conventional burials in Australia annually inter 1.27 million litres of embalming fluid, 34 tonnes of concrete for burial vaults, and 475,500 metres of hardwood for caskets and coffins. Mark Harris (2007, p. 36) calculates that the manicured grounds of an average ten-acre cemetery in the United States conceals enough embalming fluid to fill a swimming pool, enough wood to build forty houses, over 900 tonnes of steel and 20,000 tonnes of concrete.

The green burial movement is currently gaining considerable traction in many countries across the globe. The UK and USA now have many exclusively green cemeteries whilst the European Union is phasing out the use of formaldehyde for embalming (Insight, 2018). In Australia, however, green burials are still in their infancy. We do have hybrid cemeteries where the green burial sites co-exist with their conventional counterparts. We also have green funeral directors and green funeral product companies campaigning to give people the information they need to make an informed choice on their death care.

Embracing the green burial movement can significantly lower pollutants and create cemeteries that are natural sites rather than landfills. Shroud burial and shroud cremation are both legal in Australia. A shroud made of natural fabrics such as bamboo, organic cotton, hemp or linen will biodegrade in a matter of months as opposed to the hundreds of years it will take for a conventional alternative. Burial vaults are also unnecessary, and some cemeteries have already begun to stop insisting on their use. Essentially, they are there to keep the grave from sinking or moving, which would make the uneven terrain slightly more difficult to mow and less aesthetically pleasing, but is a high cost to pay for a flat lawn (Webster, 2016).

In every state in Australia there are now alternatives to conventional cemeteries. As well as hybrid and green cemeteries, there is an upright burial site located in the Corangamite Shire in Victoria. Burying people upright tackles the issue of overcrowding in cemeteries, and instead of burying multiple people per grave or creating a tower block where crypts are set on top of one another, people can be buried much closer together. Another option are the Living Legacy Forests available in a few locations in Victoria and Western Australia. This program works in conjunction with crematoriums to treat the cremains so they can be harmlessly buried beneath a tree within a memorial forest. In this approach, bereaved families can plant their tree at any stage, visit it as often as they like, and know that the forest is protected from future developers or loggers.

 

Conclusion

When His Royal Highness Prince Phillip passed away at the age of 99 earlier this year, among his last wishes was to have a woollen coffin and be transported to the burial site in a hybrid-electric Land Rover he helped design (Abraham, 2021). This is one high profile example of the reach of the green burial movement and highlights how after-death care practices can reflect the life values and interests of the deceased. Having spent his life advocating for environmental change, it was important that Prince Phillip had options to extend his values to his final disposition.

Developing critical awareness around our rights and options regarding what happens to our bodies after death gives us agency over our final stage of life. Everyone has the option to be buried in a manner that aligns with our values, and our burial rights are much more extensive than often assumed. It is beneficial to ‘shop around’ to appreciate the various options available. Understanding the environmental impact of certain techniques can help us make informed choices and can result in a more empowered and eco-friendly passing. The more we can overcome the taboos surrounding discussion of death and accept death as a natural conclusion to life, the more options and transparency will come to the industry. Raising awareness around death practices and supporting people to become active participants in their own funeral arrangements helps people feel empowered and provides their loved ones a comfort and connection with the deceased through the certainty of their wishes being fulfilled. As well as easing the burden on family, planning in advance to utilise natural alternatives to conventional death care will considerably ease the burden on the environment.

“Despite amazing advances in medical science and technology, the mortality rate for human beings stands at a whopping 100 percent” (Fournier, 2018, p. 1). Coming to terms with this reality of universal death offers opportunities for us to engage more authentically with our lives. Whilst conventional funeral directors have, from the nineteenth century (Jalland, 2006), taken the responsibility of caring for our dead they have unknowingly removed us from a natural process that is of fundamental importance, both for healing and a deeper connection to the essence of life. Individuals can be empowered to work collaboratively with funeral directors to pioneer through decades of convention and once again make natural choices a viable and easy option for consumers. This space could be supported through community-led approaches where community members unite in conversation. This is on the increase in Australia with Dying to Know Day events and activities based on the international death cafe movement where people engage in “death talk” while eating “good food, pastries, and beverages” (Fong, 2017, p. 2). Through continuing to demystify and normalise conversations about death and burial, agency over these decisions can be triumphantly reclaimed.

 

References

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Corresponding author: Leanne M. Kelly, PhD, Deakin University, 75 Pigdons Road, Geelong, Australia kelea@deakin.edu.au ORCID 0000-0002-3360-5212

Co-authors:

Tamsin Ramone, Heaven and Earth Eco Burial Products, Kilsyth

Alyssa Wormald, Monash University, Clayton

Kelly, Leanne M., Ramone, Tamsin and Wormald, Alyssa. “Critical awakening around death: Exercising agency over our mortal remains.” New Community 19 (2), no. 74 (2021): 54-58.