It was 120 years ago this week that the flamboyant archdruid and surgeon Dr William Price, who pioneered cremation in Britain, died aged 93.
Born in 1800 in Rudry near Caerphilly, Dr Price became one of the most eccentric figures in Welsh public life and faced trial for cremating the remains of his dead baby son, Iesu Grist, in 1884, a case which helped lead to the Cremation Act of 1902.
Cremation or burial are the only choices we currently have here in the UK. Today, environmentalists will probably agree that it’s better to compost down as nature intended rather than create considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Around the world, other cultures have different ways to bury and remember their dead. In the Himalayas your body might be carried to the top of a mountain and respectfully dissected as a feast for hungry vultures.
In Madagascar, dancing with the body of your dead loved one is considered an act of love and in Mexico the Day of the Dead is an official holiday where people party on the graves of their departed.
Image from a Babongo funeral
The Babongo tribe in Tanzania believe they were the very first people on earth and are extremely superstitious with countless rituals and ceremonies. When someone dies, grieving involves the entire village as three days and nights of mourning are declared.
Before the men carry the body to the grave there is a ritual of drumming, dancing and singing to put the dead person’s spirit to rest. The women wash and wrap the corpse and paint their faces white with kaolin clay which symbolises purification.
How do you bury a body if you live high up in the mountains, if there is no earth around in which to bury it or if the temperature makes decomposition impossible?
Not available in the UK, and unlikely to be in the near future, is a Tibetan sky burial. Most Tibetans practise Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation and see the body purely as a vessel.
Birds of prey are used in sky burials in Tibet. Image taken from BBC's Human Planet
In the Himalayas the ground is rocky and too hard to dig a grave. Fuel such as timber is also hard to come by to make funeral pyres, so they conduct sky burials where the "empty vessel" body is carried to the top of a mountain and dissected, often by monks, into small pieces and fed to birds of prey.
Although the process is judged by some as frightful and shocking, it’s far more ecological in terms of protecting and preserving the environment of planet Earth than cremation. Buddhist families also consider the sky burial to be a sacred act, and a way of sustaining the life of another animal.
Madagascar: dancing with the dead
In Madagascar there’s a festive atmosphere as people open family tombs, remove the corpses and dance with the body of their loved ones.
Although tears may initially be shed, these soon turn to smiles in this time of celebration. The dead are then laid out on the ground and the bones lovingly washed.
To the rest of the world this might seem morbid, but in Madagascar it is a ritual of love and respect. There’s a strong belief in life after death and the dead are as significant as the living. Great importance is placed on ancestors, who they believe watch over the living family and ensure the unity of the community.
Image from a funeral in Madagascar, taken from BBC programme Human Planet
Day of the Dead – Mexico
It may sound like the title to a horror film, but the subject matter is much less morbid. The Day of the Dead is an official holiday in Mexico.
The day, which involves brightly coloured parades through the city, occurs roughly the same time as Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls Day, but the traditional mood is much brighter - honouring the lives of the dead and the continuation of life. The belief is not that death is the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life.
Families typically approach it joyfully, even throwing parties in graveyards to welcome back the spirits of their ancestors. Family members will often leave gifts of favourite foods, beverages and possessions on the graves of the deceased.
Cremation and pollution
Cremation became increasingly popular in the UK from the 1940s. According to the Cremation Society of Great Britain, 413,845 cremations were recorded across 250 crematoria in the UK in 2011 – representing approximately 75% of all deaths.
However, there are increasing environmental concerns about pollution. On average, every cremator will use 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity per cremation – equivalent to the domestic energy used for an entire month by a single person.
And we must also take into account the chemicals used in wooden coffins, most of which are made with veneered chipboard, bonded with formaldehyde resin. Embalming chemicals can also be another pollutant. Both will also enter the ground if burial is the preferred option.
Alternatives in the UK
A sea burial seems like a good ecological option, where no embalming is allowed. However, it’s not that popular in the UK and local authorities generally don’t like the idea of human remains becoming fish food.
A licence can be obtained from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This grants approval for a sea burial at one of two designated areas: Newhaven, East Sussex or The Needles Spoil Ground, Isle of Wight. The local Fisheries District Inspector at either location may be able to grant a licence for a burial at sea as well.
Fully biodegradable coffins made from cardboard or wicker are popular alongside woodland burials, which provide an alternative to cemeteries or crematoria. These are often managed privately or by a local authority.
Other futuristic alternatives to cremation and burial are new eco options such as freeze-drying the dead into compostable remains using liquid nitrogen – a technology called Promession. This is a machine where coffins are fed in one end, and the body removed from the coffin within the unit and then treated with liquid nitrogen.
Alkaline hydrolysis is being used in an American funeral home. Considered to be a green alternative to cremation, it works by dissolving the body in heated alkaline water. The facility has been installed at the Anderson-McQueen funeral home in St Petersburg. The makers claim the process "produces a third less greenhouse gas than cremation, uses a seventh of the energy, and allows for the complete separation of dental amalgam for safe disposal”.
If money can’t buy you love, can it buy back life? In America, the basic freezing and containment procedure costs $30,000, but to have cryogenic technicians standing by right after legal death costs $90,000. Will the process one day be affordable to all?
Although scientists can’t yet bring us back to life, what’s to say they won’t find a way in the very near future? Humans have, after all, been revived hours after drowning in cold water and being declared dead, surviving such situations with their mental functions and memory undamaged. In the future, will we be able to revive a properly cooled brain after 100 years instead of a few hours?
It looks like there’ll be a few more post-mortem choices shortly on offer in the UK, and one wonders what Dr William Price would have made of them. So what will you decide for your final flight of passage?