People SystemsSociety

Permaculture and Death: Part 4

How can we benefit the ecosystem, even after death?

Part 1(1)  of this series looked at traditional attitudes towards death, while in parts 2 (2) and 3 we explored some practical techniques for accepting and dealing with death as part of life. This final part will go into what happens to our bodies after we finish with our present journeys; and the environmental impact of different burial practices. A small disclaimer: this article goes into practices associated with the bodies of the deceased in some detail.



Death As Part Of The Ecosystem

So-called ‘traditional’ or ‘primitive’ societies generally recognise as part of their cultural practices that, after death, the body becomes separate from what could be called the soul, or spirit (see for example 3). Where this soul or spirit goes is interpreted differently by different people; the body, however, is generally recognised as having been somewhat on loan, and is therefore returned to its point of origin; i.e. the surrounding ecosystem.

This perspective of death seems very appropriate within a permaculture system, where “there is no such thing as waste” (4). Even though a person’s spirit has left their body, the body can still be used within the system to benefit other parts of it.



Earth and Fire

Burial practices from different cultures can seem odd to outsiders, though the cultures practicing them have practical, social, cultural and spiritual reasons for doing what they do. In many instances, cultures also take into consideration the ecological impact of dealing with the dead. For example, cremation, or the reduction of the dead body to ashes through burning at a high temperature, could be seen as avoiding the risk of spread of disease from rotting flesh. Cremation is an old tradition in the Hindu religion in India, where the dead are traditionally burned on funeral pyres(5), and by many practicing Buddhists all over Asia.(5)

Burial of the dead is a traditional funerary rite which is believed to have been in use for at least 100,000 years (6), and is also practiced by other animals such as elephants(7). By placing the body into the earth, the loved ones of the deceased can be seen as giving nourishment to the surrounding ecosystem.



Sky Offerings

Excarnation, or removal of the flesh and organs of the body after death, has been put into practice for millennia by followers of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition(8, 9), the Comanche tribe(9) of current North America, and some followers of the Zoroastrian religion(9, 10). The most common form of excarnation is to place the body in a special, high-up site, and offer it as a gift to those animals whose diet naturally consists of rotting flesh(9). In Tibetan Buddhism, this giving of flesh to the animals (usually vultures) is seen as an act of generosity.(11) The body nourishes the ecosystem even after the spirit has moved on. Also, by providing the vultures with bodies which are already dead, they see that they are saving the lives of many small creatures which the carrion birds may otherwise hunt.(11)

Tibetexpedition, Ragyapa, Geier
Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-S-12-50-06 / Schäfer, Ernst / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sky burials also have the function of allowing those family members who get to witness the actual act of excarnation to fully attune to the reality of the death. For Tibetan Buddhists, once the body dies, the spirit moves on, through the bardo realm, to be later reborn.(2, 12) Some have argued that this practice has a unique effect on the feelings of grief normally associated with the death of a loved one(13) As the priest (whose modern Western equivalent would probably be a Soul Midwife(2, 14)) guides the dying soul through the bardo, loved ones may begin to let go of attachment to the dead person; which is strengthened by the witnessing of the body being literally taken to pieces, so that they have a direct experience of the body’s impermanence. Since it is understood that at the point of death the soul is ready to enter the next life, “by channeling the feelings of grief to support the progress of the deceased, grief is brought to a positive resolution”.(13)



Consuming Grief

Another practice which can be seen to be transmuting feelings of grief is that of endocannibalism; the ritual eating of parts of the already-dead bodies of close kin, put into practice by some tribes in modern India and South America.(15) For the Wari’ people of what is now called Brazil, this type of cannibalism had strict rules; the deceased would be roasted and mourned over, then, those with close family ties but who were not blood relatives would have the task of eating some of the flesh.(16) Usually they would not eat all of the body, so it was a symbolic rather than practical gesture.(16) In her book Consuming Grief, Beth A. Conklin says the Wari’ “did not eat their dead because they liked the taste of human flesh, or because they needed the meat. Rather, they ate out of a sense of respect and compassion for the dead person and for the dead person’s family…as a way to help lessen their sorrow”.(16)



Grief and Impermanence

By witnessing the breaking down of the body and its transformation into sustenance for other beings, the Wari’ and the Tibetan Buddhists remind themselves of the impermanence of the human body and the connection to natural cycles which we are all a part of.

Tibetan Sand Mandala
Photo by Random Sky on Unsplash

As we explored in parts 2(2) and 3 of this series, the expression of grief is something that we have perhaps lost the practice of in modern society,(see for example 17) which could be in a large part due to the fact that many of our modern burial practices do not include this direct experience and transmutation. Indeed, the two examples mentioned above are no longer put into practice in the modern world. With the “decimation” of the vulture populations in India, Mongolia and Tibet,(see for example 18) sky burials are no longer a practical option. For the Wari’, ritual cannibalism was stopped by a combination of the introduction of infectious diseases by outsiders (resulting in the tribe being reduced in numbers by almost half), loss of rights, and appeals by Chrsitian missionaries.(16)



Modern Practices and Their Environmental Impact

Modern funerary practices, though often based on traditional ecological considerations, can be seen to be far from environmentally friendly. Many places where burial is a common practice, far from seeing it as a recognition of the body’s decomposition and subsequent return to the surrounding ecosystem, seek to preserve the body for as long as possible, often with disastrous results for the ecosystem. In the US alone, every year the following is put into the earth along with the bodies of the deceased:

    • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
    • 30 million board feet of hardwoods
    • 180,544,000 pounds of steel
    • 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze(19)

The other popular option, especially in countries with a Hindu or Buddhist majority, continues to be cremation.(19, 20) This has its own environmental problems in terms of carbon released into the air. If the cremation is in a crematorium this usually creates around 110 pounds of greenhouse gas emission per body – indeed, “UN estimates that crematoriums contribute up to 0.2% of the annual global emission”.(19) In cremation using funeral pyres the amount of wood used to burn the body is an issue, resulting of millions of trees being cut down every year in India alone for this purpose,(20) as well as in pollution of the air, and, since most funeral pyres are traditionally placed next to rivers, of water as well.(20) In parts of South-East Asia where the air pollution by slash-and-burn agriculture is already at dangerous levels,(21) added pollution from cremation can be a major problem.

A crematorium against the seasonal haze of a Northern Thai sky. Photo by Charlotte Ashwanden
Photo by author, Charlotte Ashwanden



Holistic Techniques For Here and Now

In changing the way we deal with the bodies of the deceased it seems essential that we also review our perceptions of death and the dead. This is not to dictate any particular belief system, but to consider the natural processes of death and how they can be part of wider cycles. The practice of preserving dead bodies using embalming fluids can be seen as not only detrimental to the environment, but also to the human psyche (which is, after all, a part of the environment).(see for example 3, 22) By pausing the grief process and not allowing detachment we are perhaps creating psychological blocks and disconnection from the continuous process of death-regeneration-birth-decay.(see for example 17, 22)

To reconnect, then, what is needed is not only a change in the way we do things but a change in our perceptions. By re-finding value in the return to the ecosystem – however is appropriate for each of us individually – we can find ways to be a part of a regeneration of the world.

This is by no means to suggest a return to old practices. As we have observed, sky burials are not really a viable option with the loss of carrion bird species, and although endocannibalism may have some ecological benefit, it is unlikely to be reinstated anywhere in the near future.

Fortunately, there are many options available in the world now which take into account modern societal beliefs as well as consideration for the environment.



Green Cremation

For example, Indian non-profit Mokshda Green Cremation System(23) encourages “access to more fuel-efficient structures for funerary rites”, resulting in almost “one fourth of the wood requirement”.(20)

Another environmentally-friendly cremation technique is that of water cremation.(24) Technically called alkaline hydrolysis, this technique is also known as bio cremation or aquamation, and was developed in Europe in the 1990s to deal with bodies of animals contaminated with the infectious disease of BSE.(24) It involves “placing the body of the deceased into a metal chamber with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide”.(24) Heat and high pressure are then applied, resulting in the body decomposing at a high speed. Rather than ashes, the final product is a kind of sticky liquid which is high in nutrients and can be added to the soil, though most green cremation companies dispose of it in the sewage system.(24)

Water cremation for humans is currently legal in some parts of the USA(25) and Canada,(26) and is offered by one company in Mexico(27) as well as one Australian company, Aquamation in New South Wales,(28) which uses the liquid as fertiliser on plantation forests.(29)

One final example of cremation aimed at helping the environment is that of “reef balls”,(30) wherein the ashes of the deceased are incorporated into marine concrete which is then sunk in the ocean as part of artificial reefs. Eternal Reefs,(31) based in Florida, the USA, is one company which offers this service.

Image by Katrin Knogler from Pixabay


Growing From Death

So-called “natural burial” – burial without embalming fluid or coffins in a way which encourages rather than deters decomposition- is now legal in some parts of the UK,(32) North America,(33) Australia(34) and New Zealand.(35) Taking the idea of death growing into life even further is the use of “organic burial pods”(36) where the body can be buried with a tree seed, so that it can be providing nutrients for a specific new life. Italian company Capsula Mundi provides such burial pods where a tree, “chosen in life by the deceased”, is planted on top.(37)

This practice can be seen as especially helpful with the grieving process of the deceased’s loved ones; in watching the tree grow they can recognise the cycle of death into life. Those who do not get squeamish over such matters could also continue the transmutation process by consuming the fruit of the tree, in what seems a much healthier and more palatable form of endocannibalism than that of the Wari’.



Considering our own cycles

The ideas offered in this article series are just a few suggestions for how we can find holistic ways to deal with death in our lives, and beyond. How you personally interpret them is up to you. It seems important to remember that while we are alive, we can take joy in all the gifts life has to offer us, including that final gift of death.




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Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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