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Ryn: Going green

Earth Day gets us in the spirit of environment-friendly burials

Many believe our souls go to heaven, or at least somewhere really cool where we can eat all the cheesecake we want and no longer gain weight.

But our bodies, they get left behind, waiting for the worms. Well, technically we’re waiting for the maggots. And we don’t have to wait all that long.

Some traditional burials are not the best way to go, especially in light of the Earth Day hoopla that always hits in mid-April.

Burials that use embalming also use lots of caustic chemicals that can seep into the Earth.

And they often include heavy-duty caskets outfitted in steel or lined with lead that take a gazillion years to break down.

“Everybody would think putting a body in the ground without embalming is the right way to go for decomposition,” Kenneth Iserson said, “and it certainly is.”

Iserson would know. The retired director and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine is still active in emergency medicine and disaster relief as well as author of the book “Death to Dust.”

His award-winning book addresses death, dust and everything in between for a solid 821 pages.

Substitute the casket with an organic shroud, perhaps made of hemp or sisal, and you’re suddenly in the eco-business.

Sans formaldehyde and other chemical embalming fluids, the body starts to break down pretty much immediately.

Based on the video of a dead pig posted in the decomposition category of deathonline.net, a corpse starts oozing out of its orifices by the end of the second day.

By day three, bloating sets in. Day four features putrification. Get to day 10, and the skin sloughs off. After about a month, the thing is pretty much cooked.

After two months, the flattened mass is fully dried out, reduced to some ooze stains, leathery skin and a few strewn bones.

That’s a fairly fast passage back to Mother Earth. But Iserson pointed out even more eco-friendly ways to go about it.

“Some think cremation is just as good for the environment,” Iserson said. “But it’s not unless the crematoria are fitted with secondary burners.”

He said burning bodies release “enormous amounts of toxic materials. Our bodies are collectors of heavy metals.”

We already know it takes steel and lead a gazillion years to break down in the earth. Imagine what the body’s zinc, copper and selenium do to the environment.

Eco-friendlier methods still are in use by other cultures.

Some more-primitive ones bury bodies in large lakes. “They look at it as ‘returning to the womb,’ so to speak,” he said.

Burial at sea has fascinated me ever since my parents hauled me to the drive-in to see “Jaws” when I was 5.

Some of the most revered deceased in Tibet and Nepal get cut into pieces and left for animals to eat.

Dead bodies are put in towers in places like India.

“That way, specially trained birds can eat them so they don’t contaminate the Earth,” Iserson said. “There are a lot of environmentally appropriate ways for dealing with bodies.”

Catholic burials, usually preceded by an open-casket viewing, funeral Mass and lengthy procession, are not one of them.

You kind of need embalming to go through all that stuff.

But Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Catholic graveyard near Detroit, has become the first of its kind to offer Earth-friendly burials without embalming, caskets or any materials that are not biodegradable.

It may be a step in a revolutionary direction for a deeper regard for Earth during burials.

While the thought of not embalming may shock some of the living, as long as heaven still serves cheesecake, the dead may not really care.

Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist and Tucson Citizen reporter who wonders what type of bird is specially trained to eat bodies in India. Listen to a preview of her column at 8:10 a.m. Thursdays on KLPX 96.1 FM. Listen to her webcast at 4 p.m. Fridays at www.party934.com. E-mail: ryndustries@hotmail.com

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