Sustainable Death


I have been thinking a lot about sustainability lately, mostly because I have been confronted with a few situations that were absolutely unsustainable. The most dramatic was my mother's illness. Terminal illness is by its very nature unsustainable: the "terminal" part means that it's going to kill you, sooner or later, more or less painfully. Mom's illness required a lot of arrangements and accommodations that we could not sustain indefinitely, but we figured we could keep them going long enough. Turns out we didn't have to sustain a lot of them....

I confess to being freaked out at the massive resources devoted to end-of-life care. I don't know what to do about it, but I think something has to be done. When my mom died, the cupboard was full of different medications, some of them still in sealed packages that had never been opened. What do you do with such things? We hoped we'd be able to return them to the pharmacy, not even for a refund (even though some of them cost thousands of dollars a month), but just so they wouldn't get dumped down the toilet and end up in our water supply.

And then there are all the resources devoted to conventional burial.... You embalm someone, and then you put them in a casket, and then you put the casket in a vault, so that the embalming fluid won't leak and so that the the ground over the grave won't settle and make the cemetery lawn hard to mow. What? Really? I have long said that I don't want to be embalmed, but I don't especially want to be cremated, either. I want to be tree food. I want to be wrapped in an old cotton sheet and buried in a deep hole so I can be recycled. Turns out that I am not the only person who feels this way and that there is a natural burial movement. But it's definitely not the norm.

The thing is, it's not just our system of providing healthcare in this country that's entirely unsustainable, the whole for-profit insurance thing, so that you can't get insurance if you have a "pre-existing condition," or the way WellPoint routinely canceled the insurance of women diagnosed with breast cancer (there was a story about this on Reuters, but the link is broken). It's our way of running hospitals, with no recycling in the cafeterias and inaccessible stairs you aren't really supposed to use. It's the way we focus on treatment of illness rather than prevention.

OK, some diseases are pretty damn hard to prevent. My mother died of cirrhosis of the liver brought on not by alcoholism but by Crohn's disease--two very ugly, ugly illnesses--and I don't know how they could have been prevented. A friend's father has recently been diagnosed with ALS, aka amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's disease. It's hard to prevent a disease the origins of which no one entirely understands. But heart disease? Diabetes? Lung cancer? These are, in many cases, preventable illnesses, if we'd eat right, exercise, and not smoke.

I don't know. I have no idea how to solve the overall problems. But I do know that I am going to start now to do what I can to see that I die a more sustainable death.


I don't know, I think I'd just as soon go with cremation. Just reuse what organs are still useful for others and burn the rest. It's not clear that human remains make the best fertilizer because of the possibility of spreading infection (but I may be wrong).

I can't imagine human remains, buried in a cemetery at an appropriate depth, pose more of a health risk than most of the stuff we put into landfills, or the industrial waste we pour into our rivers.

I've been enjoying your writing for a while, thank you. And my condolences on your loss.

A while ago a friend managed the local cemetery/crematoria, and provided a group we belong to to some very interesting insights into the post-death options and processes. Apart from opening up areas most of us had never had to think about, and to demystify the process (as well as her experience of an exhumation!) it also gave much food for thought about the whole area of death, and how we'd like our bodies to be treated post death (like Chanson, cremation is my preference - no coffin, my body draped in a quilt of my making).

What's always amazed me though is we're so "careful" about human remains and "sanitising" the process to make sure no biological hazards are transmitted, but we have no hesitation in burying animals (cattle, sheep etc) in a pit in the ground when they die. So why the difference?

Perhaps it's just the people I've known, but the past two funerals/memorial services I've attended had photos of the people and their ashes (no caskets and embalming). I think more people are looking into other options, just because of the cost involved. And getting embalmed is pretty costly. Also, in some places, being encased in concrete is required for burial.

I haven't had much experience with hospice, but from my understanding, it's a pretty amazing service. Instead of being focused on saving a person's life (when they know they have a terminal illness) - they are focused on making the person comfortable and easing the transition. I think that's pretty remarkable.

I hope you are able to find somewhere to recycle those meds....legally. I get the feeling you can't advertise on craigslist or freecycle - well, that's my assumption.

Hi Kiwi Lindsay--I'm very glad you found your way here. I remember reading about cows with mad cow disease being buried in giant pits. I am sure that the reason there is all this care and attention to the "sanitising" of human burial is because there's a market for it. People will spend A LOT of money on funerals. If there was someone willing to pay for sanitized burials of individual cows, sheep, etc, I'm sure there would be all sorts of laws about the burying of the carcasses.

Aerin--yes, hospice is focused entirely on end-on-life care rather than any attempt to keep a person alive, and it's generally covered by medicare, which is nice, if you're old enough to be on medicare.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 25, 2010 9:34 AM.

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