You’re Dead – Now What?

The oldest known burial remains in North America were found in Montana. A two year old child was interred with numerous valuable artifacts, almost 13,000 years ago. The artifacts, stone tools for example, indicated the child was of the Clovis culture, so named for a distinct style of arrow heads first found in Clovis, New Mexico.

burial site of Clovis Child

burial site of Clovis Child

Interestingly Clovis Culture artifacts are widespread across North America but this is the first skeletal remains found and examined by DNA analysis. DNA confirmed the Siberian ancestral origin of native Americans.

Burial, with or without embalming, has been and to this day remains to be the most common method of disposal of human remains in the United States, but this appears to be changing. About two thirds of us are buried, the remainder cremated. Cremation rates vary considerably by state. In Mississippi only one in ten are cremated whereas seven in ten are cremated in Nevada. Here in Arkansas about 20 per cent are cremated. In some parts of Europe cremation rates are over 90 per cent.



Cremation began in the United States late in the nineteenth century, and the number cremated has slowly increased. It was initially promoted as a healthy alternative as it had been thought that bodies moldering in the ground gave of toxic airs known as miasma. Today modern crematoria such as that proposed here in the River Valley are fired with natural gas and fitted with exhaust scrubbers to recover much of the Mercury emissions coming from dental amalgams.

Cremation costs have risen with the cost of energy and also the cost for the advanced scrubbers for Mercury removal. This has driven the search for other alternatives. The most developed alternative technology to date involves what is called alkaline hydrolysis. A body is put in a chamber with water and lye which then is heated and pressurized to digest the body. Other than the large bones the only thing remaining is a sterile solution which literally goes down the drain. Alternatively the solution can be neutralized and used as a nutrient rich solution for watering plants.

A possibly more respectful and less wasteful disposal of humans could involve some sort of recycling. A process for composting human remains is being examined by a Swedish Company – Promessa. Rather than a human body being combined with vegetable peels in a compost pile, this company uses freeze drying. Completely dehydrated remains are pulverized, placed in biodegradable boxes and then buried in shallow graves. The nutrients from the body provide excellent fertilizer for subsequent plantings.

In Arkansas human remains can be buried without embalming and in rural areas a family cemetery could be the final resting place. So you’re last decision could be whether to fertilize, and hence become one with, a bed of roses or maybe a fruit tree or for longevity even an oak tree.

3 thoughts on “You’re Dead – Now What?

  1. James Henry Willis

    Your blog posts are always interesting. This one is crème de la crème, as they say in Quebec. Great from the header to the video besides that little formatting distraction at the photo of the bluffs. Thanks.

  2. bob Post author

    Thanks James, while working up the post I thought about shrinking the picture a little to impact that format issue, but got distracted and left it alone.

  3. jeff patterson

    Hi Bob I like your post especially the different alternatives to body disposal. Here in Illinois I’ve been at a crossroads with a crematorium that is in a residential neighborhood and they burn bodies 1 to 2 a day sometimes there is no heavy black smoke but other times there is and it settles in through our yards and if windows are open in our homes I’ve had talks with reps and they say we are compliant with EPA and to just get used it. Well I choose not to get used to it but my issue is that the guidelines set for crematoriums are very vague and if there are any such as mercury levels which an average crematorium puts into the local environment is 90 + or – pounds a year from amalgam what is the acceptable level that affects the children in the neighborhood. I would ask that teeth w/ amalgam be removed and disposed of responsibly but that would be the discretion of the family to turn that option down. It seems to me the deceased have more rights than the living when it comes to this issue and the last soap box problem is it’s just plain nasty breathing the smoke when you know what it is. Thanks for letting me bend your ear. cheers!


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