Before he died in 2021, Desmond Tutu made his last wishes clear for a send-off that would reflect his environmental advocacy. His body underwent aquamation, a process called alkaline hydrolysis. With heat, water, and alkaline chemicals, a body is quickly decomposed, leaving only the bones. These can be broken into powder, much like cremation, but without that funerary rite’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Changes to the way we care for the dead in what’s often referred to as the final disposition are slow, even as many, like Tutu, are choosing new methods to better express the life they lived and the beliefs they held. Embalming is perceived as a traditional part of American funerary practices, but it only came into prominence in the mid-nineteenth century. Cremation surpassed burial in popularity in 2015 after long being taboo in the United States and Europe. The green burial movement in the twentieth century established cemeteries where the dead could just be interred with a simple shroud or biodegradable coffin in the earth. Now human composting, or natural organic reduction (NOR), has been legalized in seven states, with Nevada becoming the latest this May. NOR transforms corpses into soil using organic material that speeds up decomposition; this soil can then become part of a landscape, and the dead become part of nature.
This reading list explores the evolving care of the dead, with many of its scholars concentrating on the United States and Europe. Their work investigates, questions, and reflects on how these final choices matter and how the way we treat the dead has been shaped by culture, religion, business, urban expansion, technology, and war.
Yuri Smirnov, “Intentional Human Burial: Middle Paleolithic (Last Glaciation) Beginnings,” Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 1989): 199–233.
Death is an inevitable end to the body; the grave was something that had to be designed. Smirnov examines the earliest known instances of intentional human burial from the Middle Paleolithic era, concluding that these acts of “deliberate burial” demonstrate that the period “was a crucial stage in the evolution of humanity, when people were gradually becoming more humanized and were already creating things of everlasting value.” Research on the oldest known intentional burials has expanded since the publication of this article, but the insights into the connection between mortuary practices and changes in human behavior offer an important context for how we became the humans we are now.
Paul S. Fritz, “The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660-1830,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 1994–1995): 241–253.
While the grave altered over the centuries, it mostly remained something overseen by families and communities. Fritz chronicles, from the perspective of changes in England, how undertaking and disposition became a “profit-driven enterprise” between the 1600s and 1800s. He notes that there was resistance to this new trade, not just by officers in the College of Arms who had long arranged the elite’s funerals but also by surgeons who were irked by the encroachment on embalming, which was widely used for anatomical specimens. Nevertheless, by the nineteenth century, the undertaking trade had “dominated the final rite of passage for most of English society.”
Elizabeth Searcy, “The Dead Belong to the Living: Disinterment and Custody of Dead Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Fall 2014): 112–134.
Although the new funeral industry largely moved the final rites for the deceased out of the hands and homes of their loved ones, this cultural shift was not immediate. Searcy observes that, while “emerging institutional authorities erected barriers between the living and the dead, a powerful desire to control and possess the bodily forms of departed loved ones remained a prominent reaction to death in nineteenth-century America.” The article explores disputes over the disinterment and reburial of the dead by family members and how this interest in keeping the corpse close shows that, especially compared to what would follow in the twentieth century, nineteenth-century Americans stayed close to their dead.
Aaron Sachs, “American Arcadia: Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nineteenth-Century Landscape Tradition,” Environmental History, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 2010): 206–235.
Opened in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the first of what’s known as the rural cemeteries that were established from the mid- to late-19th century across the United States. These were inspired by cemeteries that had been established in Europe, particularly Père Lachaise in Paris, that were as much parks as burial grounds. The rural cemetery movement offered a solution for the overcrowded colonial churchyards with more interment space—commonly on the outskirts of cities as opposed to in their centers—and proposed a new way to dispose of the dead with landscaped spaces full of cultivated plants. Sachs writes that Mount Auburn “celebrates commemoration, the humanization of nature, but it also celebrates the naturalization of the human body.”
Diane Jones, “The City of the Dead: The Place of Cultural Identity and Environmental Sustainability in the African-American Cemetery,” Landscape Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2011): 226–240.
The new burial spaces being founded during the rural cemetery movement were frequently not organized by religious institutions, but white, Christian viewpoints still dominated their designs. Jones highlights another Mount Auburn in Baltimore, Maryland, that was founded in 1872 for the city’s Black residents and had its own distinct approach to the grave as part of a landscape. “The naturalistic design, random appearance, and pattern of graves and monuments in cemeteries overlaid by African-American culture are often viewed as a sign of neglect as compared to the mowed lawns and tidy rows of graves seen in Euro-American Cemeteries,” Jones writes. “This view often negates the value to culture and environment held in these places.”
Peter Thorsheim, “The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health, and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London,” Environmental History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (January 2011): 38–68.
While new cemeteries were being created outside of the increasingly crowded urban centers in the United States and Europe, the old burial grounds remained. Thorsheim examines London’s reclamation of hundreds of these graveyards as public spaces, including gardens and playgrounds, with some monuments still in situ. “If the annihilation of the body represented human frailty in the face of nature’s laws, the transformation of burial grounds into gardens can be seen as an attempt to rebel against death and decay and to reconcile the city with nature,” he writes. He also aligns this work with a new understanding of corpses, including that germs and not miasmas—like the bad air of the rotting dead—spread disease.
Michael L. Taylor, “The Civil War Experiences of a New Orleans Undertaker,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Summer 2014): 261–281.
Embalming Civil War soldiers to bring them home for burial made the preservation technique a major part of American funerary practices. Taylor investigates this moment through research into the business papers of New Orleans undertaker William Robertson Bell: “By returning soldiers’ bodies to where they had come from,” he writes, “men such as William Bell restored their dignity and helped families and communities memorialize the war in a way that was satisfactory and comforting to them.” He additionally contextualizes the loose nature of undertaking in these years, as it would “not be something that required formal education in the United States until the 1880s at the earliest.”
Lisa Kazmier, “Leading the World: The Role of Britain and the First World War in Promoting the ‘Modern Cremation’ Movement,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2009): 557–579.
Cremation is one of the oldest forms of disposition and has centuries of tradition in Buddhist and Hindu funerary practices, yet by the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, it was stigmatized. This was reinforced by Christian leadership that promoted the need for an intact body for resurrection. Kazmier foregrounds how the “modern cremation” movement in Great Britain was pivotal in making cremation an acceptable option, particularly with the formation of the Cremation Society of England in 1874. Further, the heavy losses of the world wars in the twentieth century changed how people were remembered: “Grave locations had become de-emphasized and people attached themselves to more abstract representations of individuality, such as the name of the deceased.”
Michael C. Kearl, “Cremation: Desecration, Purification, or Convenience?,” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Vol. 28, No. 2, Funerals and Memorial Practices (Summer 2004): 15–20.
Cremation continued to rise in popularity throughout the twentieth century, and Kearl considers the factors contributing to people making this choice in the United States, whether it’s a decision to save money or save land. He also highlights how “[g]eographic mobility and continuously changing social landscapes have made quaint the idea of a cemetery plot populated with eight or nine generations of family members” and how religious changes, such as the Catholic Church lifting its ban on cremation, further contributed to cremation’s acceptance.
Guy Trebay, “The Last Place,” Grand Street, No. 42 (1992): 118–131.
Alongside the establishment of garden-like cemeteries and the opening of columbaria for holding the urns of the cremated, there has been the care of the unclaimed, the unknown, and those unable to afford this final expense. Hart Island has been New York City’s potter’s field—a mass grave where bodies are stacked together in simple wooden coffins in long trenches—since 1869. Its oversight was transferred to the Parks Department from the Department of Correction in 2019, ending decades of penal control over these burials. Years before, in 1992, Trebay visited and wrote about this overlooked place where the “[i]nmates on burial duty rarely know more than the name of the bodies they inter.”
Tanya D. Marsh, “A New Lease on Death,” Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Winter 2015): 421–451.
Cemeteries have always involved real estate, but the introduction of the funeral home—which Marsh notes was a phrase that dates to 1926—raised more questions about bringing this trade into a retail center. Marsh, a leading scholar on laws related to the disposition of human remains, delves into the land use of the “retail funeral establishment,” where “changes in the American funeral industry are creating a fourth category of land use: a business where funeral goods and services are sold, but human remains are not embalmed, stored, or displayed.”
Julie Rugg, “Lawn Cemeteries: The Emergence of a New Landscape of Death,” Urban History, Vol. 33, No. 2 (August 2006): 213–233.
After the rural cemetery movement of the nineteenth century, the lawn cemetery emerged in the twentieth century. “The sometimes riotous reflection of identity in the nineteenth-century cemetery—in the proliferation of chest tombs, statues, crosses and obelisks—gave way to uniformity, with headstones of similar dimensions ranged in rows, surrounded by lawn,” Rugg writes. She concentrates on this era in England and how these cemeteries “made the private grave, for the first time, affordable to families on lower incomes.”
Richard Yarwood, James D. Sidaway, Claire Kelly, and Susie Stillwell, “Sustainable Deathstyles? The Geography of Green Burials in Britain,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 181, No. 2 (June 2015): 172–184.
The expansion of embalming and the widespread use of metal caskets and concrete vaults promoted by the funerary industry made a simple burial in earth uncommon. The green burial movement urged a return to more environmentally thoughtful disposition practices. Yarwood et al. spotlight the spread of green burial in Great Britain, including its first green burial ground, Carlisle Cemetery, which was founded in 1993 as a place “where bodies would be interred in unmarked graves in an area that would become a woodland.”
Jeremiah Chiappelli and Ted Chiappelli, “Drinking Grandma: The Problem of Embalming,” Journal of Environmental Health, Vol. 71, No. 5 (December 2008): 24–29.
Embalming using arsenic ended in the early twentieth century, and most modern embalming fluids have involved formaldehyde. Chiappelli and Chiappelli consider whether the reasons embalming became widely used, including misconceptions about decaying bodies spreading disease and the psychological need to resist decomposition, justify this continued use of toxic chemicals. They also conclude that a move away from embalming in American funerary rituals could broaden a business that has been so focused on the preservation process, writing that “[t]he inclusion of an embalming requirement in the licensing of funeral establishments has served as a large impediment to any person desiring to start a funeral home.”
Johnny P. Stowe Jr., Elise Vernon Schmidt, and Deborah Green, “Toxic Burials: The Final Insult,” Conservation Biology, Vol. 15, No. 6 (December 2001): 1817–1819.
Stowe Jr. et al argue that the air pollution from cremation, the toxic pollutants from embalming, and the use of biocides to keep cemetery grass perfectly uniform and green are unsustainable disposition practices that must change. They situate the negative ecological impact of contemporary death within a wider neglect and degradation of the environment in the United States. “What better fate than to have our bodies quickly recycled into the biota, our constituent atoms active once again in oaks and squirrels,” they ask.
Shiloh R Krupar, “Green Death: Sustainability and the Administration of the Dead,” Cultural Geographies, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April 2018): 267–284.
As Krupar analyzes in this article, a “green death” now encompasses a range of practices, from green burial to cremation technology in Europe and Asia that allows the generated heat to be converted into electricity. Concentrating on the United States, she also recognizes how these transformations of death care can raise issues over the way human remains are administered and who is marginalized in these systems: “Some people have a variety of choices that extend beyond life, while others face ongoing forms of exclusion in life and in death.”
Philip R. Olson, “Flush and Bone: Funeralizing Alkaline Hydrolysis in the United States,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 39, No. 5 (September 2014): 666–693.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a method of final disposition using heat, water, and alkaline chemicals and has recently emerged as a sustainable disposition alternative. It is now legal in twenty-four American states. However, as Olson explores, it has met opposition, because while the crushed bone matter is usually returned to loved ones, the liquid byproduct is sometimes put into sewer systems. “Though developers and providers of AH technologies hope to capitalize on increasing public interest in ecologically friendly disposition options,” Olson writes, “they face obstacles stemming from potent concerns about the sacred dignity of human remains, and about the public health implications of more widespread AH adoption—particularly with respect to the disposal of effluent.”