Opinions, Column

Ground Zero for Below Ground Life: What Happens to Us After Life?

I have a somewhat gross confession to make. And where else to share such a confession but a totally non-anonymous public platform? Isn’t the internet just a place where we unabashedly share these way-too-personal details?  

So, without further ado, I will tell you that I’ve been cutting my nails outside. I didn’t even think it was too gross until I explained to someone why I was outside barefoot in such cold weather. 

I started fumbling over my words, trying to say the nails just go everywhere if I cut them inside, so I figured there is no real harm in cutting them outside. I could just see their face scrunching up in a disapproving way, and that was the exact moment I started to reflect and think, “Hm … maybe this is a bit odd of me.” No one else I’ve ever talked to cuts their nails outside. 

Regardless of how peculiar my habit is, it did get me thinking. I was curious about how our bodies—or parts of them, like nails—contribute to the soil’s microbiome. This is especially relevant in the modern age, where we generally spend our lives indoors and away from nature. But, humans still affect the earth’s soil in critical ways, including after we die. This mostly comes into play with burials because our bodies are in complete contact with the earth (morbid, I know).

You may ask, how significant is this contribution? As it turns out, a large part of humanity’s environmental impact on the soil occurs during the burial process. This impact is largely determined by the type of burial families choose for their deceased loved ones. Modern burials, generally speaking, are not environmentally friendly—chemicals used in embalming, cremation, and the burial process itself all eventually leach into the environment surrounding the burial site. 

Conversely, our bodies alone are quite environmentally friendly. They provide vital elements to the soil that are usually only present in small concentrations, including iron, zinc, sulfur, calcium, and phosphorus. These elements can later contribute to the health of farms, forests, or parks because they help maintain healthy and fertile soil. 

Truly, the human body is magnificent—both in life and in death. In the first 30 days after a no-casket burial, nutrients flowing from the body support microbial life in the soil. This type of burial also prevents around one metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere through cremation. 

As the environmentalist I am, I often wondered if there was a way to take full advantage of our bodies’ innate ability to provide for the earth’s soil.

Then, I discovered there are new, hyper–environmentally friendly burial practices called burial pods. They’re completely biodegradable and allow the aforementioned nutrients from the body to support life above ground. A tree is also planted above as a physical manifestation of that support.   

Morbid? Yes. Incredibly different from current societal practices? Yes. Will historical burial practices change to be environmentally conscientious? Maybe. I can say with conviction, however, that cultural upheaval will be necessary to combat our current ecological crisis.
I do think there is something beautiful in tangible life coming from death. It forever connects you to nature, a beautiful and everlasting concept. 

There is also a personal aspect of pod burial: you can choose the type of tree you will buried with. At the end of my life, I would love to support a blue spruce pine tree or a weeping willow tree. I love these trees in life, and quite literally transforming into them would be such a sweet way to love them in death as well. 

Our bodies are connected to the earth in life. We rely on so many natural resources from the land, and we are made up of all of the chemical elements that once were a part of the land. Is it so crazy to return those elements back to the earth in death? 

The way I see it, when I die, I am no longer using what the earth originally gave me—my body and the natural resources that sustained it. So, I should return it.. There is something quite poetic about fully taking part in the circle of life—it’s a brilliant dance that every organism must take part in.   

Putting aside all that talk about death, I hope you enjoy the life you have here and now. And who knows, maybe I’ll be seeing you in the next one too—just don’t be alarmed if I seem much more leafy than I do now. 

December 4, 2022