Blond, bubbly and blessed with an irresistible Aussie accent, Shari Forbes understands why people might not see her as someone who would spend her time scattering dead bodies around a field to see what happens to them. By the same token, she might not be how you picture the holder of the Canada Research Chair in Decomposition Chemistry, if you even knew there was such an academic post. Nevertheless, she brings a sunny, infectious enthusiasm to death’s chemical curiosities that fly in the face of any morbid stereotype.
A decade ago Forbes became the founding director of the Forensic Science Program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa. She recently returned to her native Australia to establish that country’s first body farm, a site where donated cadavers are left in the open so that the biochemical processes associated with their decay can be studied. A handful of such facilities exist around the world and as gruesome as the concept may sound, they provide invaluable insights for police investigators that simply cannot be obtained in any other way.
Death, it turns out, offers up some downright lively chemical processes, although you would never guess that from the way most of us encounter the subject in contemporary Western society. We prefer our corpses to be as inert as possible. Funeral homes routinely inject formaldehyde into a cadaver’s circulatory system to keep the biochemical breakdown of tissue at bay until the body can be placed inside a nearly airtight container, which will be further isolated inside a grave lined with walls to prevent any intrusion from the soil. Alternatively, a growing number of us elect for cremation, a tidier option that simply destroys everything at once.
Given such practices, Forbes is not surprised that people wonder if we turn into some form of hazardous waste when we die. She fields this question regularly and for her, the answer is all too obvious. “We’re just mammals,” she says. “There’s really nothing in the body that’s toxic to the environment. We’re just made up of nutrients and those nutrients return to the soil. It sounds awful but we’re essentially just another form of fertilizer.”
The simple archway, as well as the three-figure cedar sculpture called The Ancestors, created by Michael Dennis, mark the natural burial cemetery on Denman Island, BC. Photo credit: Louise Bell
Nor does that conclusion sound awful to everyone, especially those sensitive to a form of environmental karma insisting that in death we should give back to the earth all that we have taken from it to sustain our lives. This perspective lies behind emerging attitudes toward how we might better dispose of our bodies in ways that recognize our final state as a set of physical resources to be donated for use rather than preserved intact or taken out of circulation altogether.
One could argue that this was the original attitude human beings adopted toward their dead, as evidenced by rudimentary burial sites found around the world dating back tens of thousands of years. However, modern technology has given us the ability to indulge in more elaborate practices. Embalming, for example, gained favour in the United States during the upheaval of that country’s civil war during the 1860s, which created an unprecedented number of corpses that had to survive transport from battlefield to cemetery. Assassinated President Abraham Lincoln became an unwitting icon for this technique when his own remains were famously embalmed so they would survive the considerable journey from Washington, DC to his hometown in Illinois.
Embalming subsequently became the mainstay of a funeral industry marketing innovations such as metal caskets and concrete grave liners, which added a great deal of expensive permanent infrastructure to burial landscapes that had once been home to nothing more than decaying materials. The growing popularity of cremation might avoid the stigma of saddling the soil with impregnable structures but it has come under fire from critics citing the amount of energy that is used for this process, along with the volume of climate-altering carbon it releases.
By the 1990s, this criticism had spawned a movement known as natural burial that first took shape in the UK. Advocates there lobbied for cemetery space to place unembalmed bodies wrapped in nothing more than a biodegradable shroud at the comparatively shallow depth of about a metre, where most of the biological activity in the soil takes place. The expectation is that decomposition will occur in comparatively short order and with a maximum transfer of elements to the surrounding environment.
This approach has since migrated across the Atlantic and has been slowly gathering momentum in North America. Also known here as green burial, the term sometimes raises the hackles of purists who have watched all kinds of large enterprises transform well-intentioned environmental initiatives into little more than advertising strategies. As the superintendent of one of the largest natural burial sites in Canada, Michel Cabardos counts himself among those with little patience for funeral directors who have told him “you can be any shade of green you want.” Cabardos argues that the people coming to him for natural burial are far more specific. “They don’t want a shade of green, they want green,” he says.
Cabardos works at Union Cemetery in Cobourg, just east of Toronto. He acknowledges that natural burial is not profitable, since it involves no monuments, no flowers and no extra costs to be added. People ask for it because of an environmental ethic that he shares. “I had a nice part of the cemetery that I wanted to preserve as nice,” he recalls. “It was the perfect spot for green burial. So what is green? Bodies won’t be embalmed. We dig by hand. We won’t cut the grass — we actually go in with a hand scythe and knock it down.”
For Shari Forbes, a professor in the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia and a former Canada Research Chair in Decomposition Chemistry, the way in which our bodies decay after death is a compelling scientific pursuit. Photo credit: Terry Clinton
Cabardos receives calls from across Ontario for this kind of service — or lack thereof — and interest continues to spread across the country. Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking so far has been on Denman Island, one of the northern Gulf Islands in British Columbia. All burial rights for the island’s only cemetery were sold by the early 1970s and so new plots had not been available to local families for many years. That changed this past fall with the opening of what is being touted as Canada’s first stand-alone green cemetery, which is not affiliated with any existing conventional graveyard.
Island resident Gloria Michin was part of a committee that spent years working out the complex logistics behind this site, which is part of a 60-hectare conservation area held by Denman Conservancy Association to preserve local wilderness. The committee struck an extraordinary conservation covenant with the association, which agreed to cede a small parcel of this land for a natural burial cemetery with the understanding that this would have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment. “This conservation covenant is different from any other in that not only does it preserve an ecological value of the property but it also allows for this activity — the cemetery — to take place,” says Michin.
In fact, apart from an entrance structure and a memorial wall, someone hiking through the area in years to come should have little or no indication that it is in fact a cemetery at all. “Ultimately,” she adds, “the goal is that the site will revert back to the forest that it once was.”
As appealing as this image may be for the country’s rural regions, most of us now live in urban enclaves where the technical amenities of natural burial will be significantly harder to observe. This challenge is being tackled by the Urban Death Project, an American-based group seeking to introduce a high-throughput variation that would have a much smaller geographic footprint. The centrepiece of their proposal is called the Core, a small building several stories tall that would essentially serve as a large composter for bodies that would be inserted at the top and emerge as soil-ready fertilizer after what should be a few weeks.
In spite of the obvious utilitarian purpose that the Core would fulfill, Urban Death Project founder Katrina Spade insists that such a structure could become a place of powerful remembrance and spiritual meaning. She hopes to have one built in Seattle by the end of the decade. In the meantime, she has enlisted researchers at Western Carolina University to pin down the mechanics of how this building would have to be designed. The North Carolina campus is home to a body farm and Spade has enticed researchers there to dedicate several bodies to a study of the conditions that would simulate those in the Core.
As Forbes can testify, this kind of investigation is far from straightforward. The human body is characterized by long-chain molecules that take a lot of work to maintain and remove while we are alive. Once we die, a remarkable cascade of effects take place. “It’s the degradation of the body’s macromolecules — our lipids, our proteins, our carbohydrates,” she says, noting that the steps can be anything but consistent.
Forbes traces the starting point of her career to an undergraduate project dedicated to understanding why bodies in a particular cemetery in Sydney were not decomposing as they should. “They were in an area that was close to the groundwater table and so the graves were becoming waterlogged,” she says. The water promoted anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of the fat in body tissue, which generated a waxy organic substance called adipocere. It was this material that she discovered encasing bodies and preventing further decay.
The production of adipocere is just one aspect of autolysis, the self-digestion of the body by bacteria in our gut that happily took care of the food we ate but are just as happy consuming our own tissue once we stop eating. Instead of breaking down food into protein and amino acids, enzymes that were held in check by our living cells now act without discretion, releasing all manner of fluids.
We are only just beginning to realize the sheer diversity of these bacteria, which outnumber the human cells in our body by a full order of magnitude and define a biochemical setting that has been dubbed the microbiome. Interactions within the microbiome are now being linked to all manner of activity connected with our health, for good and for ill; there is every reason to expect that the microbiome would remain a busy place after our death, even if that activity eventually eliminates its own physical casing.
According to Forbes, this can all happen fairly quickly. Depending on the local temperature, all of a body’s soft tissue will be gone in a matter of two to three weeks, although hard matter like bones or teeth can easily endure for decades. Barring some ghastly encounter with toxins or radioactive elements that brought on death, the byproducts of death should not pose any kind of problem for the continuing biological health of the environment that receives it. That assurance drives the goals of natural burial, which are reiterated by Forbes in her own cheery way. “From a chemical point of view it’s quite sustainable,” she says.