As the rhetoric of “green” choice surrounds us, nothing will be spared, not even death.
—Suzanne Kelly, “Dead Bodies That Matter”
The bodies of black people, convicts, women, the insane and the poor have been differentially treated, reminding us of the need constantly to situate reflections on our shared humanity in contexts of conquest and dispossession—as much of the corpse as of living subjects.
—Deborah Posel and Pamila Gupta, “The Life of the Corpse”
This book has examined life-making practices that affirm life and intimately govern through a regulatory politics of affirmation. People are called on to participate in such life-making as if it is unquestionably good, rather than an intensification of stratified living or subjection of bodies to new risks. The previous chapters explored how life-making simultaneously creates deathly conditions and obscures death. In a politics that is focused on affirming life, death is invisibilized. But we can also see that in death, the body enters regulatory processes of affirmation, namely, a material afterlife that is subject to power relations. Increased proceduralization of dying and the event of death within U.S. biomedicine undoubtedly demonstrates an “assemblage of techniques of power designed to reproduce and discipline human populations”—including dead populations.1 Even more so, the disposal and commemoration of human remains reveal that death does not lie beyond the reach of power: bodies remain after death, and a variety of cultural practices, technologies, and administrative interventions aim to resolve this “remaining.”2 Considering the eventful fate of dead bodies occasions a critical juncture in which to explore both the biopolitical management of material remains and the disciplining of the very materiality of the dead body. The governance of the dead points to some of the ways that the dead body has been understood—that is, the range of practices that administer and discipline the corpse in U.S. society—as an economic input in the funeral industry, material waste to be eliminated, a resource for the living and a form of property, a quasi-subject to be granted respect and privacy, and an active medium of connection between the living and deceased.3 This chapter focuses on the changing administration of human remains that emphasizes material–biological extraction and ecological legacy.4 We argue that such death practices show how—even in death—life (of some people or in some form) is affirmed as afterlife unevenly and with contradictory benefits. Put another way, our claim here is that the biomedical commitment to affirming life extends into the administration of death and the disciplining of the dead body. Thus, even when released from biomedicine’s grasp, life is affirmed—as afterlife. This affirmation of life (in death) is, however, still regulatory; it still stratifies populations; and it still disavows the recognition of certain deaths and lives lived.
The chapter investigates biocultures of afterlife that, we argue, are increasingly subjected to the affirmation to “green” death and the dead body. Environmental sustainability concerns are reconfiguring American death care: handling the dead body has expanded into a vibrant field of disposal and commemoration activities that address issues of sustainability, toxicity, waste, land scarcity, and global warming, in addition to legacy and memorialization. The affirmation to “green” at the final frontier of life seeks to make death sustainable through intensified bioremediation of the dead body: the reuse and reprocessing of dead bodies/parts and the conversion of afterlife to forms of value beyond death.5 We survey bioremediation practices that affirm the afterlife of the corpse as an opportunity to commemorate sustainability as personal legacy, generate new markets and efficiencies, and secure particular environmental legacies and relations between the living and the dead. We delineate two ways that bioremediation expands the governance of dead bodies/parts and their material possibilities for biovalue. First, some disposal efforts encourage an economy of body/parts beyond death and a utilitarian ethic of efficiency—“no remains.” Accordingly, the afterlife is not “the end” but a renewable material resource and opportunity to economize the body in death and put the dead body to work. Here greening the afterlife of the corpse refers to ecological and commercial imperatives that advocate reusing the dead body and reintegrating the waste generated through cremation technologies into alternative energy infrastructure—specifically, reprocessing crematorium heat waste, recycling orthopedic implants, and gifting corporeal value through whole-body or organ donation. Second, we observe a range of practices that reimagine death as an opportunity for personal legacy and redeem the body’s decomposition as natural/as part of the natural world. Bioremediation in this case conceptually recuperates death into life so that death is not wasted. From green burial practices to the integration of cremation ashes or human DNA in new corporeal–memorial life-forms, such as “eternal reefs” and “transgenic tombstones,” the corpse serves as a material input for nature and a vehicle for legacy—what we refer to as biopresence.6 The material vitality of the body “lives on” through customized postmortem commemoration that validates the value of a life through claims of environmental benefits.
How bodies affect our environments today will impact people and landscapes in years to come. As indicated by the second opening quote to this chapter, U.S. governance of the dead has historically entailed the differential treatment of bodies after life: some dead bodies are privately preserved and remembered; others have been stolen and displayed or studied. In this context, the greening of death and affirmation of the dead body’s afterlife through bioremediation practices have social, political, and environmental consequences, including potentially advancing the biopolitics of disposability and erasure of bodies subject to “bad deaths.”7 This chapter therefore considers some of the paradoxes and potential costs of greening the dead in order to galvanize awareness of social justice issues that operate across the living and the dead—in other words, to promote “death equity” appraisals at the intersections of environmental justice and what Clare Madge calls “relational mortality.”8 Bioremediation laudably demonstrates an ethical and/or economic commitment to affirming the greening of the body’s afterlife. Yet this activity also risks legitimating the status quo characterized by excessive consumption, orchestrating efficiencies for a predatory death industry, and obscuring a long history of biopiracy and experimentation on racial minorities. While greening the disposal of one’s own body—to leave a sustainable or green legacy—is viewed as a gift to nature, the underside of this operation is further entrenchment of social position in life and an intensified legacy of violent human–nonhuman and person–thing social divisions in the landscape.
The point of our speculative venture into the arena of the afterlife in this final chapter is not to totalize or wholesale criticize efforts to make death more sustainable or affirm it as natural. Many green death projects are commendable, creative, and necessary interventions in a pervasively death-averse culture. Our aim, however, is to reflect on these bioremediation efforts through the lens of what Michel Foucault referred to as “caesuras” within biopolitics that make some lives not matter in life—or, we argue, in afterlife.9 While he was referring to racism—and we remain interested in the idea of the “racial cut” that stratifies the population in death just as in life—our broader interest is to consider how affirming the afterlife ostensibly enhances inequalities of the living and buttresses a politics of expungement that rules out the possibility of a “good death” for certain individuals and communities. In response to the potential social hazards presented by “sustainable death” practices, particularly racialized and class-based exclusions, we ask: what possibilities exist for an environmental ethics of human remains that contributes to—rather than obscures—environmental justice and civil rights projects? We conclude by querying how conduct for the dead might advance social justice through a material politics of human remains.
U.S. Biocultures of Death Care: A Brief Environmental History
A brief environmental history of U.S. death care contextualizes concerns today about the negative impacts of the standard American way of death, that is, earth burial of embalmed bodies and the increasingly popular flame-based cremation. The affirmation to green death both challenges and presents tremendous opportunity for the well-entrenched death industry, signaling significant reforms in the governance of the dead. Essentially, dead human bodies experience a material afterlife. This afterlife is organized and governed by death work and funerary practices, most notably a national (now transnational) funeral industry focused on the perishable body.10 Death care expertise in the United States historically removed deathly rituals and the dead body from everyday home life to medical institutions and a formalized funeral profession.11 Legitimated by the rise of mortuary science, professional death work would come to offer specialized services that handled disposal of the dead, mitigated perceived health concerns, and expanded commemoration through time and space with a growing market of memorial products and services.
The cultural–economic rise of this death care industry is often attributed to the “post-bellum reconstruction of America (1865–1880) and the rising power of corporations in constructing the hegemony of consumption.”12 Since the American Civil War, embalming of the corpse has anchored the configuration of the American funeral industry, with emphasis on improving the material aesthetics, “shelf life,” and geographical range of dead bodies as chemically preserved fleshy artifacts conferred with postmortem subjectivity.13 The Civil War generated thousands of dead bodies and resulted in the material problem of how to return them home.14 In response, embalming expedited technological domination over space and time, to forestall decay and enable corpses to travel and continue to meaningfully reference the deceased. A professional–managerial class of funeral directors helped to formalize the new market and supply chain for death services. The progressively commodified funeral process was further bolstered by an increase in wealth among a middle class that could pay for death care. Central to the industry, embalming and refrigeration enabled the transportation of the dead body, while innovations from the telegraph to coffin catalogs connected the living to the dead through an array of funerary rituals and product options.
As the role of the funerary professional came to be associated with science and the medical establishment, techno-funerary practices affected new corpse geographies and “deathscapes” in relation to the American landscape.15 American cultural distance from death over the course of the twentieth century spurred the routine movement of the dead from hospital bed to funeral home to memorial park. Control and containment of the corpse served the dual purpose of removing and intervening in the unruly nature of decomposition to eradicate the (real or perceived) health hazards of dead bodies and of converting the corpse into a mobile “commodity” that could aggregate myriad other commemorative commodities (elaborate coffins, tombstones, urns, etc.). Even cremation, which was seldom used in comparison with traditional burial in the United States, was initially heralded in the rhetoric of sanitation. Attendant to the professionalized handling of the corpse, the cemetery transitioned from a largely local communal sacred space—where the living and the dead were separated but symbolically joined through memorial rites—to a distant, private, secular, and commercialized landscape. Memorial parks, in particular, functioned to sequester and sanitize the dead body within a highly ordered environment and (industrially) maintained pastoral scenery outside of middle-class urban living; its ornamental nature “was viewed as a moral virtue destined to make city life less harsh.”16 Removed from the home and local graveyard, the memorial park offered a final resting place for dead bodies and their visitors—usually in the form of family-grouped individual plots of land or memorial niches purchased in a columbarium or community mausoleum for “cremains.” The aesthetics and regulations of the landscape were used to market and manage the cemetery as well as to secure an attractive and sacred space for funerary practice, thereby distancing the morbid connotations of the cemetery.17 In short, American burial practices and deathscapes have emphasized containment of the dead body and preservation of static environments for the dead removed from everyday life.18
The resources required for this way of death draw attention to its environmental impact: Americans annually bury more than 30 million board feet of hardwood (caskets), more than one hundred thousand tons of steel, copper, and bronze (caskets and vaults), more than eight hundred thousand gallons of embalming fluid, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete.19 Caskets and vaults may contaminate soil and groundwater by leaching preservatives, sealants, and metals. Furthermore, cemeteries are typically beautified with turf and kept verdant via regular applications of pesticides and fertilizers.20 Not only can cemeteries be toxic, particularly for workers, but the spread of embalming fluid and other inert chemicals throughout the gravesite environment also inhibits human death from contributing to the landscape through decay. That is, the sanitized corpse is placed outside of the decomposition that it could undergo in the soil due to the way funerary technologies destroy important microbes and ward off insects necessary for the breakdown of the body.21 A sustainable death movement today, in part, arose to reverse the distancing of the corpse and repudiation of its decay and to reimagine deathly ritual and legacy in environmentally friendly forms.
One such reimagining has been cremation, which Americans have increasingly preferred to burial. Between 1960 and 2010, U.S. cremation rates increased from 3.56 to 40.6 percent: the rate reached 45.4 percent in 2013 and is projected to surpass burial by almost three times by 2030.22 Many Americans favor cremation for its efficiency and reduced environmental impact; it is often touted as the “clean” alternative to burial’s perceived environmental and consumer rights threats, such as expensive maintenance of scarce burial grounds, the desire to save land, or the neo-Malthusian view that there are too many humans (alive or dead).23 Yet several studies have shown the toxic effects of crematoria, namely, elevated mercury levels in crematory worker hair and the soils surrounding the buildings near crematoria.24 Not only does the incineration process use massive amounts of nonrenewable energy sources to maintain the furnace but it also generates carbon dioxide and numerous noxious gases and carcinogens.25 Contaminants—embalming fluid (usually a mix of formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol); radioactive isotopes from cancer treatments; vaporized mercury emissions from dental fillings; silicone from breast implants; or harmful accumulations of zinc, copper, or iron—eventually make their way into the atmosphere. Wasting of heat/energy through a polluting incineration process has warranted environmental opposition in recent decades and catalyzed efforts to make cremation more efficient and clean-burning.
In response to death care services and technologies deemed to be toxic, inefficient, wasteful, excessive, deleterious to natural/ecological processes, and/or exploitative, a wide spectrum of green death practices—that intersect with and reflect broader social and economic pursuits of “sustainability” in late capitalism—now seek to expend fewer resources and reduce the environmental and economic burden of death’s administration.26 As the rest of this chapter will explore, the greening of death demonstrates changing biopolitical governance of dead bodies as material resources to be converted to other uses as well as shifting attitudes toward the nature of the human body and death—their role and place in society—and new norms of commemoration and conduct for the dead.
Sustainable Death: Bioremediation of the Dead Body
If traditionally the governing of death emphasized containment of the dead body, we now see practices that remediate the material afterlife—that convert and exploit dead bodies.27 Bioremediation of the dead body and body parts reorganizes the body after death—conceptually and materially—for purposes that range from alternative energy infrastructure projects that operate at the biopolitical level, to new memorial life-forms that operate more at the level of individual bodies. We observe two overlapping trends—what we call “no remains” and “biopresence”—that simultaneously show the material afterlife of the corpse: as new forms of biovalue harnessed at the scale of the population and as ways to discipline and make productive the dead body beyond the life of a subject—beyond death. With this conceptual schema, we wish to underscore the material processes and power relations that govern the body’s afterlife—the material nature of dead human bodies and our relations with the material remains of the dead. In the first case, the afterlife presents an opportunity to economize the body in death and put the dead body to work in new ways as a material resource. To “green” death here entails new markets and efficiencies as the source of biovalue. We examine a few examples of the bioremediation of the corpse that can be seen to affirm life in the broader social arena, such as orthopedic implant recycling and heat-waste reprocessing at crematoria. The second case briefly explores death practices that redefine the corpse as a material contribution to nature and vehicle for personal legacy. These efforts seek to conceptually recuperate death-in-life so that death is not wasted—nor lays waste to nature. From green burial to memorial trees, we examine efforts to reimagine honoring the dead through interactions with land/nature and new technologies that implant postmortem human presence. In short, the governance of death now affirms a material afterlife of efficiency, utility, adaptation, and exploitation of dead bodies for entrepreneurial purposes and/or personal legacy.28
The usefulness of dead bodies and their constituent parts spans a long history, including the supply of cadavers for medical schools, donations of bodies to science, and the circulation and regulation of organs for transplant. The intensification of this general trajectory can be seen in current repurposing efforts that strive to produce “no remains” by getting the most out of the body after death. A bio-economy of body parts beyond the life of the subject has expanded transnationally to service biotech enterprises and new cadaver-sourced bioproducts, such as “face transplants, cadaver collagen beauty treatments, genomics, stem cell research, organ harvesting”—challenging the definition and limits of the proper use of the corpse.29 Motivations for these efforts interrelate economic and ethical imperatives: for some, it is about transforming the dead body into forms of biovalue via enhanced efficiencies within broader circuits of capital. As Catherine Waldby explains, biovalue is generated whenever the productivity of life/living entities—in this case, dead bodies and their material afterlife—can be instrumentalized in ways that are useful to human projects.30 There is also an ethical orientation at work that strives to recast death, advocating for the reprocessing of dead bodies and body parts. “No remains” thus covers a spectrum of activities that aim to convert the material afterlife of the corpse as waste into energy, infrastructure, or scientific or forensic gift.
Organ donation is an obvious starting point for considerations of the affirmation of the dead body and its corporeal value to the living.31 More than 145 million people in the United States were registered as donors in 2018, to supply replacement parts for the bodies of the living.32 Even though waitlisted patients exceed donors by nearly tenfold, more than eighty-five hundred deceased donors in 2014 enabled approximately twenty-four thousand organ transplants, along with nearly forty-eight thousand corneal transplants and more than 1 million tissue transplants.33 The biosciences have also put the corpse to work in anatomical models and forensic evidence, asking people “to consider anatomical gifts as your last charitable act.”34 For example, the Anatomy Bequest Program of the renowned Mayo Clinic “accepts whole-body donations for the purposes of medical education, research and surgical training, and the development and testing of new surgical devices and techniques.”35 Another whole-body donation option supports the study of human decomposition at one of the country’s taphonomic facilities (“body farms”) to advance forensic science of human remains.36 The leading outdoor laboratory of cadaver decay at the University of Tennessee boasts a predonor waiting list of nearly three thousand individuals from all fifty states and six different countries.37
Far outstripping forensics body donation numbers, cremation in the United States now figures prominently in a consumer-based ethics to reduce the material footprint of humans after death. Orthopedic recycling and waste-to-energy reprocessing at crematoria represent efforts to harness and redirect taken-for-granted or unacknowledged material waste streams, with complex motives spanning explicit for-profit gain and humanitarian charity. “No remains” in these scenarios means reducing the waste produced via the cremation process. Human bodies are becoming more industrial in life and afterlife—an ontological position that Donna Haraway referred to as the “cyborg.”38 Dead bodies contain metal joints, mercury dental fillings, surgical materials, silicone breast implants, pacemaker batteries, and numerous inorganic elements. Cremation presents an opportunity to collect, sort, and melt down valuable metal by-products that formerly operated in the body before death (from titanium hips to cobalt-chrome knees). After being subject to fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred degree Fahrenheit cremation temperatures, recovered metals are sold on the global manufacturing market, with proceeds returned to the crematorium or a selected charity.39 For example, Detroit-based Implant Recycling LLC, owned by a fourth-generation family of metal recyclers, works with twelve hundred crematoria, providing bins, sending out a company delivery truck to pick them up for collection back in Detroit, and offering crematoria compensation for their time and effort.40 Within the 65 percent of U.S. crematoria that now recycle medical prostheses, some companies emphasize obtaining consent from the deceased’s family or representative and the ethical choice to recycle (even though it may take a for-profit form), while others advocate a strictly nonprofit approach of giving joint recycling proceeds to charity.41
This emphasis on efficiency and utility in what we might see as the biopolitical governance of afterlife in late liberalism has led to upgrades in cremation technology and infrastructure. For example, reprocessing the heat generated by cremation has revamped crematoria designs that remain largely based in the nineteenth century. Pragmatic efforts to comply with emission reduction requirements (mercury and dioxins) and generate alternative energy sources are pushing for revisions to cremation conveyance.42 Europe and Asia lead the charge in making profitable use of excess heat that would otherwise be wasted, with new cremator technologies that convert waste heat from incineration into electricity.43 A typical cremation generates between two hundred and four hundred kilowatts of waste heat that can be harnessed to warm cemetery roads and chapels or converted to chill freezers or air condition waiting rooms in crematoria.44 The cremation division of Florida-based Matthews International is working on a U.S. application that would transform waste heat into electrical energy that can be put back on the grid.45 The United States only recuperates about 12 percent of its heat, in part because trapped heat cannot travel far and the majority of the country’s centralized power plants are further from urban centers than their European and Asian counterparts.46 With U.S. cremation figures projected to reach 71 percent by 2030, crematoria present growth industry potential for transforming yet another by-product into new forms of value.47
Although cremation is becoming more efficient and clean burning, massive amounts of nonrenewable energy sources are used to maintain the furnace. The technology also generates carbon dioxide, noxious gases, and carcinogens. In response to these indications that cremation is wasteful and toxic, new flameless options neutralize harmful pathogens in organic material but remove the need for the corpse to undergo a polluting incinerator process. Resomation—also known as biocremation, water resolution, aquamation, bioliquefaction, and natural cremation—replaces the traditional use of fire with a water- and alkali-based method (alkaline hydrolysis).48 Alkaline hydrolysis converts the tissue and cells of the human body into a watery solution of micromolecules, leaving a bone structure of mineral compounds, such as calcium and phosphates.49 The corpse is placed into a pressurized steel vessel that heats it to approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit under 150 pounds per square inch of pressure within a potassium hydroxide (lye) solution, breaking down flesh into nonhazardous salts, sugars, small peptides, and amino acids.50 The effluent from the chemical process is sterile, contains no DNA, and can be discharged to the sewer system or a green space without further treatment. Metals present in the body prior to treatment can be recycled, while the skeletal remains are processed into white ash and returned to the deceased’s family or guardians. The patented process normally takes two to three hours, similar to the average length of a flame-based cremation. Hailed by its purveyors as the responsible and ethical green choice, it allegedly produces one-third less greenhouse gas than incineration, consumes only 10 percent of the energy used during cremation, and allows for the safe separation of dental amalgam for disposal.51 Even though recycling the liquid is not without significant controversy in the American context—particularly due to concerns about whether liquefaction violates respect for human remains and how to regulate the reincorporation of the solution into water treatment infrastructure—fourteen states have approved the use of the technology, with permits additionally implemented in California and pending approval in five more states.52
Just as the dead body is recycled for reuse—and the cremation process improved through more efficient and environmentally friendly technologies—the affirmation to green death, in all of these examples, reimagines the dead body within a feedback loop of economic and corporeal values—one in which the afterlife is not “the end” but a renewable material resource and bioremediation opportunity. Crematoria heat recycling in particular reveals this conceptual reinterpretation of the dead body from waste (for disposal) to reusable material and even “fuel” to warm the living (and maximize the life of living populations).53 Extracting more from the dead body adds positive value under the sign of efficiency and exhibits a complex mix of ecological and commercial logics within the biopolitical governance of the dead.
At the intersection of environmental ethics and consumer rights, a sustainable death movement strives to mitigate the environmental impact and dispensation of human remains. Environmental concerns over the disposal of the dead challenge a number of death care practices and technologies, notably embalming and the toxicities generated by both conventional cremations and burials. Bioremediation can thus involve reimagining bodily decomposition as natural—“returning the dead body to nature”—and supporting land conservation through burial. We also observe new technologies and consumer products of commemoration that enable the expression of personal legacy in terms of environmental inheritance—in some cases, through converting the material remains of the dead into durable postmortem presence, from diamond rings to memorial trees or coral reefs. On the one hand, the sustainable death trend in biocultures of afterlife—exemplified by eco-friendly burials—rejects the commodification of death. On the other hand, we also see the proliferation of customized products and activities to enhance personal legacy. Greening death signals a shift in how we think about governing the dead body: this epistemological bioremediation advocates for the environmental benefits of the dead body and social responsibility of/for afterlife, yet also contradictorily may lead to intensified commercial and technical approaches to administering death.
For example, green burial options are making gains within American death care, honoring the dead through commemorating sustainability and redefining the corpse as a material input for land or nature. Rather than maintaining static biotic environments that emphasize containment and preservation, green burials or natural burials aim to “care for the dead with minimal ecological impact by eschewing embalming and non-biodegradable burial containers, vaults and liners.”54 They forward a radical “necro-ecological” agenda that revises assumptions about the nature of dead bodies and of the value of human decomposition to nature.55 Contrary to popular repudiation of decay as a form of pollution, the human body—seen as a material, chemical, and biological component of the natural world—is integrated into an ecology of death. As a natural part of the ecosystem, corpses can generate biovalue through composting processes that benefit nature and living humans, in a kind of “cradle to grave” or “waste to food” intergenerational cycle.56 The Urban Death Project, for example, proposes local corpse-reprocessing systems, wherein bodies are placed inside a three-story core and converted to compost with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity.57 According to the project website, it is “not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature.”58 Moving from the architectural to the sartorial, the Infinity Burial Suit (called the Mushroom Death Suit in artist Jae Rhim Lee’s original concept) is designed to be worn by the corpse for direct burial into the soil; the suit is embroidered with a special strain of fungi that, when buried, help to break down the body and remediate toxins that could contaminate the surrounding environment.59 Lee also engineered an alternative embalming fluid—a liquid spore slurry—as well as Decompiculture Makeup, which, when applied, activates the mushrooms to develop and grow.
This interest in the ecology of death supports a land ethic—that the decomposition of the dead can contribute to conservation efforts—and new biopolitical and regulatory frameworks for American deathscapes that reward sustainable death best practices. The growing number of conservation burial grounds and cemetery nature preserves shows how human burial can dovetail with the need for land preservation and environmental stewardship. Traditional cemeteries increasingly allow for natural burial practices, and as of 2013, there were around thirty-seven certified green cemeteries in the United States; U.S. Funerals Online estimates the number of green burial cemeteries reached ninety-three in 2016.60 The Green Burial Council—an independent nonprofit organization founded in 2005—established the nation’s first certifiable standards for cemeteries, funeral providers, burial product manufacturers, and cremation facilities, positioning itself as arbiter of the green burial world (as both social movement and business opportunity).61 Cemetery responses to these sustainability standards have ranged from hybrid burial grounds—conventional cemeteries that offer burial without a vault, container, or gravestone and that do not require embalming—to natural burial grounds that maintain energy-conserving and antitoxics protocols, integrated pest management, and natural landscaping compatible with regional ecosystems.62
With the median cost of a funeral in the United States reaching $7,181 in 2014, green burial can present significant economic savings, costing as little as $500.63 Eco-friendly burial services might entail a home vigil and noninvasive techniques and materials to clean and preserve the dead body for a few days. Sustainability thus might refer to economic viability in addition to a land ethic or revaluation of human decay. A loosely knit do-it-yourself death movement is reclaiming various aspects of death, rejecting environmentally harmful measures to beautify the corpse, organizing “home death care” and personal funerals, and even arranging at-home backyard burial.64 Ecological “death gear” options flourish alongside this trend of economically frugal disposal. A dynamic green burial market now supplies an outcropping of ecological coffins and shrouds that allow or even help the body to decay, ranging from a scaled-back traditional coffin with biodegradable glue, aqueous paint, and no metal to myriad artisanal caskets, cocoons, or eco-pods made of wicker, felt, cardboard, or paper mache. For example, California-based Eternity sells cardboard coffins for as little as $175, with wood-printed versions (cherry or pine) in soy ink for $320.65 Among the Kinkaraco catalog of death shrouds, there are linen options for bodies as well as cremation remains, combined with biodegradable lowering devices, such as the TRU-GREEN BELIEVER in linen or the herbal-lined Botanika Deathspa.66 Biodegradable urns have also emerged in the green death market, often mimicking natural forms and/or propagating plants, such as the ARKA acorn urn made from recycled paper and natural fibers and shaped like a large acorn; the sinkable biodegradable Shell Urn made from nontoxic food-grade recycled paper for burials on land or at sea; and the Bios Urn, which espouses the motto “There’s life, after life” by integrating a pine seed inside of the vessel to support the growth of a tree following burial.67
The American demand for more customized and individually personalized forms of memorialization has spurred the transformation of material remains of the dead into new forms of postmortem “biopresence,” from wearable “everlasting” art and commodities to environmental enhancements that redefine the relationship between human and nonhuman. LifeGem offers “memorial diamonds” and commemorative wearables made from human ashes or a lock of human hair, not unlike Victorian-era death cult traditions of sculptures or jewelry made with human hair. The patented process extracts and purifies leftover carbon, and the resulting graphite is fashioned into a diamond, under intense heat and pressure.68 Ashes can also be sterilized and mixed with tattoo ink for a uniquely subcutaneous commemoration of the deceased.69 Other technologies create proprietary natures by integrating cremains or human DNA into other life-forms and postmortem cross-species interaction. While the use of human remains as a renewable building material is contentious, cremains are gaining ground as underwater infrastructure, namely, the interring or mixing of human ashes in “reef balls” for an aquatic-customized form of commemoration. For example, Eternal Reef is “a designed reef made of environmentally-safe cast concrete mixture that is used to create new marine habitats for fish and other forms of sea life.”70 The Eternal Reefs are then placed in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency–permitted ocean location, selected by the individual, friend, or family member to create public recreational reef structures. Small personal mementos can be included in the mix of the remains and concrete, along with ash from other family members or family pets. Reportedly, more than eighteen hundred Eternal Reefs are positioned off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia.71
DNA memorial trees take this form of commemoration even further into the biosphere. An art venture formed by Shiho Fukuhara and Georg Tremmel, the project integrates human DNA into other life-forms. DNA “burials”—the transcoding of human DNA within the DNA of a tree or plant—have been hailed as the new space-saving transgenic tombstone in response to crowded cemeteries.72 In collaboration with MIT Biology Lab affiliate/artist Joe Davies, the project—aptly named Biopresence—aims to produce a living memorial: “A tree that will look, grow, and behave like any other tree, but it would carry the biological information of a human.”73 Memorialization of the human takes on intensified bioengineered presence that challenges how humans relate to and bond with the dead and nature alike. At approximately $30,000, this extravagant memento mori fosters an unbounded posthuman “after life, but not as we know it,” by treating personal legacy as literal environmental trace—a proprietary nature and right to the land as inheritance.74
Paradoxes of Greening Afterlives
U.S. biocultures of afterlife increasingly demonstrate the affirmation to green death and the dead body. As evidenced in the previous section, sustainability concerns and bioremediation are reinterpreting the material afterlife of the corpse. Such practices, however, do not take place outside of power relations: the administration of the dead intimately affirms life for some people or in some form while obscuring the deaths and deathly conditions of others. Foucault described biopolitical governance of the living as being “cut” by race—that racism is “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die. . . . That is the first function of racism: to create caesuras within the biological continuum.”75 Various accounts of forms of death-in-life—abandonment or the slow violence of exposure—reveal that biopolitics is not merely about the managed optimization of life and livingness of human bodies but also about strategic allowances for death and qualifications of what or who counts as human, for the purposes of biosecurity, racial capitalism, colonial occupation, and, per Judith Butler’s turn of phrase, what counts as a “grievable life.”76 The disposal and commemoration of human remains exemplify the materiality of power relations that operate in and through death. U.S. governance of the dead has entrenched racism in the landscape and inequitably treated the bodies of black people, American Indians, religious minorities, women, the poor, convicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill (to name a few). This reminds us, as we note in the chapter’s second epigraph, “of the need constantly to situate reflections on our shared humanity in contexts of conquest and dispossession—as much of the corpse as of living subjects.”77 The governing of afterlife—particularly the material opportunities presented by the dead body—perpetuates inequalities and exclusions; life is affirmed as afterlife unevenly and contradictorily. If racism is about determining who is “let die” (i.e., caesuras in the population), then the material geographies of afterlife perpetuate and extend that cut: some people are made to live (more) even after death (through commemoration, through remaining present in some way), while others are denied bodily self-determination and/or social legacy. Thus we explore some of the potential hazards and costs of bioremediation and emerging sustainable death practices—of efforts to produce “no remains” and “biopresence” in the handling and disposal of the dead—and their effects on civil, consumer, and environmental rights. Examining some of the “death effects” of bioremediation—of efficient disposal or environmental legacy—galvanizes the basis for a material ethics of human remains.
First, the pursuit of “no remains,” however laudable, risks further privatizing and obfuscating the labor of handling and disposing of the dead. Moreover, it may legitimate the status quo by making the dead body perform labor as infrastructure, gift, and so on—as the ultimate neoliberal renewable resource (i.e., even “dead” capital can be converted to biovalue). Intensified bioremediation of the dead body may paradoxically legitimate wasteful consumption and excess in American lifestyles by making disposal of the dead more efficient. This emphasis on efficiency not only promises profits or cost savings for involved companies (orthopedic implant recyclers, cremation providers, etc.) but also incurs desocializing effects, such as rapidly removing the dead body from everyday life, compressing grief and mourning into a shorter time span, and eliminating social gathering.78 One of the contradictions of expanded technosocial relations with the material remains of the dead is that death potentially disappears from the social horizon as a collective activity: in other words, this could be the social death of death.79 While there is increasingly a rich social networking of memorializing corpses in the digital realm as well as an expanding interest in home funerals and home-based death care, the social conditions of neoliberal self-care and austerity—set within a longer history of the secularization of death—also work to privatize the experience of death, reduce social responsibility for the administration of the dead, and potentially legitimate further cuts to governmental funding for death care and commemoration.80
Following earlier denunciations of the funeral trade for transforming the dead into highly profitable revenue streams via marketing techniques and synergies between the funeral firm and its products, restructuring of the “industry of death”—emphasizing sustainability, efficiency, and customization—may encourage religious and cultural diversification and meaningful experiences with dead bodies but also precipitate private stopgaps to the shrinkage of state support for death care and the eroded social safety net within the United States.81 Sustainability in the context of death work may serve to greenwash austerity and further rationalize the corporatized infrastructure of the funeral industry itself. The commodification of the funeral process has advanced the growth of national funeral homes and the transnational corporatization of the funeral industry, resulting in death care industry monopolies that herald efficiencies as consumer gains.82 Cheaper and faster handling of the dead body, however, may signal the extension of neoliberal self-care into death care—wherein the individual or family is privately expected to bear all responsibility for health in life and efficient disposal of the dead with minimal interruption to routine.
Second, there is an underbelly to governance of the dead/afterlife that emphasizes material reuse of the body and efficient disposal: the deeply historical and ongoing unequal burden of bioremediation of human remains. The continual expansion of the dead body as a tool in medicine and technology has had differential and often detrimental impacts on various minority groups in the United States and transnational geographies of clinical trial participants, who have borne medical abuse as living test subjects. Specific populations in the United States have been treated as exploitable resources and understood to be worth more as specimens. Indigenous human remains have been “preserved” by scientific institutions, universities, and museums, dispossessing American Indians of bodily sovereignty in death and property rights over the dead.83 The bodies of African Americans have been imperiled repeatedly and inserted into medical experiments and treatments to support white life, including the grave robbing of black bodies to supply cadavers to medical schools, the appropriation of the Henrietta Lacks cell line, and biopiracy of body parts and genetic resources from enslaved bodies.84
These practices were not engaged in under the banner of “greening death” but as a means to extract resources and position some populations as expendable. While contemporary technologies that seek to extract more from the dead body and/or green death are said to add positive value under the sign of efficiency (i.e., recycling, waste reduction, charity, etc.), this historical context reveals that operations of repurposing at the level of the population can solidify inequalities. For example, efforts to donate organs and recycle body parts are shadowed by a global black market of organ trafficking as well as the influence of money in making claims on available organs.85 The “efficient disposal” of whole populations—because they may be positioned as an economic drain—haunts organ donation and bioremediation more generally: there are clear tensions between their potential to affirm life positively but also to reproduce unequal relations of power. A crucial question, then, is who benefits from bioremediation, and under what conditions? The emphasis on reducing the wastefulness of disposal—and the imperative to be useful in death as in life—enriches the market and circuits of capital and civil infrastructure but also risks instrumentalizing the material afterlife of the body to secure and intensify neoliberal white nationalism (a point that we revisit later).
Third, choosing one’s legacy is not an option for all. New forms of commemoration and sustainable burial may extend the reach of those people who are already privileged in relations of power: some people have a variety of choices that extend beyond life, while others face ongoing forms of exclusion in life and in death. The reduction of one’s footprint in death through flameless cremation and new material expressions of legacy—whether memorial reefs or diamonds—are only accessible to those with financial standing and knowledge. The choice to leave no trace through natural burial also risks dovetailing with and legitimating state violence orchestrated through austerity. Many states in the United States have cut or eliminated funds that had assisted the poor in performing burial services, further reducing the social opportunity to determine the afterlife of the dead body. In response to escalating “funeral poverty”—the inability to pay for disposal of the dead—there are cases where the funeral home has offered to subsidize funeral services in exchange for accessing organs and facilitating donation.86 Essentially, leaving no legacy is frequently the de facto reality for those who are subjected to state control and efficiencies in the disposal of the dead. In the United States, local or state governments typically bury the unclaimed bodies of the indigent, homeless people, undocumented immigrants, and “unknowns” in unmarked graves or potter’s fields; increasingly, such bodies are cremated with no funeral.87 An environmental history of body disappearance parallels that of biopresence and postmortem legacies, as starkly revealed by Puerto Rico’s post–Hurricane Maria official death count of sixty-four, reportedly missing an excess of thousands of deaths. Following mass exposure of Puerto Ricans to the hurricane, the aftermath of incompetent, corrupt, and/or nonexistent aid extended by the U.S. government and its contractors has treated the island territory as a container of disposable citizens.88 Discovery of a mass grave in southern Texas in 2014 uncovered the “expedient” disposal of bodies that perished in the border region: local policy allowed for contracted local funeral homes to dump hundreds of bodies of undocumented immigrants—who died while crossing the Texas–Mexico border—in trash bags, shopping bags, or no containers at all.89 Such evidence of biopolitical expungement cannot be physically unearthed to remediate social consciousness in the case of countless fetal deaths, lowered fertility, and the imperiling of infant lives from lead poisoning in postindustrial Flint, Michigan. Quick-fix water provisions and the repeated cover-up made everyday municipal water infrastructure into the intergenerational “killing fields” of the majority–African American city.90
Fourth, the conversion of human remains into biopresence—whether as commercial commemorative objects or “donations to nature”—is a privileged act that obscures its contaminating effects. Efforts to return the corpse to nature endeavor to reverse the separation of death and the dead body from the environment.91 Suzanne Kelly effectively summarizes the material–ecological impacts of this way of death: “over the past 150 years American death care has positioned human death outside of the cycles of nature, rendering a false story of death in which the dead body—as matter—is imagined as having no value to the more-than-human world.”92 Countering a long-standing prohibition against returning the dead body to the earth, sustainable death practices radically naturalize decay and decomposition of the body as necessary to life. However, such practices can involve a nostalgic recoding of the body as natural, when the living and dead body alike are sociotechnical in nature, with noncompostable and even hazardous body parts. Revaluing decomposition of the human corpse thus requires careful consideration of the relationship between nature and waste and the labor politics and material conditions of handling the dead. Corpses are part of the industrial landscape and generate hazards for those who live or work near places where dead bodies are processed, stored, and/or converted into myriad new postmortal materials and commemorative objects.93
Finally, affirming the greenness of death—especially an environmental ethic that seeks to eradicate the human–nonhuman divide—fails to account for the ways bodily integrity remains, for many, compromised in life and in death and the ways such inequalities are historically sedimented in the landscape. American organization of deathscapes and burial practices historically have reflected and legitimated social status divisions and inequities that existed among the living. Cemetery landscapes expressed “the central paradox of equality and exclusivity”: while advocating democracy and equality, many Americans went to great lengths to differentiate themselves in death, often organizing extravagant funeral processions and ostentatious monuments and accessories that contradicted the steady rationalization of the cemetery.94 Furthermore, dead populations were arranged in ways that advocated existing discrimination and injustice: “what happened while you were alive applied to when you died.”95 African Americans and other racial and religious minority groups were frequently relegated to separate land areas or placed in the back or side of cemeteries, often left to disrepair, obscurity, and/or anonymity. Thus the governing of dead bodies—both at the biopolitical level and at the level of disciplining individual bodies—solidified social barriers in/as the inherited environment. While greening the disposal of one’s body—to have a sustainable or green legacy—is viewed as a gift to nature, the aforementioned underside of this operation is further entrenchment of social position in life: only those privileged in life have control over their material traces after death. Moreover, naturalizing death may extend human domination by blurring the boundary between human and nature and further colonizing the natural world with human biopresence—a devastating intensification of white settler colonialism within the American landscape and its history of native genocide and Indian removal. Commemorative human DNA trees are potentially an extreme manifestation of this imperial impulse—an individualizing, narcissistic occupation of nature by those with privilege and means—and could signal a shift from social care for the dead to an individualistic “living on” in perpetuity, an amplified form of what Douglas James Davies has called “ecological immortality.”96
Given the racialized environmental history of the United States and the violent legacy of human–nonhuman and person–thing social divisions in the landscape, contemporary efforts to make the disposal of the dead body more green and efficient may further rationalize “bad deaths” into obscurity—by rendering them invisible as “nature” or as the “natural corpse.” Efforts to address injustices surrounding the end of life, such as material failures of the body that are the result of structural violence (e.g., racialized health risks and diseases), may be undercut by efficient “abandonment to nature.” Greening the governance of death may further promulgate a race-neutral land ethic that blunts social responsibility for the dead by eclipsing important sociopolitical differences between a green cemetery and a forgotten mass grave. In other words, bioremediation—biopresence projects in particular—could further entrench American necroecologies of whiteness.97
State violence is sedimented in the landscape: where dead bodies are located and how human remains are treated are operations that secure the social–environmental and violent basis of white nationhood and nature in the United States. These necroecologies of whiteness include, for example, segregated cemeteries and the social abandonment of African American graves; the seizure and colonization of American Indian lands and burial grounds; the political violence of Jewish cemetery desecrations and those of other minorities; and the neglected, often unknown mass graves of those positioned as subordinate wards of the state or considered to be dangerous, in order to maintain the security of the (white) population.98 Instrumentalizing nature as dumping ground works to absolve society of responsibility for the uneven care and opportunities experienced by different groups of people: such deaths look natural, as if no governance or power relations were involved. In such cases, nature does not preserve legacy but serves to depoliticize death, because human remains do not appear to signify or surface as the material ruins of injustice. In other words, green death risks further greenwashing an already stratified and racialized nature.
Death Justice: Material Ethics of Human Remains?
Affirming green death provides an opportunity to raise questions about the governance of dead bodies and deathscapes and to reimagine our ontologies and epistemologies of death—as a way to think anew about ethical relations, orientations, and actions toward life and death. This chapter has explored biocultures of afterlife—bioremediation efforts to create sustainability in the afterlife and the power relations of who or what materially remains after life; it has examined efforts to green death and their paradoxical consequences, contextualized with respect to overlapping environmental, consumer, and civil rights issues. The analysis was grounded in an understanding of the creation of value orchestrated by greening death: how the dead body is reconceived as a body able to be disciplined, to become a laboring and productive body even in death and a vehicle for value-generating environmental legacies. It also speculated on potentially deleterious effects and inequities related to forms of biopolitical administration of the dead, such as the intensification of anonymity and privatization of death under conditions of austerity; the uneven body politics and geographies of bioremediation—the underbelly of “mass disappearance” in relation to biopresence and memorialization; the ongoing imbrications of race and nature in the United States—“necroecologies of whiteness”—and violent extension of social death to the afterlife. Drawing on this critical–political ecology of death, we can ask how conduct for the dead and human remains might advance social justice.
As we have alluded to in the previous section, race- and class-based disparities in the control of human remains have led to cultural loss and community suffering as well as social protest and challenges to the death industry. Within the context of the United States’ vast inequalities, death is also an opportunity to leave a material trace as a way to refuse anonymity. Whether one leaves a trace or not is a deeply political matter: it matters whether this is framed and experienced as a choice, and whether one has any control over the process and maintenance of the remains. Anonymous death might be desirable, but only as a choice. If one experienced limited freedom or agency in life, then the anonymity of death affirms that denial of subjectivity through expungement and abandonment of afterlife. Therefore, a material ethics of human remains that acknowledges that legacy—whether it be the conversion of the dead body to gift or energy, the anonymous decomposition of bodily remains as “food” to ecology, or the contestation over the dead as property—is always a material relation of power. Simultaneously, the idea of a remainder or residual trace animates the utopian possibility that those material relations of power are unfinished, indeterminate, and might be otherwise—and, at the very least, that social death-in-life may be countered with witnessing, nonanonymity, community reparations, reconciliation processes, or other forms of “living on” in death/afterlife.
By focusing on this material politics of human remains, we can explore ways to bridge environmental and social concerns through death care or, rather, death justice. Death justice efforts might inaugurate new geographies for our living together across the threshold that separates life and death. Traces of this exist, such as cemetery caretaking and maintenance programs that seek to reverse the neglect of African American burial grounds and, in doing so, cultivate reparative justice within U.S. environmental history.99 Volunteer programs to bear witness to indigent burials advocate that everyone has the right to a social—not anonymous—death.100 There are also examples of innovative cemeteries that open their gates to cross-programming, for example, to dog walkers who sign up to adopt a grave, thereby integrating social responsibility for the remains of the dead with community stewardship and cross-species companionship.
Some cemeteries and columbaria support educational initiatives and lessons on activism within a national context of civil rights actions intimately connected to funeral gatherings.101 People often leave wry commentary about social struggle in cemeteries that remain relevant today. In this sense, sustainability might refer to cultivating a heritage of intergenerational justice—as a charge to take up in the present—rather than efficiency, private eco-values, or technological mastery. The potential greening of the funeral industry may work to un-install embalming as a requirement of funeral director licensing and, in the process, advance economic justice by further diversifying a racially stratified profession—opening it up to communities and leaders of religious and cultural backgrounds that may prohibit embalming but seek to advocate their civil rights in or through death rites. Finally, efforts to recuperate and repatriate human and cultural remains build material support for legacies of self-determination, expand conviviality with the dead, and haunt the nation and institutions with evidence of their violent basis and reparation demands—from universities, archives, and museums to national parks.
These brief examples accept the living and the dead as cobelonging through different forms of recognition and care work with respect to human remains.102 Death is an opportunity to address social failures and democratize the “good life” through enacting and sustaining more just relations with human remains. Advancing the social recognition of death and stewardship of material remains challenges us to imagine how to act on behalf of a “good death”—as something more than the negation of life or failure to live—as an incitement to overhaul death’s governance and, in so doing, deathly social conditions in life. For if we do not treat the dead well, what hope is there for the living?103