DEEPDEAD project: Finding traces of human presence in caves, soils and landscapes

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"Humans are ruining the Earth from beyond the grave: Scientists warn decomposing corpses are altering the chemistry of soil." *

So reads the title of an article that came out in late April and spread quickly across the international news. It summarized the findings of Ladislav Smejda just released at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017 from the DEEPDEAD Project that said chemical traces of human bodies can be detected in soil hundreds or even thousands of years after being deposited. This goes for bodies left on the surface, bodies buried, and those cremated and scattered in scattering gardens. The article's title is sensational to get people to read it, but the concerns are real.

In this space I have elaborated on the problems of burying biodegradable urns filled with ashes because the concentrated ashes appear to poison the surrounding soil, rendering it unfit for planting. What Smejda is saying is that human remains in general contain concentrations of chemicals otherwise considered nutrients that may overwhelm the soil. In other words, natural burial can be too much of a good thing, even as it does so much to reduce or eliminate other environmental downsides of conventional burial.

I wrote to Smejda today hoping he can shed light on what this might mean for green burial. Decomposing animal bodies also contain concentrated nutrients, but animal bodies are not accumulated in cemeteries (except for pets) and are often broken up by scavengers. With land use already an issue for many people, breaking our burial grounds up into ever smaller spaces wouldn't make much sense.

Smejda's presentation certainly didn't negate the goals of green burial. Our afterdeath choices will affect the environment for a very long time. "It's a message to us to consider our present day and future practices and behavior so we potentially direct our impact on the environment in the right way."