Hallowe’en: Dying to save the planet

Could dead people help save endangered species? That’s the appropriately ghoulish question asked in the journal Conservation Letters, and the answer, it seems, is yes.

Research led by Mathew Holden of Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions finds that a funeral rite known as “conservation burial” could potentially raise billions of dollars to fund the protection of habitat and threatened species.

Conservation burial – sometimes called natural burial – involves interring the deceased in ways that do not inhibit the process of decomposition. In effect this means not embalming the body and using a coffin that rapidly breaks down (made of untreated cardboard, for instance).

It is already quite widely practised around the world – subject to country by country regulation. Because it is environmentally benign, conservation burial grounds often double up as meadows and parkland.

Holden and co-author Eve McDonald-Madden, however, propose taking the matter one step further and using conservation burials to provide green spaces specifically geared to the preserving endangered species. The cost differential between traditional and natural burials could also be leveraged to provide funds for habitat management and protection.

The researchers point out that in the US the average funeral costs $7180. With 2.7 million Americans dying every year, the total annual revenue for the funeral sector is about $19 billion – way more than the $4.8 billion a year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calculates is needed to protect every endangered species in the world.

A large part of the expense for a traditional funeral lies in embalming ($695) and procuring a coffin ($2,395). Around 45% of dead Americans are embalmed.

“Therefore,” the researchers write, “if all Americans who embalmed their remains purchased a conservation burial instead, US burials could produce $3.8 billion in conservation revenue.”

Timing the release of their research with Hallowe’en – a time when people’s minds naturally turn to the subject of dead things – Holden and McDonald-Madden point out that one’s efforts to improve the Earth should not end just because you do.

They write: “As Halloween, ‘the day of the dead’, approaches, we urge governments, NGOs, and the public to contemplate and celebrate how death can and should support future life on earth. If conservation burials became as commonplace as similar types of after-death charity, such as organ donation, then the biodiversity benefits would be enormous.”

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