Reverse Brainstorming: What is the most unsustainable funeral a person could choose?

A creative thinking technique employed by Speedo researchers in 2009, reverse brainstorming helped the team conceptualize new designs for competitive swimwear when the company's revolutionary and controversial swim suits were banned after the record-breaking 2008 Summer Olympic games.  Experts in fluid dynamics, biomechanics, and psychology envisioned a combination of oversized goggles and a body-compressing suit to create drag.  Imagining the opposite of what we want can help hone our creative thinking to get closer to the results we do want.

Now imagine the company of a casket builder, a physician, a funeral director, and a pharmacist along with our wives enjoying an evening of cocktails on the patio at a local supper club.  I cannot share all of the details of our reverse brainstorming on the worst funeral choices we could imagine for the environment, but the highlights are worth repeating.  As for the exercise, I invite you to try reverse brainstorming this, or any, subject and experience the creativity that can result in a collaborative discussion among your family, friends, or work colleagues. 

We quickly listed all funeral choices that we know are harmful in some manner to the environment or our health.  Casket? Yes.  Concrete Burial Vault?  Yes.  Embalming?  Yes.  Cremation?  Yes.   Burial Plot?  Yes.  Large grave stone?  Yes.  As we explored the details we set some boundaries for ourselves.  We didn’t intend to confuse “elaborate” as the opposite of being eco-friendly.  We also didn’t want to consider impractical choices nobody would ever make (like cremating a 24-karat gold casket).

Our reverse brainstorming helped us imagine the worst possible set of choices money could buy in funeral service.  We concluded our evening with several good laughs and each of us took home some ideas for our own end-of-life plans.  So what might the worst possible (but reasonably probable) funeral service look like from a Green perspective on funerals?

Well, there would have to be a cremation for a carbon footprint of about 600 lbs. of CO2, but not without a full service funeral with our embalmed body.  After all, a large number of cremations in the U.S. are embalmed.  In addition to the carbon footprint, cremation generates emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).   For those of us metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases harmful dioxins and mercury.  There is an ongoing debate on how to address mercury poisoning from cremation which the United States EPA believes is the 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.

Our casket would have to be an imported Indonesian natural burial casket made from seagrass. While it is biodegradable, a seagrass casket weighing 70 lbs. would have a carbon impact of more than 2500 lbs. (even more than imported stainless steel) after being shipped to an American port by ocean cargo, then air freighted to a commercial airport in the Midwest, and finally transported by truck to our funeral home.  And if our seagrass came from a controversial area where fisheries were compromised by seagrass farming, even better.  And if our casket could be woven by the hands of underpaid laborers (or even children) we’d be sublime.

We planned a funeral home visitation followed by a full service funeral the next day at a church for the added fuss of transporting our body and our families.  After the cremation we’d have our cremated remains interred at a cemetery and another memorial service so that everybody could start their cars three times to drive to at least three locations to pay their respects during our funeral.  All three of our funeral events would be thoroughly adorned with cut flowers—another industry rife with environmental and energy controversies.

Our cremated remains would be interred in a concrete cremation vault in a full-sized cemetery plot next to our loved ones.  We’d hope that our cemetery of choice used only the finest pesticides and herbicides to maintain a plush green lawn manicured regularly with two-stroke oil-burning trimmers and leaf blowers.  Oh, and the trees, of course take out the trees because they leave such a mess every fall.  After all of this, we will have left behind a larger impact after our death than in the final 2-3 years of our living lives.