Thursday, 24 May 2007 19:44

Coffins causing climate change

Written by Rosemary Okello

A leading professor of reproductive health is causing ripples with his new suggestion that those who bury people in coffins and cremate dead bodies are contributing to climate change and they need to stop it. Releasing his research findings at the recently concluded 5th World Conference of Science journalists in Melbourne, Australia, Professor Roger Short asked people to change the way they feel about dying. 

A leading professor of reproductive health is causing ripples with his new suggestion that those who bury people in coffins and cremate dead bodies are contributing to climate change and they need to stop it. Releasing his research findings at the recently concluded 5th World Conference of Science journalists in Melbourne, Australia, Professor Roger Short asked people to change the way they feel about dying.

“Whenever, we bury our dead, or cremate them, we are adding to the global warming that is already affecting the world,” warns Prof Short.

He says rather than use coffins, which are adorned with all sorts of decoration, everyone should be buried upright in a cardboard cylinder, next to their favourite species of tree. This will allow the remains to enrich the growth.

“A visit to crematorium on the other hand indicates that temperatures need to cremate are 800 degree Celsius for half an hour. The total amount of carbon dioxide released by one cremation is enormous,” he added.

In Kenya, the City Council of Nairobi cremates at least 26 bodies every year, majority of them being Asians and Europeans. In recent times, a sizeable number of Africans are also cremating the remains of their loved ones.

But virtually every Kenyan bury their death in coffins, which in most cases are highly decorated as last respects to the departed. It is these coffins and decorations that Prof Short is concerned about.

He now wants people to plant trees on top of all graves if there has to be a clean environment.

While acknowledging the cultural sensitivity and legal issues that come with funerals and other rituals, he said there is need to end the practice of cremation and burying in coffins to help prevent further global warming.

His study titled: “Way to go; or how to plant a tree and feel better about dying,” Prof Short wants people to “Think earth”, and do their bit to combat climate change.

A reproductive biologist at University of Melbourne, Australia, Prof Short will be remembered for his idea of using lemon juice as a contraceptive and a means of preventing HIV infection in women.

His interest to carry out a research on the contribution of remains of human bodies on global warming began when he visited the famous Kuki Gallman ranch in Laikipia in North Eastern Kenya 20 years a go.

“While sitting on the verandah taking tea and watching the sunset, I looked into two amazing thorn trees and commented, “what a tree!”.

To lead by example, Prof Short says when her husband died in a car crash, she buried him and planted a tree on top of his grave. And when her son died after a snake bite, she also buried him and planted a second thorn tree.

“Everyday as I sit watching the sunset and taking my tea, I also watch my husband and son grow beautifully into big thorn trees.”

To the amazement of those who were listening to her, she asked what type of tree they would want to turn into once they die.

To Prof Short, a tree planted will in a hundred years emit oxygen and control a 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Geoff Love, the vice-chair of IPCC Working Group II acknowledged the impact of our lifestyle towards the environment.

He said, for one to be carbon dioxide neutral, each human being needs to plant 100 trees in their lifetime.

“We should give back to the environment what we have taken out of it, and planting a tree on top of your grave means your body will enrich the tree and help reduce carbon dioxide in the air.”

Echoing the same the sentiments, Prof. Short described trees as the lungs of the world.

“Imagine the difference it would make if everyone was buried and had a tree planted in their memory.”

But in Kenya there those who think cremation should be the option now that the space for burying the death at Langata cemetery is shrinking every passing day.

In China, the government recently passed a policy encouraging cremation of bodies due to lack of space.

Prof Short is not happy with this. For him: “Forget about pushing up daisies, we should be pushing up forests instead.”

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