This article is adapted with permission from Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries by Greg Melville. © 2022 by Greg Melville. Published by Abrams Books.
There isn’t a large body of research on what graveyards do to America’s underground water supply. But there’s enough information to pose a rather uneasy question: Is it possible that a little bit of great-grandma is running through the faucet? Signs point to yes—and the situation could get worse.
Roughly half of Americans rely upon underground water sources for their drinking supply. And as above-ground reservoirs and rivers increasingly fall victim to extreme weather conditions—such as those epic floods that knocked out Jackson, Mississippi’s water treatment facilities in August—and intensifying droughts hit broad swaths of the country, we’re expected to become even more reliant on aquifers.
But, you may wonder, isn’t water from aquifers purified before reaching your faucet anyway? Well, states and the federal government set strict water quality standards, but these benchmarks can go unmet until people are already exposed to contaminants. Systems all too often don’t test water properly, or fail to report failed test results. One study estimated that about 21 million Americans got “water from systems that violated health standards” in 2015—the same year the Flint, Michigan, water crisis occurred, exposing as many as 100,000 people to lead. These problems could grow as ground sources become more impaired.
All the while, these underground sources are under constant threat from a silent, ever-encroaching source: the dead.
There are more than 140,000 known cemeteries in America. That’s almost 10 times the number of Starbucks locations, a swath of land occupying more total space than the state of Delaware. Each single burial plot is like a mini pollution nightmare, awash with chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hazardous materials from medical devices, and bacteria. Not to mention, according to the Green Burial Council, the 20 million feet of varnished wood and 1.6 million tons of concrete that are placed into the ground annually as caskets and vaults.
But the worst gravesite pollutant is embalming fluid, a chemical cocktail of formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol. Last year alone, American burials deposited roughly 4.5 million gallons of this toxic, cancer-causing preservative—about three gallons per body—into the soil. Not exactly the healthiest food for worms. And all of it has to go somewhere.
Research on how cemeteries contaminate water has been surprisingly scarce; a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters attributes that scientific “sensitivity” to the “traditional, spiritual, and religious significance” of burial grounds. But a small number of studies conducted on the subject reveal that cemeteries affect aquifers, as graves slowly release their toxins over the course of decades or even centuries. For instance, research on old burial grounds in New York and Iowa detected unusually high levels of arsenic, a substance that was outlawed in embalming in 1910, in nearby water tables.
There are many potential fixes for the creep of graveyard ooze into our aquifers—the easiest being to stop injecting the dead with chemicals. In fact, the U.S. is one of only a tiny handful of countries, almost exclusively English-speaking, where embalming is common. The Jewish and Muslim faiths actually prohibit the practice.
We have the Civil War to thank for our love of modern embalming. Prior to the 1860s, the preferred method of mourning in the U.S. was to display the dead, unpreserved, at home for a few days, allowing family and friends to visit them in a room called the parlor, or “death room,” now known as the “living room.” The body was then carried in a pine box, often made by the local cabinetmaker, to the nearby graveyard where it was interred and eventually became one with the earth. Dust to dust. But the Civil War led to soldiers dying far from home, their bodies sometimes left in open fields for days.
The U.S. Army began enlisting and training a legion of embalming surgeons to preserve some of the bodies so they could be shipped to their loved ones for a proper goodbye. A flash-embalming industry quickly emerged, with scores of freelance embalmers—of varying skills and degrees of shadiness—suddenly stalking the battlefields before fighting even ended.
A large portion of these entrepreneurs were coffin makers who saw the opportunity to upsell their services by preserving and shipping bodies. They set up tents and pre-charged some living soldiers for the privilege of being first in line for their services if death came for them. Some embalmers even preserved bodies without a family’s permission, then held the corpse for ransom until helpless loved ones paid a fee.
And then, when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his body was embalmed and placed on a two-week-long cross-country viewing tour that captivated the nation. (His eventual burial spot was in Springfield, Illinois.) A new all-American death tradition was born—and there was a burgeoning industry of full-service death professionals already at the ready. Chemical body preservation still thrives in modern times.
Fortunately, today there are many options to reduce a burial site’s environmental footprint and better protect the water table. For example, the invention of biodegradable embalming fluids means that burial professionals can offer short-term body preservation until interment. Also, more than 350 cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada now allow for “natural burials” involving no chemicals or concrete vaults, with the body placed in the ground in a simple shroud or untreated wooden box.
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The low-impact act of dissolving a body in a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, called alkaline hydrolysis, is now allowed in 20 states. And human composting is legal in five states, while a handful of others are considering legislation. (Cremation is also an increasingly popular option, although the process is not without flaws; cremation produces the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving a car 1,000 miles.)
All of these lower impact options are less costly than the U.S. average of $7,900 for a funeral and burial. But we need to direct more urgency to the problem and make earth-friendly burial methods even more accessible.
As stressors on aquifers continue to grow across the country, we can’t whistle past graveyards or any unnecessary and potentially significant impact that human burial has on our drinking water. We must elevate sustainable burial practices with the environment in mind, and leave our lasting essence only through our actions, not via what comes out of the faucet.