The Climate Emergency
Environmental change is required in all aspects of our lives, from structural change to how we deliver services down to individual lifestyle changes. Our final environmental webinar in our 5 part series leaves us to ponder the role of science and technology and how we can facilitate these to create lasting change and adopt more sustainable death care management solutions.
OpusXenta’s Scott Storey leads us to consider the role of tradition in Death Care and examines the relationship between technology and the younger generation with regards to planning a funeral of a loved one. Ben Whitworth provides a scientific overview of the function of formaldehyde and proposes that it is not damaging the environment as we had originally thought. And finally, Professor Douglas Davies ends the series by reflecting on the relationship between nature and death care and the essential consilience required between science and technology and theology.
It has been a privilege to deliver this environmental webinar series in partnership with the FBCA and with some of the industries expert leaders. Let’s come together and make a change.
Wonderful. Okay, well, it’s 1 minute past, so let’s get started. I’ll introduce Scott Storey to you. He will be doing the intro for us. Sadly, Brendan can’t be with us as he has had to get a COVID test, so apologies. He may join last minute at the end, but I will hand it over to you, Scott, and you can introduce, so thank you.
Thanks, Jenny. Good morning, everyone. And thanks for joining me for today’s event. As Jenny said, we need to begin with apologies. The FBCA is unable to attend today’s webinar, so to move forward, I’ll deliver the slides that Brendan had prepared so that we’re still providing the content. We’ve got around 45 minutes of information to share with you today, after which we’ll have some additional time to take questions as we go through today. Please do ask any questions that come to mind in the Q and A section which you can access from the button towards the bottom of your screen.
You can also chat with us and to fellow attendees via the chat button or window. I have some colleagues online with me today as well who will be monitoring that chat area. So, if you have any issues, please let us know. Finally, as is the case with all of our webinars, today’s event is being recorded, and we’ll make that recording available to everyone who registered or attended within the next few days. So, to begin with Brendan’s presentation, we are considering the areas of science and technology because some of you will recall from Webinar two, John Cross from the Environmental Stewardship Group spoke about the government roadmap for the UK to achieve its carbon-neutral target. By 2050. It’s an extremely ambitious target, but one which, as a society, we need to achieve, and as a sector, we will need to play our full part. Whilst much of the heavy lifting will have minimal impact on the individual through changing our energy sources from fossil fuel to renewable sources, it will nevertheless be necessary for the adoption of new technologies and societal change. The government are estimating that societal change and a mixture of societal change and a combination of societal change in new technology will account for 59% of the carbon savings.
However, it’s been suggested that tradition is at the heart of what we as a sector have to provide for our clients and therefore change is going to be particularly difficult to achieve. Stated simply, unlike other sectors, ours is one where significant change cannot take place. Therefore, science and technology may not deliver the societal change required. I question this belief that as a sector is one where tradition dominates. Tradition is a word I hear used by stakeholders in connection with the provision of the service they have built up and importantly invested in.
There are clearly examples of huge societal change in relation to the disposal of the dead. When we talk about tradition, what do we actually mean? So do we mean burial presided over by the Church in the quintessential village Church, which took place for 1000 years from the introduction of Christianity? Well, no, because due to industrialisation and the growth of cities with the sheer number of deaths, traditional churchyards faced a crisis. They could not cope with the number of burials. As a result, the churchyard model gave way to the municipal model. Large cemeteries with multi-Chapel buildings and graves which enabled the masses to be buried in a grave, which they purchased marked with an industrially produced Memorial from a catalog as many would be imported. An existential threat and providing customers with a new service and product they desired enabled fundamental change to take place. But now, when we talk of tradition, is it even burial we’re referring to? With the number of deaths around 600,000 in the 1890s, similar to that of today, the country would need to develop and maintain new cemeteries covering approximately 300 acres per annum.
So the cry went up, ‘save the land for the living,’ and the Cremation Society was formed calling for the introduction of cremation. It could be said that for at least one cremation, and that’s of Dr. Price himself, who was cremated on the 31 January 1893, the technology involved was not yet ready to bring to market. However, by the 1940s, the modern crematoria that we know today was in existence with administration, chapel, crematory, gas and electric powered cremators, gardens of remembrance. This is Stoke-on-Trent, open in 1940; there were 56 crematoria around the country, making available the service and products we provide our clients today.
However, despite Doctor Price having been cremated almost 50 years before burials before, burials still accounted for a massive 96% of disposals. It would require a new driver, a new existential threat that came in the form of post-war austerity. The realisation by councils that operating crematoria was far more cost-effective than cemeteries. Government reconstruction policy, committing local authorities to build crematoria and post-war modernism which swept the country. As a result, there was a massive surge in crematoria construction during the 50s/60s. As a result, the number of burials and what could be more traditional than burying the dead dropped from 96% in 1940 to 43% in 1967—a shift of 53% in 27 years in less than a single generation.
A truly massive societal change. Today, the existential threat is, of course, climate change, and I feel confident that our sector will embrace the scientific and technological changes necessary to deliver a sustainable service to the bereaved. So now, let me introduce the panelists for today. Firstly, myself, I head up Operations for OpusXenta. We are a global technology company serving the deathcare profession and its suppliers, with offices in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America. We provide cloud-based solutions that enable companies in the death care profession to manage their operations better, adapt to a changing market, and to build out their digital presence.
I’m also joined by Douglas Davis. Douglas is a professor of the Study of Religion at Durham University and Director of its Centre for Death and Life Studies. He trained in anthropology and theology and has published extensively on death, ritual, symbolism, and beliefs. He holds Oxford University’s Higher Doctor of Letters degree and is a Fellow of both the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences and of the British Academy and finally, Ben Whitworth. Ben works for the Maswell Group in the UK, and the Maswell Group are the exclusive manufacturer and distributor of Dodge products.
He oversees education and technical support for the company; amongst other things, Ben is a qualified funeral director and Embalmer and holds the CANA Certificate in Crematory operation. He’s an accredited tutor of the British Institute of Embalmers, and he’s also a Technical Editor for their magazine, the Embalmer. Recognized as a speaker in the fields of embalming and funeral service, Ben writes for a number of international publications. So this is our panel for today.
So, societies recognize that we need to review how we live our lives today in consideration of the environment. This recognition is one aspect of societal change. It’s clear to see that this is a focal point in history; to minimize global warming to the agreed targets means radical changes during this decade. Over 75% of local authorities have declared a climate emergency. World leaders are continuing to put measures in place to achieve the target set, and indeed later this year, COP 26, the latest summit to consider actions to minimize global warming, will be held in Glasgow. So not only do we need to identify and address the issues, we need to change our outlook and consider our environment in whatever activities are undertaken.
This is a fundamental cultural shift in our daily lives. As mentioned earlier, and I guess the key point in this, John Cross highlighted earlier in the series that as a sector, 41% of delivering against the UK net-zero plan is the low hanging fruit. It will be delivered through the use of low-carbon technologies or fuels. But this technological change in isolation will not deliver the UK net-zero targets. As mentioned earlier, this adds to the complexity of the remaining 59% of impact inextricably linked to societal and behavioral change.
It’s not just using green energy. So, what does it mean? Well, internally, it’s about using technology to help manage and deliver daily tasks. It’s about being considerate to the environment in all of the decisions that we make. Externally, we must consider how we collaborate with other service partners efficiently or engage with our customers. How do we deliver these very, very personal services? The good news, and there is some. The good news is that it’s not the bereavement services sector that needs to drive the societal or behavioral change.
This is happening today all around us, but as a sector, we need to recognize it and respond to it and accept these changes and deliver our services in a way that supports them. Globally, it’s recognized that we’re entering the fourth Industrial Revolution, Digitisation, and what has driven this adoption of computing technologies and the Internet and smart devices. As an example, today, there are 8.2 billion people on the planet, but there are over 16 billion registered mobile devices and 98% of which are classified as smart devices.
I’m sure that some of you will be thinking this is not relevant to bereavement services, or what can I do? It’s the family’s choice, or we deliver a traditional service. As with all of the industrial revolutions in the past, this is not a passing phase. This is a societal change, and as such, it is totally relevant to bereavement services. Society has embraced technology from the internet to mobile devices and artificial intelligence. So we’re seeing drones or driverless cars. Today, navigation from point A to point B typically relies on satellite navigation delivered primarily by the Android Auto or Apple CarPlay on a smart device instead of a passenger giving directions from the latest AA map book.
Technology is part of our everyday life. So does it not seem natural that our modern society expects to engage with all businesses and all services using that very same technology. As a sector recognizing and adopting these technologies will actually help and contribute towards the UK net-zero targets in other industrial sectors. We’ve seen those companies and organizations that have placed an environmental agenda at their core that have embraced digital technologies are thriving as a result. When we look at the world today, the primary sector of society today that we are delivering services for all of our staff will come from generation X, generation Y, or generation Z, and these generations represent more than 79% of the global population.
So,80% we are on an 80 20%. Our customers and staff have grown up with technology, integration of technology into our daily lives is accelerating. Here’s another example. When Amazon Alexa was introduced in 2014, it had 130 skills. Today that number now exceeds 77,000 skills. This is our world today. This is the stage where we must continue to deliver a very personal service, and we need to use technology to help us do it in a way that is natural for our customers and staff. All of this sounds a lot like a science fiction movie and a daunting prospect.
So let me bring this back to our sector of bereavement services. We deliver our services to the living prior to disposition to help them at a difficult stage, to help them transition if they made the deceased to rest, and afterwards to memorialize their loved ones. Our staff and the families that we are typically delivering services for have a general preference for how they want to engage with services and communicate. Primarily the societal profile suggests that this is online. There is no replacement. I have to stress this. There is no replacement for the personal in person services delivered by the sector, but for this large percentage of the global population, if the first step is a face-to-face meeting, then this could be quite overwhelming, increasing levels of anxiety and stress at an already difficult time. Bereavement services will always be a personal service and will always require individual care and attention, but this individual care and attention needs to be delivered in ways that do not increase the levels of stress or anxiety for either customers or staff, and in an environmentally and efficient manner. Our customers and staff are more environmentally aware and, if given the choice, may choose more eco-friendly ways of engaging with certain aspects of the services provided or activities undertaken.
We need to expand the tools at our disposal to support families and staff using modern methods and technologies and at the same time maintain our traditional values relating to the quality of care and customer service. So perhaps this is allowing people to research and make contact initially using text or online messaging, providing the initial support using their preferred method for the family to feel less stressed when we meet them in person for the first time. OpusXenta has a long-standing commitment to good corporate citizenship, diversity in the workforce, and environmental stewardship.
We recognize that as a company, we impact the world in which we live and the people we interact with. Our goal is to enrich people’s lives through technology, and we’re always looking to contribute to the common good. We understand the importance of the services that we provide, and we’re here to support the industry in their efforts to deliver essential services to the communities. You can see here some of the digital services that we have available. These can be used by anyone in the industry today alongside existing systems already in place.
These tools can enable a greater level of personal service and engagement with staff, trading partners, and the ultimate customer. So, whether it’s managing activities and tasks, online booking, using digital maps, or deceased search, all of these services can be offered independently. I’d be more than happy to explain the services in more detail separately for any of those that are interested. But this just gives you an idea in terms of where we’re going. So, when I started this presentation, I took reference from John Cross. Technological change in isolation will not deliver the UK Net Zero target.
Hopefully, I’ve explained some of the current drivers besides from societal change, and you can see that change is all around us and always will be. We must now look at our customers, staff, and operations, recognize those changes around us, and plan to include these digital ways of working into our service offerings. In this way, we can start to close the gap through embracing these disaster changes and delivering the UK Net Zero position. Thank you very much. So now I’d like to hand it over to Ben, who is going to take us through his presentation on embalming, and from other my friend also Ben Scott.
Thank you very much and good morning to everybody. It’s a great pleasure for me to be with you, and hopefully, as this pandemic starts to draw to a close, I look forward to seeing many of you at conventions and seminars later down the road. We’re going to talk a bit about embalming, whether it’s a friend or foe. And this presentation really came up in a conversation that Brendan and I were privately looking at how we actually manage the deceased post-mortem and how that has an impact environmentally on everything we do.
So, Scott, if I might have the first slide, please. Thank you. When we’re talking about an embalming, I always find it’s a really good idea to give a solid definition, and the definition that I will share with you this morning is one that I’ve come up with over the years while working with different groups of people. And the definition is as follows. Embalming is the science and art of preserving the dead human body by the application of chemicals to delay decomposition for a given period of time, and that’s a really important statement to make.
Embalming is not by any means indefinite it’s for a particular period of time. It may be performed to enable the viewing of the deceased before and during funeral services. It may be performed to enable certain religious rituals to be performed, such as washing and dressing of the deceased and resting in the place of worship prior to funeral services. And again during this pandemic, that’s a really important point to make, because whilst everybody has different views on coronavirus and what they have and haven’t been doing, we have been able to assist families that still want to take part in the ritual washing and dressing of their deceased loved ones, where covid has played a major factor in the cause of death and by embalming, we have been able to control and minimize the risks associated with handling these bodies post mortem. For repatriation of the deceased from a place of death to another part of the country or to a different country altogether, embalming is an invaluable tool. In the case of anatomical examination and study, embalming allows one set of remains to be kept for an extended period of time, for example, one to five years, which is quite common in the United Kingdom and in medical schools. So, we need to look at what are the goals and what embalming is. So, we’ll have the next slide, if we can, please. Preservation, we preserve the body sufficiently, and we delay decomposition from occurring until funeral service, repatriation, anatomic examination, burial, or cremation takes place.
We try and restore a more acceptable premortem appearance for visitation and viewing of the deceased by relatives. So the power that is associated with death, sometimes there may be traumatic or disfiguring injury associated with death. By and large, dead people do not look particularly well, and people may not have looked well during their final hours, so embalming helps us to set the clock back slightly and remove some of those more distressing appearances. And we also talk about sanitation protection. So the chemical sanitation of the body to kills potentially harmful bacteria and viruses.
And this is a topic of hot discussion and conversation. There are those that will claim that you cannot catch anything harmful from a dead body. I would beg to differ with that, and we all take certain precautions those of us who deal with the deceased, whether it’s gloves, masks, and other PPE. So, there is always a risk, and embalming helps us to remove the risk associated with the deceased. Scott, may we have the next slide, please? We should give some consideration to embalming fluids, and it’s no secret that most embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, which acts both as a preservative and a disinfectant.
Now there are other products available that will do a similar job or do the job to some degree. But formaldehyde is very cost-effective; it’s relatively cheap in comparison to some other components and some other biocides. It’s readily available, and it’s fairly easy to produce, which means that we can manufacture products that are cost-effective for those who don’t know. It’s a colorless gas, and it has a pungent odor, and it’s dissolved in water along with methanol, which stabilizes it and stops it forming into a solid or precipitate.
The fact that formaldehyde has such a pungent odor helps us to manage its use because if we’re able to smell it, we know that it’s building up in an environment. We can take controlling measures, whether that’s to increase the rate of ventilation or to actually remove ourselves from the room where the product is being used to allow the ventilation to catch up. In a properly constructed and wild ventilated mortuary or embalming facility, ventilation should be such that formaldehyde doesn’t build up at all. It’s very useful because it kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and it also cross-links the tissue protein in the body and renders that tissue protein unsuitable as a food source for the above organisms.
And it’s that mechanism that gives an embalmed body a firmer feel to the touch. Embalmed bodies traditionally are firmer than those that are just dead without having had any sort of intervention. Commercially, embalming fluids that are manufactured by companies such as ourselves will contain between 5% and 30% formaldehyde, which is then diluted down by the embalmer to make a solution with the desired strength. Now I will hear time and time again people claiming that embalmers pump gallon after gallon of formaldehyde into bodies and that that then is buried or cremated.
The actual amount of formaldehyde contained within the fluid that’s injected into the dead body is relatively small, and there are various claims that are made. The bottom line is that they’re very untrue. May we have the next slide, please? In terms of embalming and burial, an embalmed body that is buried will still decompose fairly rapidly after burial has taken place. Modern-day embalming, unlike the Egyptians, for example, seeks only to delay the decomposition that will occur until funeral services can take place. Decomposition of an embalmed body burial will depend on the soil conditions, so there will be different concentrations of natural bacteria that are found in the soil, and they will have an effect on that body.
After the coffin has started to degrade and the body is exposed to the soil itself when formaldehyde is injected into the body, it reacts with tissue proteins and is no longer formaldehyde. Once that reaction has occurred, the reaction between formaldehyde and tissue protein forms and insoluble resin. There is no more formaldehyde then available to continue to escape or leach. So, there are misconceptions with formaldehyde leaching into the soil from embalmed bodies. Unless such a high quantity of formaldehyde has been injected that there is more formaldehyde available than is necessary to complete this reaction with the tissue protein.
Formaldehyde is readily broken down in sunlight, is also readily broken down in the soil by some of the anaerobic bacteria that you will find, and it’s created in the human body as a by-product of metabolism and excreted from the body by the lungs and the urinary system. So, formaldehyde is actually a part of everyday living processes. Now there is no evidence to support that embalming causes any particular problems with the cremation process. Embalmed bodies still cremate almost identically to unembalmed bodies. Formaldehyde combusts in the presence of oxygen and temperatures exceeding 150 degrees Celsius and releases carbon dioxide and water.
But as we’ve established, formaldehyde reacts with tissue protein and so is no longer formaldehyde by the time the body is subject to cremation. Now there are naturally occurring processes in the upper atmosphere, along with aviation, which will contribute to over 90% of the formaldehyde that’s found in the environment. And it is also released as a by-product of the combustion of fossil fuels as well as from burning woods. Wood in either motor vehicles or in wood stoves, for example. Now the picture with formaldehyde is ever-changing ever-changing, but it is still featured very much in everyday life, and it’s in a variety of products, and they could include wood fibers and other by-products of production.
Certain resins will contain formaldehyde, and it’s also still found in certain cosmetics, vaccinations, and medicines because it has not only preservative qualities, but it has antifungals and both sides of biocidal control qualities to it. It’s regularly used in everyday medicine to fix surgical specimens as well as tissue specimens that may have been taken during autopsy to allow for further detailed study of injuries and diseases. And more recently, there have been some successive studies of formaldehyde being used to treat some very difficult urinary tract infections where there’s a failure of traditional antibiotics, or certain infections have developed antibiotic resistance.
We can go forward to the alternatives, and speaking as a company as a representative of the company who manufactures formaldehyde-based products, we are constantly looking at and trying to develop alternatives to traditional formaldehyde-based chemicals, and we now have a range of low formaldehyde and formaldehyde-free alternatives. These have been developed to address concerns of formaldehyde exposure, and exposure in this traditionally have been set at two parts per million over an eight-hour working period. They’re now being reduced across the UK down to .3 and then .2 parts per million over the same eight-hour working period.
And traditional green burial sites usually prohibit the burial of embalmed bodies. However, with the introduction of formaldehyde-free chemicals, this is now a conversation, and there are some sites across the country that will accept the use of either low formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free alternatives. From a technological point of view, we use what’s referred to as a synergism, and a synergism allows a lower percentage of formaldehyde than is traditionally used to offer more effective disinfection and preservation. We also, in the formaldehyde-free fluids, now look at using natural alcohols and additional disinfectants that help to retard decomposition and overcome the issues that are caused by the bacteria responsible for rapid decomposition.
The newer generations of chemicals allow for temporary preservation and improved presentation of the deceased while being mindful of environmental considerations. But if we look at the next slide, there are some considerations that I would like to pose as questions to the group this morning. The first is that a well-embalmed body does not need to be kept in cold storage. Once embalming has been completed, there is an environmental impact to mechanical refrigeration. There is the use of refrigerant gases in these systems. There’s also the fact that these systems are removing unwanted heat from an insulated environment and then pumping it out to the local atmosphere or environment.
And so this cycle is going to happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whenever a mortuary fridge door is opened, the cold air will naturally fall out, and hot air is sucked in, so the whole cooling process will continue time and time again. Mechanical refrigeration also poses some issues when it comes to the successful presentation of the deceased. Over a few days or an extended period of time, it does cause dehydration, and that has a very negative impact on the appearance of the deceased.
And a great analogy, if you give me, is to place a piece of meat into your fridge at home and leave it there for a week or even two and look at it after that period of time and look at how it’s changed, how it’s desiccated and how much less appealing it was than when it was first placed into the refrigerator. Now I’m not suggesting that we embalm our Sunday lunch or our steak or anything else, but it does serve very well to show how refrigeration can have an impact on the body.
And there are also manual handling considerations and health and safety considerations because a non-embalmed body, when not being displayed or viewed, should then be returned to a refrigerated area. And I like to be in a cold room, or it could be a mortuary cabinet. But in satellite offices, it may be unreasonable to expect a lone worker to be able to move a coffin to and from a refrigerator environment safely. And so there is then the consideration about sending staff from another location, maybe by a motor vehicle for the next town over or wherever it may be to place remains back into all our refrigerated storage when it’s necessary. Now, Scott very kindly introduced me, and many of you listening will know that I am an embalmer myself, and I’m a passionate defender of embalming because I believe that it has a great place and a great value to funeral service and a bereavement service as a whole and that these services fundamentally are built on how we care for and manage the deceased before we do anything else. For those of you who have any questions or like my details on the screen now, and I’d be very pleased to discuss or correspond with you. However, you feel that it would be appropriate or indeed to take questions at the end of this webinar.
So, I’ll thank you very much for your time and attention and pass you back to Scott.
Thanks, Ben, very interesting. And I’ve learned something today. Thank you very much. So, in the continuation of learning, I’d now like to introduce Douglas Davis from Durham University, who has a very interesting, thought-provoking discussion now. Green things and shiny metal things or consilience and mortality over to you.
Scott, thank you very much. And Ben, thank you very much too, for that presentation. I, too, learned a great deal there. It was really interesting. Green things and shiny metal things. We all understand every one of those words. And yet you still might wonder what on earth I mean by them or consilience and mortality. I’m betting that 90% of you have no idea what the word consilience means. You will by the time I finished. Obviously, green things fit into the whole funeral trade. In the funeral world, obviously, whether it’s in woodland burials, old churchyards, or the kind of places where people want to put cremated remains, green is good.
Green speaks to us. Shiny metal things. I’m not sure what you would make of those. I am meaning by it cremators or as we come to later resume, machines for alkaline hydrolysis of the body, things that are often as it were behind the scenes, behind the scenes things, sciencey things, technological things. And yet, in this whole world of mortality, they hang together now. Funerals across the history of mankind, really and in the world today, funerals are an adaptation to the environment. This is a big theme in evolutionary thought, adaptation to the environment.
And way back when I started thinking about this and more recently as well, it struck me that in early human history back in the caves, if you like, one of the problems that we had was adapting to the environment, one of the things we found in the environment was a dead corpse. One of us died, and I argue very strongly but speculatively in this book of mine, which is called Death Ritual and Belief, especially in the third edition. And if you get that book, get the third edition, I argue very strongly. I used a phrase, and I called it words against death. But it strikes me that across human history, words against death are big. Funeral words, orations, liturgies. Humankind uses words against death so that death doesn’t have the last word we might say. Now, in the environmental crisis, we have a new environment to adapt to, and the ecological, environmental situation, the environmental crisis is calling from us new, if you like words against death, not just words but actions, processes and so on and so forth. Words against death.
And this is happening at a time when we are becoming very much more alert to nature. We’ll see that in a moment. My next main point is that in this task of survival, as we adapt to survive because the ecological crisis is not about the death of the world; the world is going to carry on when we are long gone. It’s our own life, our own cultures that we are thinking of in this new world to which we are adapting; we need to join forces. That’s the next phase. If you like joining forces, what do I mean?
The kind of stuff Ben was just talking about in relation to that whole world of embalming, science, and technology. A heck of a lot of science and technology research has gone into cremation processes, improving cremation processes. A lot of science has gone into the issue of resomation, what we’re doing with alkaline hydrolysis of corpses. There’s a lot of other scientific work going on, work on the soil, on water, and on the air. But science and technology are also there, going back to Scott’s talk earlier on, in terms of the world of the web, the internet, the digital world, science, technology, one stream.
But there’s also social science and psychology, a great deal of work on grief, grief theories. There’s a lot of work going on how humans view the world, on seeing life’s energy potential in the world. In anthropology, it’s called the new animism, how people are reacting to the world around them. And many would see the covid crisis period with people getting interested in their plants and gardens again, as a developed world aspect of that. In the humanities and art worlds, there’s a great deal of work going on in terms of the art design, design of crematoria.
Hillary Granger’s great new book, which you just come out of, is magnificent on this. Music design these are radically important aspects of dealing with grief: the music, what is said, poetry. So, science and technology, social science and psychology, humanities, arts, philosophy, and theology need to come together to join forces. This is the time for joining forces. Now, this is where we come to that word, consilience. Let me spend a moment on that because I think in this enormous task that lies before us with a crisis of the environment and the remarkable opportunity the whole death professional world has got to play in that we need to stop and think, broaden our minds to give us a sense of confidence in what’s doing and in the ventures that are there.
Consilience is about joining forces. One definition of it runs a little bit like this, that consilience is a process when two or more separate streams of knowledge research merge, making a new, transformed, whole, joining forces. Let me tell you a bit about the back story to this word. The word was created by an Anglican clergyman who was heading the great in the 19th century, Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell. He died in 1866, one of the great Victorians. He also gave us the word scientist. How interesting.
He was in touch with a remarkable German, Alexander von Humboldt, who died in 1859. Now von Humboldt was one of the great explorers of the world. We’re not very familiar with him in Britain, but he’s remarkably significant. Extensive work covering geology, physiology, plants, animals, the weather, climate. He traveled the world; he did very many things. He wrote a book called Aspects of Nature, 1849. Alexander von Humboldt is an example of Whewell’s consilience, bringing things together. Victorians were rather good at it. Let me jump a century to an American this time.
Edward Wilson, in 1988, Edward Wilson, biological scientist, produced a book whose title was, Is ‘Consilience’ subtitled the Unity of Knowledge. You see the process growing forces. And let me bring us to another final person in this ladder stream of joining Forces. And that’s just Suzanne Simard. Now here is a remarkable woman, a remarkable person. She is the person who, through her Ph.D. work, working on trees and the roots of trees and the underground world in forests. She is the person who gave us that phrase, the World Wide Web, a famous paper published in Nature, which is the most important scientific Journal in the world she’s produced very recently.
Her most recent book, which has just been published, is called, Finding the Mother Tree. And in this, she says something rather useful for us that her goal and those she’s working with is to develop further a growing and emergent philosophy, the name of which she calls complexity science, complexity science. And this is where I just lost, but now I’ve found a quotation I need. So, what I’ve just shown is a stream of thought from the 19th through to the 21st century concerning joining forces, to understand the world, and indeed to react to it.
And this, I think, is extremely important for what we’re up to. This is Suzanne Simard talking about her research work, ‘I discovered that the vast below ground, my serial network was a bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species. These fungi are mutualistic. They connect the trees with the soil in a market exchange of carbon and nutrients. In a busy, cooperative internet, I could see using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, which deal with atomic stuff. I could see carbon being transmitted back and forth between the trees, like neural transmitters firing in our own neural networks.
The trees were communicating through the web, the world wide web, and I could say more and more and more, just one more. Frantisek Baluska from the University of Bonn Institute of Cellular Molecular Biology. This is serious science. Who is, quote, of the opinion that brain-like structures can be found at root tips. In addition to signaling pathways, there are also numerous systems and molecules like those found in animals. In other words, we are waking up to a world that needs complexity science, needs joint forces, needs consilience. So, my message, I suppose this morning, is consilience and the funerary world and the need for different traditions to contribute to new insight.
And that means some of us to acknowledge our ignorance of other positions and learning. Some of us abandoning some traditional certainties for innovatory knowledge; some of us, in fact, having new opportunities to contribute to this critical world in which we live. And it seems to me that the funerary world, funeral directors really important here. The people doing science and research behind the products use really important here. And those who communicate all this stuff to the public have a great task. I have not mentioned the media. The media are part of joining forces.
We live in a media communication world, and Consilience demands the media’s presence. In this collaborative venture, I’m going to end, as it were, commenting on rather than answering a couple of questions that were put to me. Did I think that resomation would become widespread and well used? My basic answer to that is yes; I think it will. Having done a great deal of work on the history of cremation and the development of cremation, I can see this innovation as lifting off as one, if you like, of the shiny metal things which through the science behind it can be seen to be green or greener than other forms of funerary life just now.
So, yes, I think so. And perhaps quite fast in the same way that we saw the woodland burial lifting off quite fast from 1994, still growing really. What about composting? What do I think about that? Yes, possibly. But I think perhaps that are less, although more part of the green things. And though perhaps tied in with popular idioms or just put me on the compost heap, a ready-made phrase for the media, I think perhaps a little more difficult for a complexity of reasons. Really. So possibly. What about Zoom services?
Do you think people will just take to the Zoom to have their funerals? My answer to that is from personal experience. So we still need much more research on this, possibly when other things are impossible for the great rituals of life.
Rights of passage, as anthropologists often call them, for the great rituals of life togetherness makes the energy that makes it work. As for weddings, so for funerals, so for birthday parties, for the great moments of personal significance, that’s the way it is. In other words, what we need to sum up some of this. We need smart funerals or smart sensitive funerals, which bring together through the collaborative work of the funeral trade, a consilience of knowledge contributing to adaptation to the critical world we are moving into. So I hope now we know what the word consilience is.
We’re familiar with green and shiny metal things. Now the task is for us to think our way into and through them. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Douglas. Interesting, because everything in terms of consilience and everything that we’ve talked about here is about the convergence. It’s the convergence of all of the skills and all of the knowledge that we bring to bear from each and every one of our specialisms, to work together, to collaborate, to deliver an eco-friendly service. None of these components individually can achieve the end goal. So it is about convergence. It is about consilience. It is about the sharing of knowledge. We’ve got a couple of questions that have come in, so if I can just have a look at those and I’m not sure, what we’ve got, Ben, what are the real-world negative environmental impacts of formaldehyde, as you made it seem pretty neutral. Can you quantify and measure it?
That is a very good question. And Brent, thank you for posing the question. There is some information that we can give that will help to quantify the environmental impacts as far as embalming goes. But first, there is a bigger point to be made. I’m going to try and simplify it if I could. There’s this concept that embalming is a chemical is bad and that it has certain risks attached to its use. Because we know and because we are well aware of the risk attached to its use in terms of coming into contact with it in its rawest form, we can take certain preventative measures and protect ourselves very thoroughly.
And that would be with the use of appropriate PPE, with ventilation, and with other measures as necessary. But the thing to remember predominantly is that formaldehyde is a naturally occurring compound. As I say, it is generated in the human body as a by-product of metabolism. It’s generated in trees and other natural living organisms as part of their everyday process. And when it comes to embalming, once it’s injected into the human body, it reacts, and it is no longer formaldehyde; it changes, it becomes something else. But in talking about all of this, there are lots of seeming products and chemicals and substances out there that, if used in the wrong way, can prove very dangerous if not fatal.
And a bucket of water is a great example of this. If you were to drink, I think it’s eight or nine liters of water in one sitting. It will have a detrimental impact on the biostasis that occurs in the natural body. If I were to take you by the ankles and suspend you in a bucket of water with your arms tied behind your back, it will also have fatal consequences. So we have to put all of these things into what’s the word I’m looking for? Excuse me.
Perspective. Thank you very much. Now, the usage of formaldehyde in the funeral profession globally is relatively small compared to the use of formaldehyde in other industrial settings. There are studies, and there are lots of studies currently ongoing, the final results of which are not yet printed, that discuss the environmental impact of formaldehyde. They discuss the pros and cons of it, so we will be able to give some more definitive measures or to be able to quantify what’s being said. But the bigger problem with funeral service as a whole is that it attracts a lot of negative publicity, and one of the areas that seem to attract the most negative publicity is embalming, and there are a lot of people that talk about the negatives associated with it, and there are lots of people on different forums, whether it’s Facebook or YouTube or anywhere else that are regurgitating past articles and past papers that have actually got little signs to them, if any, at all, they’re written to convey somebody’s own viewpoints.
Moving on to the second question that Brent has very kindly sent. The problems from embalming the cremation of the body are going to be roughly the same whether the body is embalmed or not embalmed. And the cremation process, as we know, not only relies on the heat that’s generated in the chamber prior to the coffin being placed in there but the construction of the coffin and the body fat associated with the deceased afterward. The embalming process is not going to change the overall structure of the body.
And this is something that we’ll need more research on, but as a guess, it’s going to be, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, the percentage of the problem from embalming, for me, is going to be somewhere less than 1%, but that’s something that can be further investigated.
Thanks, Ben. We’re kind of running late on time, and there are a couple of other queries, one of which is there a balanced article that we would recommend reading on the pros and cons from formaldehyde, and we can take that offline, and we’ll answer that separately after the event, but just to kind of wrap up for today. What I want to do is just the graphic that’s on-screen is one that’s been with us throughout the entire webinar series, and at its core, we’re saying there was an environmental policy.
If there isn’t one, there needs to be one. We need to understand and recognize the impact in terms of emissions and in terms of anything else that’s happening in terms of our impact on the planet, on our own ecosystems. We need to recognize the biodiversity that we have within average spaces and actually protect those and support those. We need to review and consider the materials that were being used to commemorate the dead in terms of the processes that we’re going through; we need to consider how we can maximize the utilisation of everything in the process of laying the deceased to rest in terms of what can we do in terms of rainwater harvesting, recycling energies, whatever that might be, and also lean on technology as well, because actually everything that we’re doing in our modern world ultimately comes back to technology.
We’re dependent upon it and reliance upon it. So, in all and every aspect of this, I have to wholeheartedly support Douglas’ presentation in terms of we are talking about convergence, we are talking about consilience, we are talking about the sharing of knowledge to solve a common problem, to deliver a common solution that everybody will benefit from. So, thank you, everybody, for your comments today. And as I say, any questions that you haven’t answered so far, we will answer separately as we share the content of the webinar.
So just to wrap up for the day, thank you all for joining us. I hope you found the session beneficial. Please take a look at the OpusXenta Website Blog section. You’ll find more informative articles which relate to not just today’s topics but several others. And obviously, we’re running a series of events over the coming months, so please take a look and register for anything that may be of interest to you. We’ll be distributing recordings of today’s event in the coming days. Please feel free to share those links with your colleagues again.
Again, if you have any subjects that you would like us to explore you would like us to discuss moving forward, we would be more than interested to hear any ideas that you may have. So, either please contact Brendan or contact myself, and we can then actually look at those in terms of what we can do to deliver that content for you. So once again, thank you for your time today. Bye.
Bye for now. Bye.