Throughout the course of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, my life has been filled with either moments of complete chaos or harrowing solitude. Living an almost nomadic lifestyle out of my car, I have had to witness these distressing times through a unique lens. I wake up to an empty street and dull winds of Westwood. Following the snacking of several granola or protein bars, I use the later extent of my day finding places to study or loiter. Besides this, the only traveling I do is to the grocery store or whatever way is back to my car. Yet it is in these small instances of seeing human interactions again, I realize how variant our perspectives are on the viral threat.
Some laugh together, holding each other tight, while others fear to even approach the 6-ft “social distancing” that’s been promoted these last few weeks. It’s easy to assume and designate why each of these types of people has such a problem with these safe practices, or a lack thereof. Culture, age, and ignorance all play an important factor in our actions in relation to the pandemic. Self-preservation has always been part of our nature, and with age comes an even greater sense of susceptibility and thus we see a greater sense of fear for our elderly population.
Yet it was in my own living experience, along with the reading about Amy Phan’s view on “Death” in a society that has made me fully appreciate the many attitudes shown. While most of us look to the disease in fear of death, others fear the death. With an ever-growing amount of deaths globally due to COVID-19, many do not consider what we will do with the corpses piling in each respective country. While some seek to maintain their quality of life, others seek the future to which we will be living in. Because of this, some have taken to prioritizing environmental well-being over their own health. This choice is not without merit, as in areas like NYC, death-workers are having a difficult time processing the sheer mass of bodies (Business Insider). This is further seen across the globe in Ecuador, where bodies are beginning to fill the streets (CBS News) and in Spain where the military has been enlisted to help the country’s disposal of corpses (SCMP). While the tragedy of death is incomparable in many cases, should this give cause to alienate the environmental repercussions faced by society afterward?
Phan herself argues how our traditional burial techniques create consequences to our environment. Two of the most common techniques used in modern society she points out as cremation and burial. Cremation creates huge emissions of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere, while burial can lead to chemicals seeping into the surrounding soil which is toxic and carcinogenic to humans. Phan criticizes that our burial practices are denials of death, and the environment must suffer because of our egos. She has offered a solution to these practices through the use of an “Infinity Mushroom”, which is a strain of fungi she is training that can decompose all of the parts of a human body while minimizing the greenhouse emissions typically seen from body decomposition.
Though her intentions are admirable, it doesn’t come without limitations. Much of her solution is still in the “training” phase and has not been widely accepted by the general public. Beyond this, there are many cultural, religious, and informational obstacles that are prevalent in both developed and developing countries that would make the implementation of this burial method either ineffective or undesirable. Also, the argument of “human consciousness” can be applied to regarding our own desire to evade the inevitability of death.
In a society with the threat of overpopulation and consistent shrinking of available land, burial practices will have to improve as our death rates will only increase with time at this rate. A compromise between the “humanity” of a burial with the health of mother-nature must be found if we are to maintain a consistent quality of life for future generations and their potential environments. We must alter our perspectives of death as this pandemic exemplifies a bigger problem we may face in the future.
The New York Times, A. Feurer, L. Stack. (2020, April 6) “New York City Considers Temporary Graves for Virus Victims” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/nyregion/mass-graves-nyc-parks-coronavirus.html
SCMP. (2020, March 29). “Coronavirus: troops to transport Covid-19 corpses after Spain records deadliest day”. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3077426/troops-spain-transport-coronavirus-corpses-daily-body-count-hits
Business Insider, D. Mosher. (2020, March 31). “I followed New York City 'deathcare' workers as they collected the bodies of people killed by the coronavirus, and I saw a growing, chaotic, and risky battle”. https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-covid-19-body-removal-new-york-city-morgues-2020-3
Vesna, V. (2013). “A Conversation with Death // with expiring sustainability” A. Phan, “Honors Book” (pp. 299-304)