An Introduction

In his path-breaking book, Beyond Reductionism (1969), the famed novelist and polymath Arthur Koestler remarked that "true innovation occurs when things are put together for the first time that had been separate." He was talking about synergy, of course, a phenomenon that is still greatly underrated and vastly more important even than Koestler imagined. I call it "nature's magic."

Synergy is in fact one of the great governing principles of the natural world; it ranks right up there with such heavyweight concepts as gravity, energy, information and entropy as one of the keys to understanding how the world works. It has been a wellspring of creativity in the evolution of the universe; it has greatly influenced the overall trajectory of life on Earth; it played a decisive role in the emergence of humankind; it is vital to the workings of every modern society; and it is no exaggeration to say that our ultimate fate depends on it. Indeed, every day, in a thousand different ways, our lives are shaped, and re-shaped, by synergy.

All of these grandiose-sounding claims are discussed in detail, with many hundreds of examples, in three of my books: The Synergism Hypothesis (McGraw-Hill, 1983), Nature's Magic (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Holistic Darwinism (University of Chicago Press, 2005), as well as in many of my articles for professional journals. Some of these publications are available at my website:

The purpose of this blog is to provide a continuing update on synergy and an opportunity for some dialogue on this important and still underappreciated phenomenon, along with commentaries on various topics - political, economic, and social -- from a synergy-monger's perspective. The tag-lines for each entry, with a "thought for the day," are the unregulated firecrackers that go off in my mind from time to time.

Peter Corning


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Toward an Ecological Way of Death

If we are going to get serious about recycling, and about reducing our consumption of natural resources, why not recycle ourselves?

Traditional funeral practices are ecologically unsound. Both increasingly valuable prime land and precious resources are consumed in many millions of “bites” each year through the more or less elaborate funeral and burial rituals that occur in almost every country. Even cremation uses up fossil fuels and contributes to air pollution.

A better way would be to use our bodies to fertilize and nurture something that would be renewing and life-sustaining – like a tree. Think of it this way. If every currently-living human being – some 6.5 billion of us, and that’s a lot of biomass – were (in due course) to be buried under a newly planted tree as part of a vast, global reforestation effort, our rich endowment of painstakingly acquired organic and inorganic chemicals and minerals would greatly benefit the soil and the trees. In the bargain, the money we now spend on our various funeral practices could be re-directed to something more beneficial – namely, the reforestation of our fragile planet.

Here’s how it could work. Traditional funeral and memorial services could still be conducted as in the past, even to the point of using recyclable caskets, if deemed important. But instead of the traditional burial or cremation ritual, our bodies could be transported in biodegradable shrouds to designated “memorial forests,” where we would be ceremoniously “planted” together with a young tree of the appropriate kind. A small, durable memorial plaque might be placed near the tree, and the GPS coordinates would be recorded for the family and the public record. It might even be possible to arrange for a video recording, or even live (remote) coverage of the event if the family and friends desired it. And the fee that would be charged for the service would cover the transportation, planting, ceremonial and administrative costs, along with an “insurance” surcharge to provide for the possibility of needing to replant the tree during some “warranty period” (say 50-100 years).

Needless to say, this idea represents a radical change in our traditional burial customs, which have deep cultural and religious roots (if you’ll pardon the pun), but now is the time to begin thinking about changing these ultimately destructive practices in a way that would benefit future generations.

Thought for the day: For scientists, seeing is believing, but for religious fanatics (and paranoids) it’s the other way around.


James Leedam said...

Some already do this in the UK - I take care of five beautiful natural burial grounds, three in Scotland and two in Wales ( ).
We do not plant trees directly over the graves, because it presents root cutting problems when the adjacent plot is used, especially where there are reserved plots which have been purchased as half of a pair of plots in a row of graves. Problems also arise when it comes time to thin maturing trees - which ones will be thinned out? We are advised by experts in forestry that this way of planting forests is not a good way to grow a native woodland, and the soil structure is weakened by the excavation...
So, we encourage people to enjoy the beautiful places in which they are buried, which will continue to be grazed and remain a sustainable part of the historic landscape of the countryside; tree planting, dedicated to the deceased, is carried out in separate areas.
Burial ground operators will be only too aware that memorials/trees can become shrines for the bereaved and there is a risk that the natural appearance of the woodland will be compromised by unnatural adornments - wind-chimes, teddies, artificial flowers, ribbons, balloons, toys, windmills etc etc...
Our approach is to "keep it simple, keep it natural, and keep it beautiful".

Synergy Live said...

I am delighted to have received your most interesting comment, and positively thrilled to know that some people are already doing something along the lines I suggested.
I certainly respect your values and your approach -- and your adherence to what is also ecologically sound practice. I imagine, though, that there may be various ways of accomplishing the same objective in different contexts.
For instance, the approach I suggested with a more direct connection between the deceased person and the memorial tree may appeal more to some people than the idea of an anonymous pasture site. The forestry issues are certainly important but seem to me to be surmountable. For one thing, there is no reason to have memorial trees planted close to one another. With careful spacing (say one in ten trees) there would be plenty of other options for thinning (if/as necessart). Maybe a memorialist would be required to pay for a stand of ten trees, including a designated "plaque" tree. As for disturbing the soil structure, it happens that my wife and I are (among other things) the co-owners of a diversified, biointensive, organic market farm on San Juan Island in the state of Washington (, so we know quite a bit about this issue. In fact, "subsoiling" or loosening the layers under the topsoil is generally highly beneficial. It allows for air, water, nutrients and roots to penetrate more easily (though you must also be careful about leeching and erosion issues). The trick is to be able to preserve the topsoil and avoid mixing it with the subsoil, and this is precisely what the "double digging" method accomplishes in biointensive farming. It seems to me that the use of a comparable metrhodology could actually benefit the growth of memorial trees in the scenario I envisioned.

On the otherhand, I wholeheartedly support your desire to avoid having these wooodland burial grounds become "tourist parks." That is why I suggested the use of "virtual" visits and allowing minimal intrusions (if any) by the bereaved. This should be a precondition for acceptance into the program.

But, to repeat, I'm sure there are various ways to accomplish the overall objective. Thanks again for your comments -- and your work!

Peter Corning

Geoff said...

Living near the Pacific Ocean with its wonderful abundance of cousins inhabiting our ancestral home I've always wanted to share my no longer needed amino acids with the crabs and sea worms. I once used this method to very thoroughly clean a deer carcass and would be happy to follow the same route. Sharing my remains with living things is a powerful salve to the finality of death. While this might be feasible very occasionally, large scale sea burials would likely prove problematic. Canada is inching towards green burials but still in segregated plots with all the attendent waste and hoopla.

edison said...

A well written post! It only makes sense. I live in Portland, OR. Last year The Natural Burial Company ( )came to our fair city so now the opportunity for 'an ecological way of death' is available for anyone considering an alternative to 'traditional' burial.