Ecology of Death Penalty or
Being Buried in a Watery Grave
Immortality is one of those dreams that would turn into a nightmare if it’d ever become reality. Even without the proverbial zombies roaming the earth, we still need desperately to die on a regular basis.
Not a pretty picture, to be sure, but a point of support to all blessed forms of natural death, the economics of crime and punishment, and the ecology of making sure we dispose properly the bodies of those who passed away.
According to the Annals of Improbably Research, modern forms of execution went through considerable changes until reaching the efficiency and swiftness of contemporary death rows. Such evolution also reflects changes in our footprint on the planet.
Thus, if ancient Hebrews, living in barren lands, executed people by stoning, Arabs in nearby deserts had to decapitate them with a sword. Impaling was an ancient and popular method, and the Romanian Prince Vlad III, who may have inspired the myth of the Dracula, was an early adopter. Turks would use metal spears, while in Asia and the Tropics, bamboo was the preferred method.
Crucifixion was the Roman way, and Jesus was its most famous victim, with the additional onus of having to drag his own wooden crossbar to the site of his execution. Romans could be cruel but not free of ecological concerns, though.
Soon, a tree-saving method was devised. They’d bend and tie with ropes two trees, and have the condemned person’s arms and legs attached on each of them. Then the ropes would be cut, for a clean, quick end, with no waste of timber.
For centuries in Medieval Europe, the auto-de-fé, i.e., burning people alive on the stake, was the sanctioned method of execution. Joana D’Arc, Giordano Bruno and countless victims accused of being witches perished by fire.
In the 18th century, a new method made people literally lose their heads over it, and became forever associated with the French Revolution: the guillotine. It killed thousands but not two popular beliefs: it was not invented by Joseph Guillotin and it did not kill him either.
It never became a hit in North America, where hanging was the preferred way. Still, forest depletion was a constant concern, so with the Civil War, death by firing squad was a more practical alternative.
With the additional convenience of serving to execute more than one person at a time. As we mentioned before, moral or judicial considerations aside, waste management was always an important point to consider when choosing an execution method.
The Improbable Research findings apparently chose to overlook the firing squad option, despite its popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. And so were even more ghoulish solutions, such as the brutal use of gas chambers by the Nazis in Germany.
In the U.S., the Industrial Revolution helped to create the conditions for the invention of the electric chair. It was the answer to those environmental concerns, as fossil oil and coal were readily available to produce the energy required for its use.
The use of the electric chair was only replaced for good during the energy crisis of the 1970s. That’s when the current method to carry on death sentences was adopted: the lethal injection. The procedure has recently faced challenges, concerning the chemicals used in the injections.
But it’s very likely that it’ll continue being used in this country; activists against its particulars are a minority compared to those who advocate the end of the death penalty altogether in the U.S.
Aside legal considerations, sanitary concerns and religious beliefs are what dictates how we voluntarily dispose of our earthly remains. As we run out of land for ground interment, such disposal is conditioned to either cremation or burial at sea.
While most of us have given a thought or two about furnaces and ashes, ours or of a loved one, few have ever considered being dumped on the water by choice. It certainly wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s, but there his body went, to the bottom of the Asiatic Sea.
Obviously, there’s no new way of disposing a body under the sun. And as many a New Yorker would tell you, “to sleep with the fishes” has been a particularly popular final destination for those who dare to cross Mafiosi of all stripes in the eastern seaboard.
Then again, apart from any criminal intent, there’s nothing to fear if the choice appeals to you or a loved one. There are few organizations that take care of all details to conduct a dignified ceremony at sea, and most of them are also environmentally conscious.
The EPA has several rules for such burials, mainly to make sure the body stays underwater and decays quickly without impact on marine life. There are clauses about dept and temperature of the water, type of coffin used, and minimal weight of the body.
Some companies do away with the casket altogether and use a zipped canvas body bag instead. They follow old American and British traditions of wrapping sailors who died at sea with a sailcloth shroud, using cannonballs as ballast.
If all goes according to plan, bodies decay relatively fast, either in water or soil, in reverse to the natural order of the bigger animal eating the smaller one: once dead, it’s the tiny creatures’ turn to feast on our flesh.
So think about that the next time you wish you could live forever. Coming to think of it, you may as well show some appreciation, as there are no zombies or bigger fish out to get you just yet.