The dead are haunting Northern Ireland, as flooding graves have been found to be leaching cancer-causing formaldehyde and ammonia into the soil. These toxic chemicals, used in the embalming process, are being washed off of decomposing bodies in water-logged coffins. Thanks to the proximity of many affected graveyards to city centers, the same chemicals that will someday be used to preserve corpses may already be inside of residents.
In what local undertaker William O'Donnell called "a bigger problem than asbestos," there are growing concerns about how the chemicals draining off corpses will harm not only the environment but the living. Groundwater from Milltown Cemetery in Belfast runs downhill through an area called the Bog Meadows and into the River Lagan, which winds through the center of the city. This contaminated carcinogenic water, washing through decaying bodies and into the rivers, poses a serious risk to public health. Environmental development experts from around the world have urged local authorities to "model the risk" in places where the poisonous groundwater is near the surface before things get lethal.
In recent years, Ballyoan in Londonderry has had significant issues with flooding from six feet under. When a local newspaper first covered the story, one gravedigger spoke out about the horrors and the illegal activity that he had seen on the job. In an interview with VICE, the former gravedigger, who wishes to be referred to as Dermot, insisted that he had expressed fear to his employers about the risks he and his colleagues were facing on a daily basis. Laborers like Dermot had been handling this toxic water, which was filling graves as quickly as they could dig.
"In the four years I worked there, no protection was given to any grave digger when working in these water-filled graves. We had to wear a normal uniform. Not only were staff being put at risk, but the public were also exposed," Dermot explained.
"To give you an idea of the extent of the water issue, one person who was being buried was over 33 stone [460 pounds] in weight and after we had laid her to rest in the grave, we allowed [time] for the family to leave. When we came back to fill it in, the woman in the coffin was floating in her grave in approximately four or five feet of water. That's how bad things were."
Scenes like this one are not exclusive to Ballyoan, or indeed this part of Northern Ireland. In Belfast's main burial ground, Roselawn Cemetery, a story emerged of a bereaved daughter desperately working to protect her mother's flooded grave, only days after burial. Of course, there is no elegant way to decompose, but the disturbing notion of a loved one dissolving underground in putrid muddy water is horrifying to families, all contamination dangers aside.
As someone who worked in the muck on a daily basis, Dermot told VICE about the grim situation facing gravediggers.
"The water in the graves seriously affects the coffins already buried. Coffins are not watertight so when the grave fills with water it also fills the coffin, which decomposes and rots the bodies faster. In my opinion this is where the water mixes with the body and embalming fluids," he explained.
This is the vile reality: As bodies bloat and rot in the rancid groundwater, they leach broken down body tissue and lethal formaldehyde into the surrounding ground. While the microorganisms in a corpse are not pathogenic, the embalming chemicals that escape into the groundwater and surrounding soil are lethal. Embalmers wear full protective gear when working on bodies at the funeral home, while protection for gravediggers and the public has not been seen as a real concern. New reports suggest it should be.
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"When a grave does fill with water, we were told by management to remove it using a petrol pump," Dermot explained. This water would be pumping onto the path, so that it makes its way into the drain. But this would often overflow, or worse, the hose would not reach the path. The public were completely unaware that the water they are walking through, that was draining off near their loved one's headstone was from other graves."
Dermot then shared that when opening a grave on one occasion, the stench was so strong that the workmen vomited. "As I approached my colleagues I looked into the grave. It was filled with water which had a bright greenish oily substance floating on the surface," Dermot said.
The oily fluid he describes as a skin on the water is a foul blend of melted flesh and toxic chemicals. At room temperature, formaldehyde gives off a pungent odor; it's also known to bring about nausea and dull headaches, like those many of Dermot's fellow laborers experienced. If the heavy smell of swollen water-rotted bodies hadn't turned their stomaches, the presence of the pollutant chemicals was sure to.
The Environmental Agency studies show that formaldehyde dilutes into the soil and becomes harmless within ten years of burial. In these instances, however, the recently dead are being flooded out within days, leaching the chemicals into the soil quickly. This gives formaldehyde and ammonia a longer span in the soil, at toxic concentrations. In older graveyards, there are fears that banned chemicals previously used in embalming, like arsenic, could also be present in the ground.
It's this chemical concern that provoked Jamie Orr, of environmental organization Friends of the Earth, to call for graveyards to be labelled "contaminated spaces."
The physical weight of water in the ground itself would give the gravediggers equal trouble. The more that flooding warped the grave, the more contact Dermot and his co-workers would have with the contaminated soil, in desperate efforts to repair the walls. In extreme conditions, a saturated grave would collapse at the sides, often exposing the coffins of those buried in the parallel grave. When the wall collapsed, a coffin could fall into the fresh grave and become irreparably damaged, or worse, eject its occupant.
It was here that Dermot revealed an even more grotesque story, alleging that on one occasion a baby's coffin, buried decades earlier at an illegal depth of 18 inches, was damaged in a reopening. Supervisors told the laborers to bury the child in a black trash bag, despite storing small brown coffins for exactly this kind of incident.
"When a funeral was en route we had to keep pumping water out of the ground every 5 to 10 minutes. The management asked us to cover the water with straw 2 minutes before the undertakers would arrive at the graveside," Dermot explained.
"Management always told us that if any family member questions the straw floor that we should tell them it was to keep the bottom of the grave level, when it was actually a means of hiding the rising groundwater for the graveside ceremony."
Until recently, the workforce caring for the graveyards have not only been under-informed and ill-equipped to deal with the potential dangers, but the conditions are often so horrendous that these distressing situations have been hushed and dealt with poorly. It's clear, that in some allegations, the management has been complicit in perpetuating lethal chemical exposure through the neglect of staff coping with on-site flooding. According to Dermot, these relaxed standards have resulted in a complete side-stepping of legal burial requirements, in place to protect the dignity of those laid to rest.
As the gruesome reality of our waterlogged dead comes to light, a movement toward reimagining burial methods has been energized. Organizations like the Natural Death Center promote alternative embalming methods and burial ideas, like wicker coffins. A solution, perhaps, but one that many in Irish culture consider too extreme or unorthodox. There has been much slower willingness to adopt cremation as an appropriate form of burial in Northern Ireland, compared to the rest of the UK where it is much more common than ground burial.
VICE spoke to David Spiers, founder of Greenacre Innovations, a company specializing in burial technologies that protect the environment and people. In particular he has been trying to raise the alarm on formaldehyde leaching and the dangers it poses.
He made it clear that this was not just a Northern Irish problem but a worldwide one: "There is a much larger threat posed from all cemetery leachate including the formaldehyde element, regardless of where these are situated in the world. Not enough investigation has been carried out in this sensitive area. Contrary to being told it dissipates over time, [formaldehyde] actually merely dilutes, leaving the highly probable conclusion that some percentage of this carcinogen toxin may well make its way into some of our ground water source."
In Irish society, where open-coffins at wakes are still a common practice, embalming is obviously an important part of the process to keep the dead spruced up for their mourning relatives. One pioneering development by Spiers's team is a scientifically-engineered neutralizing material within a liner/pillow that's placed beneath the body. This technology allows traditional formaldehyde-based embalming to carry on, dealing with potential chemical contaminants inside a watertight, sterile coffin.
Until recently, Spiers had only received frustratingly passive statements from government and legislative bodies, but last month, Spiers met with Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan to discuss how new procedures and legislation could be put in motion.
"The Minister was extremely positive in that an acknowledgement was made that formaldehyde and cemetery fluids are a concerning risk and there are currently no protective measures in place to address this issue."
In a brief statement to VICE, the Minister's office commented that "the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) does not have a role in endorsing the use of new environmental products. The environmental need for ERF (environmental remediation formula) will be driven by the geology, local water courses, etc. of a cemetery site with any potential mitigation measures engineered or installed during the construction of new cemeteries/extensions." The statement then directed any further inquiry to specific cemeteries and councils.
At the moment, it is not known just how many graveyards are abiding by unenforced tighter regulations recommended by international experts, disposing of contaminated groundwater responsibly, and red-flagging land that is in need of an effective drainage system.
In Northern Ireland, 80% of the population still opts for ground burial. There is no immediate government plan to prevent embalmed corpses from leaching the deadly cancer-causing chemicals into the earth. It appears that the dead will continue to leak flesh and formaldehyde out of their hallowed graves, until it truly becomes a concern for the living.
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