Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With Halloween and the Day of the Dead just around the corner on November 2nd, lets liven up an issue that’s been spoiling the dead men’s party. Not even the dead are free from environmental pollution. No matter how heavy or light your mortal vessel weighs after your soul departs, the world is left to take care of your remains.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

“We are just star dust” to paraphrase a roadie Deadhead who I met years back while the Grateful Dead where still around. Not quite, mister Charlie.

Before we turn back into star dust we must go through an “organic” natural process of putrefaction, where our bodies own bacterial matter starts auto-digesting our flesh through a process known as autolysis. Once the body starts rotting, colliquation takes place inducing a brownish-grey liquid to come out of our corpse known as necro-leachate, composed mainly of water, salts and organic substances.

This material is highly toxic and could lead to life-threatening diseases, specially if it contaminates water sources. Illnesses known by some more soothing names like scarlet and typhoid, and other less attractive names like hepatitis, tuberculosis and Ebola, can result from burial grounds exposing the public to necro-leachate.

Besides the diseases caused by the deceased, bodies that are buried in warm and moist tropical countries like Brazil tend to go through a process know as saponification or adipocere. Curiously enough, the body basically turns into a bar of soap with bones.

Bodies with higher fatty indexes will make for chunkier soaps during this state of “not-being” that can last months or even years.  In dryer climates the bodies can mummify and can decompose at much faster rates given the right environmental conditions. Organic tissue decomposition takes about eight months in wet tropical weather conditions. Specialists recommend families to wait up to three years to exhume any remaining parts.

Bodies need places to live as well, and if you thought housing was complicated for the living in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan area, with its overrated speculative real state market prices, a six-by-twelve tomb resting place will cost you much more, proportionally speaking, that is, and there is no guarantee the paper work is legal.

Rio’s thirteen public graveyards have been under investigation because of the illegal selling of burial chambers that previously had “eternal” living rights for the dead. João Batista, the chic cemetery in the heart of the South Zone, was one of those presently in the limelight after city hall workers where caught selling black-market crypts for R$450,000, or a little over US$ 200,000 for your typical higher-end “jazigo”.

Some of these cemeteries are straight-out violating the burial environmental guidelines expressed under CONAMA, National Environmental Council, according to O Globo, and you don’t have to be an expert in the field to know that the necro-leachate seeping out of the vertical sepulchers in João Batista cemetery is an outright public health issue.

The good news is that the City Hall will start government bidding auctions on Halloween for companies willing to take on a 15 to 20 year managing lease of the public cemeteries. It will be obligatory for these companies to be in compliance with the environmental burial specifications expressed under CONAMA.

So let the dead be grateful in their respected resting place until they become star dust.


Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


  1. Two comments.
    1) cremation avoids all those nasty undead effects.
    2) The English Cemetery in Gamboa, over 200 years old, is not in the high-rent district for cemeteries. It’s small, beautiful and affordable. For more information about plots, contact: This Saturday, November 2, All Souls’ Day, there will be a memorial service in English in the chapel at Gamboa, starting 11am, so go and visit. It’s smack dab in the heart of all the new city reconstruction, which you can also check out if you wish.


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