During the last fifty years cremation has become one of the most popular ways to handle a body after death. As of 2018, 53.3% of Americans chose cremation as the final disposition. That’s expected to rise to 75% by 2035. There are many reasons families chose cremation. Environmental-friendliness is often quoted as a reason for cremation over burial. However, that is not necessarily true.
According to Ann Hoffner of Green Burial Naturally and the Natural Burial Guide and facts gathered by The Green Burial Council, a standard cremation is equivalent to a 500 mile / 800 kilometer car trip:
- It takes 2-3 hours at extremely high heat (1400 – 1800 degrees) to cremate a human body. Currently, burning fossil fuels is the only way to generate that level of heat. Most crematories operate using natural gas which is a nonrenewable resource.
- Burning a body can release dental mercury and other toxic metals into the atmosphere.
- The flames used to cremate the body cause carbon dioxide gasses to be released. The Green Burial Council notes that equates on average to 139 lbs. CO2 per person = 1.74 billion pounds of CO2 emissions annually in the US.
- Cremated ashes are toxic and leave the soil sterile when buried in high concentrations. Those urns that create trees only sample your ashes or amend the mixture with other materials to balance at the pH.
The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide emphasizes the idea that green burial is about recycling a human body back into the earth and releasing its nutrients to be used by other life. This is very different from cremation, which burns everything into gas or ash.
For people who prefer an eventual cremation, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact:
- Make sure your cremation provider uses a modern, recently built or updated crematory. The equipment likely more efficient and can produce lower emissions.
- Use only a cardboard “alternative container” for the cremation, or none at all, if the crematory permits. Using a solid wood or a metal casket requires more time and energy to burn those materials as well.
- Choose a biodegradable urn or scatter the remains using the simple container provided by the funeral home.
- Encourage mourners to choose something other than flowers to pay their last respects. Flowers in floral arrangements are typically flown in and constructed using non-natural materials.
- Hold the memorial in a location that requires the least amount of travel by attendees.
Green burials are widely considered to be the most environmentally friendly option. The specifics of a green burial vary widely, but they typically require far fewer resources for the care of the body and skip a number of the “traditional” steps, such as embalming, a casket, and vault, making them better for the environment.
Green burials can also save families on funeral and burial costs. Once you add the expense of vaults (ranging on average from $920-$8,800), coffins (ranging on average $895-$14,080) and embalming ($759 average), the savings a green burial offers can be significant.
Green burials do away with toxic embalming chemicals. Some alternatives for temporary preservation of the body while waiting for the burial include using dry ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent. You can also keep (or bring) the body home and cool it with fans, cooling blankets or open windows.
Traditional burials also result in a lot of materials being deposited in the ground. According to the Green Burial Council, this includes:
- 20 million feet of wood
- 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids
- 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete
- 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
- 64,500 tons of steel
Green burials eliminate much of this waste since most bodies are simply wrapped in shrouds made from a biodegradable material like cotton and placed in the ground.
A third option, called alkaline hydrolysis (aka bio-cremation, water cremation, or aquamation) in which a water-based liquid solution and pressure accelerate the decomposition of soft tissues, uses far less energy than cremation and gives off less greenhouse gases, while still resulting in an ash-like powder that a family can take home like cremated remain. However, it is only legal in some states. For more information on bio-cremation, click here.
Each option has its pros and cons, and it’s important to consider the environmental impact along with your own family’s situation. Being an informed consumer is the first step in making the right decisions.
About the Co-Author
Rick Sheridan has worked as a journalist and college professor for most of his career. Rick taught journalism and managed the student newspaper at Wilberforce University. He also taught part-time at Stanford University and California State University, Chico.
Rick works part-time as a columnist for the Dayton Daily News (40-plus columns published). He has also been published by the Chicago Sun-Times, Tampa Bay Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Pikes Peak Senior News in Colorado Springs.