Which is “greener”: burial or cremation?

Are you interested in making your end of life plans gentle on the planet?

Fortunately many “greener” options are also cheaper too, and some can offer a more meaningful experience for all involved.

Perhaps you see many aspects of modern funerals as wasteful and would prefer a simple and natural return to the earth. Or perhaps you have concerns about land or resource consumption and would prefer cremation. Both burial and cremation have important environmental impacts to consider, but fortunately many of those impacts can be reduced by smart choices communicated in your end-of-life wishes.

So is burial or cremation the greener choice? Many considerations come into play when determining the environmental impacts of burial and cremation.  The details matter a great deal: for example, there are a range of burial types (embalmed vs. unembalmed body, type of casket, whether a vault is used, type of cemetery), all with their own unique profile of ecological impact.

The standard conventional funeral, wherein an embalmed body is encased in a non-biodegradable casket and concrete vault at a lawn cemetery, carries an enormous environmental footprint. Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:

  • 827,060  US gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde)
  • 90,00 tons of steel (caskets)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
  • 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)

(Compiled from statistics by the Casket and Funeral Association of America, Cremation Association of North America, Doric Inc., The Rainforest Action Network, and Mary Woodsen, Pre-Posthumous Society)

Cremation has often been seen as the cleaner, more modern approach, but releases harmful greenhouse gases as well as toxic mercury and other poisons. Cremating a single corpse requires two to three hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat — releasing almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, analysts have estimated.

Wow, that’s depressing. What can we do?

Whether you decide on  burial or cremation, either option can be made greener by making some  key choices.

In burial:

  • Avoid embalming (bodies can be preserved by cooling for wakes/viewings if desired)
  • Chose a biodegradable casket or shroud (many attractive and creative options are available)
  • Avoid a concrete vault if possible (these are required by most conventional cemeteries, but not green cemeteries)
  • Promote natural decomposition by burying at a 4 foot depth and include extra organic material (tree boughs, straw) before covering.
  • If you desire a headstone, consider local stone. GPS coordinates are also a good way to mark burial location. Trees or other plantings also make meaningful markers.
  • Consider the management of the cemetery landscape. Lawns are input-intensive (water, mowing, fertilizers and pesticides), while a natural or restored landscape can provide important habitat and other ecological benefits.

 

In cremation:

  • Chose a crematorium with advanced pollution controls.
  • Choose a simple unlined wood or cardboard cremation coffin (no chipboard and plastic) in order to reduce pollution.
  • If possible, remove amalgam dental fillings before cremation.
  • Consider emerging alternatives such as resomation (a flameless variation of cremation).

In all cases, consider the travel distance for the funeral. The fuel savings by avoiding cremation, for example, could be wiped out by funeral-goers’ car or air travel to a far-off cemetery. Also stay informed about new eco-smart options that are likely to become available in coming years–including mushroom burial suits, composting, and cryomation.

With these important considerations in mind, you can choose a path that aligns with your environmental values by creating the legacy of a healthier planet for future generations–and expresses your unique identity as well.

-Jasmine Tanguay, A Sustainable Legacy 

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