Learn about your choices when deciding your or a loved one's disposition and how it impacts the environment.

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Environmental Impact of Death

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The environmental impact of death is a growing concern for funeral consumers, and rightly so. Traditional burial in the U.S. has come to encompass a wide variety of obstructive, unnecessary, invasive, and expensive services and products, such as embalming, tombstones, lacquered caskets, and heavily manicured gravesites. Thankfully, the modern after-death consumer has more choices every day, thanks to new branches of the funeral industry that are rushing to meet the demand. Green or natural burial, home funerals, and organic, fair-trade cut flower vendors, are gaining in popularity. Alternative forms of disposition such as promession, still in concept, and alkaline hydrolysis, which is just beginning to be offered to consumers, have garnered expert supporters throughout the world. Cremation-- while far from perfect, due to its accompanying release of vaporized mercury, dioxins and furans, and greenhouse gas-- remains a relatively inexpensive and low-impact form of disposition, and there are steps you can take to mitigate that impact further.

What is the environmental impact of traditional burial? How environmentally impactful is cremation? How can you make your burial more environmentally sound? How do you find a green burial provider or a crematorium that will address your environmental concerns? This SevenPonds article will seek to answer any questions you may have about the environmental impact of death.

Things to Know:

  • About 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid are buried in U.S. cemeteries every year.

  • Ten acres of a typical cemetery contain nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel, 20,000 tons of concrete in burial vaults, and enough wood used in coffins to build 40 homes.

  • The danger of mercury and particulate emissions from crematoriums is a concern, yet also a subject of controversy. More cost effective high temperature filters and metal abatement systems, which will become available in the next few years, may help to mitigate this problem.

  • There are several steps you can take to mitigate the environmental impact of cremation.

  • Burial preserves, conservation burial grounds, and eco-cemeteries, which preserve the natural beauty of their land, are also valuable land conservation tools.

  • Alternative forms of disposition such as promession and alkaline hydrolysis are being developed, though promession has yet to be commercially developed, and alkaline hydrolysis is only available to consumers through one cremation service provider in Florida.

  • Many large-scale cut flower growers employ unsound environmental and social practices. Organizations such as Veriflora and Calyx Flowers offer ready alternatives.

What is the environmental impact of “traditional” burial?

Unfortunately, the environmental impact of “full-service” burial, including a casket, vault, tombstone, and flower wreaths, is considerable. According to the nonprofit Centre for Natural Burial, 10 acres of cemetery contains nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel, 20,000 tons of concrete for vaults, and enough wood from buried coffins to build more than 40 homes. As a result, most cemeteries now have little space for native plant or animal life. For these reasons, you may consider a green burial, which is often more cost effective as well, as it allows you to forgo many of the “full-package” extras cited above. For more information, see our article on Choosing Green Burial.

What is the environmental impact of cut flowers?

Globally, many large-scale cut flower growers engage in a wide range of deplorable environmental and social practices. Most of the flowers sold in the U.S. are grown in industrial scale overseas hothouses, and are treated with a wide range of chemicals and pesticides. Many flower workers are not adequately protected from these dangerous chemicals, and the natural environment surrounding the hothouses is often adversely affected, thanks to a lack of environmental regulations in the host country, or lax enforcement of those regulations. To learn more about this issue, read our article on The Environmental and Social Impact of Flowers. There are options for purchasing eco-friendly, organic flowers in most parts of the U.S., either through Veriflora, a national organic flower accreditation organization, or companies like Calyx Flowers, which allows consumers to send and receive flowers throughout the country.

What is the environmental impact of embalming?

Embalming remains a widespread practice, in part thanks to the success of the funeral industry’s efforts to promote it as a health and sanitation issue. Yet contrary to many consumers’ beliefs, embalming is not known to have any environmental or health benefits, and is only rarely required by law, such as in instances of inter-state transport of the remains or following death by infectious disease. More often than not, no matter how embalming may be presented by funeral industry personnel, it will be up to you, and you alone, whether or not to purchase this service. State laws differ in this regard. To adequately protect yourself, you will want to contact a chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in your state, and familiarize yourself with the FTC’s Funeral Rule, a specialized law designed to protect the funeral consumer.

Embalming fluids are generally formaldehyde-based. Formaldehyde is a chemical commonly used in many preservative materials and construction materials such as particleboard, and while it is a naturally occurring chemical, which readily biodegrades in the ground and in the air, it is also recognized as a carcinogen by the EPA, and is known to cause adverse health effects over long periods of exposure. Embalmers themselves, who are constantly exposed to formaldehyde in the air they breathe and the liquid that comes into contact with their skin, are especially at risk. Adverse environmental effects of embalming fluids leaching into the ground following a body’s burial have yet to be adequately established, but over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are introduced into U.S. soil every year through burial, sometimes disconcertingly close to animal and plant life.

How can I mitigate the environmental impact of my burial?

There are several steps you can take to mitigate the environmental impact of burial, and there are also several organizations that can advise you.

  • Consider bypassing embalming. Only in very rare cases, such as following death by certain communicable diseases or prior to a body’s long distance transport, is embalming required by law.
  • Think about your options for green burial. Green burial is becoming more widely available to consumers every day, and there are a few organizations that are actively working to build, expand, and refine on the infrastructure we already have. For more information, consider contacting the Green Burial Council.

  • Choose a biodegradable casket or burial shroud. While the burial of lacquered wood and metal caskets are highly environmentally impactful, in fact there are many options for purchasing biodegradable wood, wicker, or cardboard caskets that will more readily break down into compounds that are easily reabsorbed into the natural environment (such as Carbon, H20 and O2). Often times, products made from these generally simple materials are cheaper than the more elaborate, ecologically damaging conventional caskets. You can also purchase a burial shroud, which is a specially made wrap, sometimes fitted with handles and wood panels, in which to bury your loved one. In fact, green burial sites will only accept a body if you choose a biodegradable casket or shroud (note that most kinds of paint, with the controversial exception of Milk paint, is also environmentally unhealthy).
  • Offset your burial’s carbon footprint by making a contribution to a carbon fund. If you wish to take the entire ceremony into account, including the manufacturing of the shroud or casket, the transportation of materials, and your family or friend’s attendance, you can calculate the appropriate donation amount using a carbon calculator found on sites such as www.carbonfund.org — carbon offset donations to Carbon Fund, for example, will be channeled to third-party verified projects furthering the cause of environmental sustainability, such as a landfill gas-to-energy project in Massachusetts, or the construction of a wind farm in India. The size and nature of your ceremony will determine the donation amount, but a typical 2-day event, incorporating travel time, meals, and lodging for 25 people, should run about 40 to 60 dollars.

What is the environmental impact of cremation?

At one time, cremation was thought to be a relatively eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial. A growing body of research, however, has found that while cremation may not be as environmentally damaging as full-service burial, standard cremations in most crematorium retorts require the burning of natural gas, and therefore the release of greenhouse gases, as well as the vaporization of other chemicals that may be present in the cremated body, such as mercury used in amalgam dental fillings, and dioxins and furans. To fully incinerate a human body to bone and ash fragments, the retort must be heated to between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and maintained at this level for between 45 and 90 minutes. However, over the years newer, more fuel-efficient crematorium retorts have significantly lowered the amount of carbon dioxide released in this process.

Joe Sehee, Executive Director of the Green Burial Council, cites a case where his organization hired Ecology & Environment Inc., an environmental planning firm, to develop a carbon offset scheme that users of his site could refer to when planning a cremation. According to this firm, the typical carbon offset cost for a cremation was only $4. Be advised though, that older crematorium systems are less fuel-efficient. If you or your family are considering cremation, you may wish to inquire as to the fuel efficiency of the retort.

How much vaporized mercury is released through cremation?

The effect of crematoria emissions of vaporized mercury is a subject of some controversy. According to the EPA, in 2005 all US crematoria combined vaporized a total of 600 pounds of mercury, a relatively slight amount, though it should be noted that mercury is a highly toxic substance, and even small amounts are potentially hazardous. Vaporized mercury disperses into the air primarily in gaseous form as a particulate, and eventually returns to the earth through various forms of precipitation, sometimes as acid rain. After this mercury has deposited on land or water bodies, it can convert to the highly toxic compound known as methylmercury, which are most often exposed to humans through food, such as fish who live in mercury-contaminated waters, or through groundwater. Methylmercury exposure is a particular concern for women of childbearing age, fetuses and young children because studies have linked high levels of methylmercury to damage to the developing nervous system, which can impair children’s ability to think and learn. While studies have shown that environmental mercury release can lead to increased rates of developmental disorders such as autism and retardation, as of yet the EPA has not found mercury and particulate emissions by crematoria significant enough to warrant regulation, preferring instead to leave such regulation to the states. A statement released by the Cremation Association of North America, in March of 2009, reported that the “design and operation of typical North American crematories provides significantly better emissions than regulations required, and even exceeds expectations with the older operating systems.”

According to the EPA’s 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, crematories are a very small source of mercury as compared to dentist offices, diesel vehicles, wood-burning fireplaces and industrial and commercial boilers, to mention just a few.

Of course, it is beyond dispute that mercury emissions are undesirable. Due to the presence of mercury amalgam dental fillings in many cremated remains, especially those in the “baby-boomer” population likely to most exploit this service in coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that increased cremations in coming years will lead to increased mercury emissions. However, it is also important to note that in the future less people who die will have mercury fillings, because most consumers are now choosing alternative substances that look more “natural” and are believed to be safer. At the same time, there are still many uncertainties surrounding just how environmentally damaging crematoria mercury emissions are.

How can I reduce the environmental impact of my cremation?

While there is no such thing as a totally “green” cremation, there are a few ways to mitigate cremation’s environmental impact.

  • Choose a casket made of renewable, non-toxic materials such as wicker or recycled cardboard, or consider a shroud of organic material such as cotton or silk. A casket is never required for cremation, but most crematoriums do require a body to be held in some kind of rigid, leak-proof, consumable container. Cremation providers are required by federal law to make inexpensive cremation caskets available to their consumers, and customers may also furnish their own at no extra charge.

  • If you choose to bury your loved one’s cremation ashes, consider purchasing a biodegradable urn. If you choose to bury your loved one’s ashes in a grave plot, you may wish to make use of a biodegradable urn made from cardboard, wicker, or un-lacquered wood. Metal, concrete or clay urns will not biodegrade, however you may wish to purchase one of these for use as a scattering or storing container. If you are concerned about how the urn was manufactured, you may wish to make a carbon offset contribution to mitigate its environmental impact.

  • When choosing a cremation provider, request information about the facility’s mercury emissions and use of pollutant filters. As a result of increased pressure by localities and state regulation, some crematoriums in Europe and the U.K. are now using filters that lower the release of pollutants into the air. Over the next few years, cheaper and more effective filters or abatement may be available for installation in crematoria stacks, though due in part to economic concerns, neither the EPA nor CANA believe that the filtration systems available today should be mandated by law in human or animal cremations. If this is a concern for you, you can request information about your cremation provider’s filtration system.

  • Recycle medical parts. Ask your cremation provider if they will remove and recycle any pacemakers prior to cremation, and recycle any of the decedent’s medical implants or prosthetic limbs that remain after the cremation is completed. Many will conduct these services for a charge.

  • Offset the cremation’s carbon emissions by making a contribution to a carbon fund. The amount of fossil fuel burned during a cremation is actually relatively slight. But if you wish to take the entire ceremony into account, including the manufacturing of the urn or casket, the transportation of said materials, and the environmental impact of the service and your family or friend’s attendance, you can calculate the appropriate donation amount using a carbon calculator found on sites such as www.carbonfund.org — carbon offset donations to Carbon Fund, for example, will be channeled to third-party verified projects furthering the cause of environmental sustainability, such as a landfill gas-to-energy project in Massachusetts, or the construction of a wind farm in India. The size and nature of your ceremony will determine the donation amount, but a typical 2-day event, incorporating travel time, meals, and lodging for 25 people, should run about 40 to 60 dollars. The carbon offset donation for the crematorium furnace burning alone should be about four dollars.

Are there any alternative forms of disposition?

Unfortunately, our choices of forms of disposition today are mostly limited to burial or cremation. There are a few outliers, such as an “open-air cremation service,” basically an old-style funeral pyre, in Crestone Colorado, and whole-body burial-at-sea services in California and the East Coast. The burgeoning science of cryonics, that is, the freezing and preserving of a recently deceased person for eventual rejuvenation, has endured for over 30 years, and proponents remain hopeful that their beliefs will some day be validated. There are also two alternative forms of disposition, not yet widely available to funeral consumers, which we at SevenPonds believe could well gain traction in the coming years, namely promession in Sweden, in which a body is reduced to small bio-degradable fragments through treatment by nitroglycerin, and alkaline hydrolysis, currently available at one funeral home in FL and one in Ohio, in which a body is entered into a pressurized chamber and immersed in a solution of super-heated water and 5% an alkaline solution of potassium hydroxide, and thereby reduced to bio-degradable liquid form. In both these treatments, particulates are not emitted, and metals within the body are filtered out rather than vaporized. For more information, see our article on Lesser-Used Disposition Options.

What about Natural or Green Burial?

Green or natural burial seeks to mitigate the usual environmental impact of death through bypassing the process of embalming and forgoing such environmentally invasive products as lacquered caskets, cement vaults, or concrete slabs. Though options for green burial are still less widespread than for traditional burial, there are an increasing number of green burial sites and product vendors throughout the country, and advocacy organizations, such as the Green Burial Council, can help you facilitate your choice. SevenPonds highly encourages our readers to consider this option. See our articles on Securing Your Wish for Green Burial and Choosing Green Burial if you are interested in learning more.

For Further Information:

The Green Burial Council

Home Funeral Directory

Veriflora (administered by Scientific Certification Systems)

Calyx Flowers

Promessa Organic Burial

Bio Cremation: A Natural Choice