Interested in making your death gentler on the planet someday? Fortunately, many "greener" funeral options are also cheaper, too. And some green ceremonies 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 plan.
Is traditional burial or cremation really that hard on the environment?
We must take a detailed look at both to answer that question. For example, there is a range of burial types — e.g., embalmed vs. unembalmed body, type of casket, whether a vault is used, type of cemetery — all with their own unique profile of ecological impact.
Traditional burial figures
In conventional funerals, bodies are embalmed then encased in a non-biodegradable casket and concrete vault at a lawn cemetery. This carries an enormous environmental footprint. Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
- 827,060 US gallons of embalming fluid (containing toxic formaldehyde)
- 90,00 tons of steel for caskets
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze for caskets
- 30 million board feet of hardwoods for caskets
- 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete for vaults
- 14,000 tons of steel for vaults*
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 2 to 3 hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat —releasing an estimated 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per body.
So, what can we do?
Whether you decide on burial or cremation, either option can be made greener by making some key choices.
Greener burial options
- Avoid embalming. Bodies can be preserved by cooling for wakes/viewings if desired.
- Choose 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.
- Consider local stone for headstones or grave markers. GPS coordinates are also a good way to mark burial location. Trees or other plantings also make meaningful markers.
- Consider how the cemetery manages the landscape. Lawns are resource-intensive (water, mowing, fertilizers and pesticides), while a natural or restored landscape can provide important habitat and other ecological benefits.
Greener cremation options
- Chose a crematorium with advanced pollution controls.
- Choose a simple unlined wood or cardboard cremation coffin (not chipboard and plastic) to reduce pollution.
- If possible, have amalgam dental fillings and medical devices removed before cremation.
- Consider emerging alternatives such as resomation/hydrolysis - a flameless variation of cremation.
If you're leaning towards cremation, read more about how cremation works to learn about the different methods and what to expect from the process.
Other green funeral considerations
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. Sometimes that's hard to avoid if family and friends are dispersed. You may decide to have a ceremony for local friend and family, then host a celebration of life ceremony in another part of the country for that other community of family and friends. That can also alleviate the unnecessary guilt individuals may feel if they can't make arrangements to be at the funeral.
Proactively thinking about your own green funeral? Make sure you document and share your funeral wishes with family. After all, if they don't know, they can't make it happen someday. The easiest way to do this is to use Cake, an end-of-life planning website that helps you make choices for healthcare, financial, funeral, and legacy decisions — then share access to those preferences and documents with your family. Create a free Cake account to sharing your funeral preferences.
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.
*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