Is Cremation Bad for the Environment?

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Technological updates make cremation easier and cheaper, too. State-of-the-art crematoriums provide an easy, hygienic, and respectful way to get the job done. That’s why cremation is the first choice for many people. 

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In our modernized world, death rates are falling. Many previously considered terminal illnesses have been eradicated and some dangerous jobs have been replaced by artificial intelligence. Still, experts estimate that almost 55 million people die annually. This sheer volume puts a taxing burden on the earth. So, is cremation a true boon for the world, or is it causing more damage?

If you’re environmentally conscious, that might be a huge priority when it comes to your end-of-life decisions.

Tip: If you want to reconnect with nature after death, you could have your cremains transformed into cremation stones. Loved ones can keep the stones at home to hold them close or place them in nature, where they can help to support the natural environment. By sending all of the ashes into Parting Stone, you or your loved ones can receive back between 40 and 60 unique, solidified-ash keepsake stones. 

Share your final wishes, just in case.

Create a free Cake end-of-life planning profile and instantly share your health, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions with a loved one.

What We Know: How Cremation Affects the Environment

With 55 million people putting their end-of-life plans into action each year, it’s easy to gather hard statistics on how those choices affect the planet. So far, scientists have discovered three main ways that cremation affects the environment. 

Greenhouse gases

Reducing our carbon footprint is on everyone’s mind these days, with recycling, minimizing their use of plastics, and opting for public transportation. All the reusable water bottles on the planet, though, can’t make up for all the emissions gushing into the environment.

That includes cremation, as 96 percent of human remains leave the crematorium as emissions. These gases include ammonia, mercury, and carbon, of which mercury is a known poison. Some crematoriums use natural gas or electricity as well.

These practices emit six times the amount of carbon dioxide that’s already present in your body, which adds to local air pollution. In cities like Beijing, that’s a major problem already. Unfortunately, because of these emissions, cremation adds to the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Nutrient cycle

The earth relies on a simple nutrient cycle. However, with agricultural advances and manufacturing, humans have divorced themselves from that cycle. Have you ever heard the saying “from dust to dust”? It’s a popular quote from the Bible, but nowadays it doesn’t hold true. Many humans aren’t returning to dust anymore in the sense of going back to the earth. Instead, their remains are being transferred to a loved one’s mantel.

For most creatures, the energy cycle works like this. It starts with the sun. Plants absorb its’ energy and flourish. Herbivores, like rabbits, then eat this plant. When a rabbit is eaten by a coyote, it’s energy and resulting nutrients move up the food chain. If a coyote is then eaten by a bear, the cycle continues. If a human then kills and eats the bear, that energy has reached the top of the food chain. When that human being dies, they are interred in the earth. Then, their nutrients go back into the soil. This allows plants to flourish and grow. After that, the cycle starts all over again.

So, like all creatures, humans take from the earth. Nutrients, oxygen—the list goes on. That’s how it was meant to be. But taking a step back from the nutrient cycle prevents the natural process of giving back. The nutrients your remains provide help make up for the nutrients you used during life.

For centuries, this process supported the earth. However, as industrialization, emissions, and unnatural end-of-life practices increased, this is no longer the case. 

Energy usage

Have you seen photos of factories in the early 1900s? They’re pictured in grainy black and white, with smoke billowing out of the chimneys. It’s thick and dark, coating everything in sight. It’s easy to imagine how this pollutes the environment, poisons water sources, and coats people’s lungs. That’s no longer the case anymore, correct? Environmental laws and watchdog organizations try to make sure of it.

But while we may not be pumping highly visible emissions into the environment anymore, we’re mimicking factories in at least one way through energy usage. To obtain the proper temperature for cremation, ovens are heated to extreme temperatures. At its highest point, cremation ovens reach over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. This takes an extraordinary amount of energy to achieve.

And there’s no such thing as mass cremation as people want their loved ones to be cremated separately. There would be no way to separate ashes, otherwise. And that would be very emotionally upsetting to grieving families. So this process has to be undertaken individually for each body. This uses an extraordinary amount of energy. According to recent statistics from 2018, 41 percent of people opt for cremation. 

Comparing Cremation’s Eco-Friendliness to Other Burial Options

It’s easy to get caught in an either-or comparison. You can either be cremated or buried traditionally. That’s it. Fortunately, that black-and-white scenario is no longer the case. There are so many options available today. Thanks to new technologies, your horizons are almost limitless. 

Traditional burials

It’s easy to assume that traditional burials are the better option. After all, why wouldn’t they be?  There’s no exorbitant energy usage, no emissions into the environment, and human remains are put back into the earth the way nutrient cycles dictate. Today, that simply isn’t the case. 

Burials used to be tiny, private affairs. Their impact was spread out. But after the Civil War, the way we looked at death changed. The way we handled it, as a society, had to change. Before that, families were responsible for their loved ones’ death. But with death occurring in mass numbers during major battles, speed was paramount. So cemeteries slowly gained popularity.

But that concentrated amount of human remains in one place proved to be an issue. As the funeral industry diversified, this problem intensified. Today, we sink tons of wood, metal, embalming fluid, and other foreign materials into the earth. By the time the body breaks down, there’s no canceling out the effects of all the other materials surrounding it. 

Today, space is also an environmental issue. People continue to die, causing cemeteries to fill rapidly—and we’re running out of places to put cemeteries. The issue of space is becoming increasingly pressing. If you’ve chosen traditional burial, though, there’s no reason to abandon your plans entirely. It’s worth investigating other options, such as a green burial.

Green burials

As technology starts getting up to speed with our ideas, there are so many new ideas for burial. One of these ideas involves skipping the casket entirely. For green, or natural, burials, your body can be wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and then laid in the ground. This simple approach allows your body to decompose much faster.

When it’s not surrounded by a casket, decomposition occurs at a natural rate. Since the burial shroud is biodegradable, there are no harmful side effects. All you’re doing is contributing to the earth. If you pursue this option, make sure to choose a cemetery that allows it. Conservation cemeteries are a great choice, since they’re tailored to allow this option and will be able to inform you of all the laws in your state that control natural burial.

Promession

What if you really don’t want to be buried? Many people want cremation for personal reasons. But if you’re determined to reduce your carbon footprint, investigating promession might be worthwhile.

This approach involves spraying the body with liquid nitrogen. This freezes the body to -320.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, the body is vibrated until it’s broken down into crystallized particles. These particles are freeze-dried and placed in a biodegradable container. This container is placed in the ground, which facilitates the natural decomposition process. 

Making an End-of-Life Plan

Making choices is hard. But with an array of options, there’s no need to feel pigeonholed. There’s a way to craft your end-of-life plan to be individually suited to your wants and needs.

If you want something that fits your budget and is eco-friendly, the perfect burial alternatives are waiting for you. 


Sources 

  1. Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. “Casting your last environmental footprint.” 31 October 2017, blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/casting-your-last-environmental-footprint/
  2. Keijzer, Elizabeth. “Environmental impact of Funerals. Life cycle assessments of activities after life.” University of Groningen. 2011, www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/14446362/ElisabethKeijzer_EES-2011-112M.pdf

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