When planning a funeral, it’s often necessary to consider different factors when making important decisions. Perhaps you’re planning the funeral of someone who was passionate about protecting the environment. Or, you may be an eco-conscious individual planning your own funeral.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Does Cremation Affect the Environment?
- What’s Worse for the Environment: Cremation or Traditional Burial?
- Is There Such Thing as a ‘Green’ Cremation?
- Other Eco-Friendly Cremation and Burial Options
In either case, you may want to know if the funeral you’re planning will require minimal usage of resources and leave a relatively small carbon footprint. This is one of many reasons people choose the cremation of a body instead of its burial.
However, you may have heard conflicting accounts on whether or not cremation is bad for the ecosystem. This general overview will explain how cremation affects the environment and whether it’s genuinely an eco-friendly alternative to a traditional burial.
Bonus Tip: If you do choose to cremate a loved one, consider turning their remains into a Parting Stone. This is an alternative to keeping ashes in an urn that’s grown increasingly popular in recent years.
How Does Cremation Affect the Environment?
When making end-of-life plans, you may prioritize being as eco-friendly as possible. That’s entirely understandable and admirable. Additionally, as cemetery space becomes less abundant, it’s become increasingly common for people to consider this factor when making certain critical end-of-life decisions. Historically, the lack of space to bury bodies has been a reason cremation has become increasingly popular in certain parts of the world.
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Is cremation bad for the environment?
Well, somewhat. It’s not necessarily the least eco-friendly means of handling a deceased person’s remains, but cremation does have an environmental impact that those considering it should be aware of.
Specifically, the average amount of carbon emissions released during the cremation process is equal to two full tanks of gas in a standard automobile. Therefore, cremation inevitably releases significant levels of carbon dioxide into the air, and in some cases, can release vaporized mercury into the environment. This usually occurs when a person is cremated with fillings still in their teeth.
What’s Worse for the Environment: Cremation or Traditional Burial?
The impact a traditional cremation or burial may have on the environment could be a significant factor you’ll consider when deciding between the two.
When answering the question “Is cremation bad for the environment?” It's vital to consider the degree to which other options may be more or less eco-friendly. To thoroughly answer this question, let’s compare cremation to other common ways of handling someone’s remains.
There is no absolute consensus regarding whether traditional burials are worse for the environment than cremations. However, many argue that cremation is ultimately the more eco-friendly alternative.
Again, cremation doesn’t require the use of substantial resources the same way a burial does. For example, in the average American cemetery, the amount of coffin wood buried beneath 10 acres of land is enough to build 40 average-sized houses.
Preparing a body for burial also typically involves pumping it with embalming fluid. Over time, as coffins break down, these fluids can leak into the soil. Unfortunately, not much research has been done to help us better understand how this might adversely impact the environment. However, we do already have evidence to suggest that embalming fluid chemicals likely cause cancer.
Traditional burials also require the use of limited space, which many consider a valuable resource worth conserving.
Thus, many conclude that burials remain the less environmentally friendly option when considering their long-term impact on our environment.
Is There Such Thing as a ‘Green’ Cremation?
It’s worth noting that the answer to the question “Is cremation bad for the environment” has changed in recent years. Now, answering the question honestly may require asking what type of cremation you may be planning.
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In 2008, UCLA’s medical department began offering “resomation” as an option for disposing of whole-body donors’ remains. Other medical institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic, have begun using this method as well.
Resomation is essentially a form of “green cremation.” It involves applying an alkaline hydrolysis process to convert a body’s cells and various tissues into a watery solution. After the process is complete, the Mayo Clinic’s team will grind the remaining bones into a powder, allowing a family to take home a loved one’s cremains just as they would after a traditional cremation.
This process is much more environmentally friendly than a typical cremation, as it doesn’t involve releasing harmful gases. However, while families can choose this option if a loved one donated their whole body to the Mayo Clinic, UCLA, or a similar institution, only a small handful of other providers currently offer this service. It’s also not legal in all states yet. With that said, this may change in the future as demand for eco-friendly cremation and burial options increases.
Other Eco-Friendly Cremation and Burial Options
Traditional burials and cremations aren’t the only options to consider when deciding how to dispose of someone’s remains. There are several other green methods worth keeping in mind.
Some funeral homes now offer green burial services. To do so, they must receive official certification from the Green Burial Council.
Green burials differ from traditional burials in a few key ways. First, they don’t involve the use of embalming fluid. Additionally, when a family or individual chooses a green burial, they’re essentially choosing to bury a body directly in the ground without a casket. However, they have the option of covering the body with a biodegradable burial shroud.
This process doesn’t require the usage of chemicals or resources that traditional burials require. It also doesn’t release toxic gases into the environment. Instead, it allows a body to decompose naturally.
Nevertheless, some worry this will yield negative environmental impacts. For example, they may worry that a decomposing body will eventually contaminate the water table. Or, they may think that even if a body hasn’t been embalmed, drugs such as those used in chemotherapy can still poison the soil.
Though these are valid concerns, the Green Burial Council states that those considering a green burial shouldn’t worry about these issues. A green burial involves burying a body too high above the water table for its decomposition to have any negative impacts.
Research also shows that the number of toxins decomposing bodies release is minimal when compared to the number of toxic chemicals a living person’s body releases in a typical day. Microorganisms in the soil also naturally filter chemical toxins by breaking them down.
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Cremating a body on a funeral pyre isn’t an option most people will have when planning a funeral, and in many countries and states, it’s illegal.
That said, because this is a green alternative to traditional cremation, it’s worth covering in this guide. Burning a body naturally over a flame releases far lower levels of harmful chemicals than cremating a body the traditional way does.
That’s not to say this form of cremation is always environmentally friendly. For example, funeral pyre cremations are popular in India, but they typically require cutting down a large number of trees. Some groups are thus striving to offer more sustainable methods that require the usage of fewer resources.
Again, in many parts of the world, this cremation option isn’t yet legal. That said, this may be slowly changing. In the US, for example, the Crestone End of Life Project in Colorado operates one of the few legal open-air cremation sites in the country. It’s therefore possible more groups will receive permission to offer this cremation option in the future.
Burial at sea
Burial at sea is another option someone may consider when seeking ways to dispose of a person’s remains without impacting the environment too significantly. However, whether this method is truly more environmentally friendly than traditional burial or cremation remains up for debate.
This is because the governments and agencies that determine the requirements for burying a body at sea have different standards. For example, in the UK, those who bury a body at sea must place it in a coffin with lead weights. Although this doesn’t use up space the way a traditional burial does, it still involves similar usage of resources, which means it is not particularly eco-friendly.
In the US and other countries, depending on which agency sets the requirements for sea burials (as this can vary depending on the specific location a sea burial is to take place), it’s sometimes legal to bury a body at sea without a traditional coffin. That said, general standards still require that a body be weighed down in some form to ensure it sinks to the bottom of the ocean as quickly as possible. As such, a sea burial will inevitably involve some usage of resources like lead.
Sea burials also need to occur a certain distance from the shore. That means a person also has to account for the fuel a boat will need to burn to facilitate a sea burial when determining if it’s a truly green option.
Still, many would argue that burying a body at sea is more eco-friendly than burying it or cremating it the traditional way. If they can bury a body at sea without a casket, they may decide that fueling a relatively short boat ride and using some sort of weight to ensure a body sinks will be less harmful than releasing toxic gases during cremation or planning a burial that will require greater overall usage of space.
Is Cremation Bad for the Environment? An Ongoing Debate
Ultimately, while cremation does have an environmental impact, there’s reason to conclude its impact is less significant than that of a traditional burial. Just remember that traditional methods aren’t necessarily the only options to consider when deciding what to do with someone’s remains after they pass away.
- “Burial at Sea.” Environmental Protection Agency. Epa.gov
- Kalia, Ammar. “A greener way to go: what’s the most eco-friendly way to dispose of a body?” The Guardian. 9 July 2019. theguardian.com
- Little, Becky. “The environmental toll of cremating the dead.” National Geographic. 5 November 2019. nationalgeographic.com
- “Natural Burial FAQ.” The Green Burial Council. greenburialcouncil.org
- “Open Air Cremation Site.” Crestone End of Life Project. informedfinalchoices.org
- “Resomation.” Mayo Clinic. mayoclinic.org
- Reville, William. “Which to choose, burial or cremation?” The Irish Times. 15 January 2018. irishtimes.com
- Siegle, Lucy. “I want to be buried at sea.” The Guardian. 3 March 2012. theguardian.com