Dying to Go Green: Environmental Impacts of Modern Funerary Practices

Most of the posts on this blog have discussed the impacts that human life has on the environment. It makes sense to think about the resources we require to live, the ways in which we live our lives, and the impact our choices, both individual and societal, make on the environment. But our impact on the environment doesn’t stop when we stop living; the choices made about our deaths also have consequences.

Philosophizing aside, it’s easy to see why environmentally friendly ways of dealing with human remains aren’t always top of mind. For one thing, it’s a pretty gruesome subject, and one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Secondly, burial traditions are steeped in tradition and rife with cultural implications. As long as we have been “human” we’ve had traditions surrounding what happens to people after they die. Even 60,000 years ago Neanderthals were burying their dead (Wong, K).

Ironically enough, modern burial practices are less well studied than their ancient counterparts. While some attempts have been made to quantify the impacts of traditional burials and cremation on the environment, “an overview of the total environmental impact of a funeral and its underlying processes is absent in the scientific literature” (Keijzer, E.).

I found a life-cycle analysis comparing the impact of the two most popular traditional funeral practices, burial and cremation.

system boundaries cremation burial

Figure 1: LCA System Boundaries
Source: (Keijzer, E. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2017) 22: 715)

A traditional burial consists of six steps: digging, placing the body in the grave, closing the grave, “grave rest”, and removal (Keijzer, E.). Grave rest is the period that we all think of as the final step, where remains are left buried in a plot at a cemetery, but in reality final resting places aren’t really final. When the contract runs out, the remains are exhumed and sorted, with metal pieces being recycled and plastics being sent to the landfill. The estimated CO2 emissions of the entire process is 97 kg per burial. Interestingly enough, the grave rest period is not a major cause of environmental impacts.

Cremation consists of seven steps: preparation, cremation in the oven, clean of flue gas, milling of remains, separation of non-human remains from ashes, temporary storage, and scattering.  The actual cremation requires approximately 50 m3 of natural gas and 30 KWh of electricity. The total CO2 emissions of the entire process are approximately 210 kg per cremation.

burial comparison

Figure 2: Comparative Environmental Impact
Source: (Keijzer, E. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2017) 22: 715)

So what does that mean in terms of overall lifetime emissions? With an estimated lifetime carbon footprint of 818 tons of CO2, burial or cremation will only account for .01% and .03% of your total lifetime emissions. Ironically enough, by these measures dying is one of the smallest environmental impacts we have during our lives.

Even though by this estimate dying is a small time contributor to climate change, there is still a burgeoning movement to make the funeral industry greener. This growing trend can be seen as a reaction to headlines such as “The World is Running Out of Burial Space,” which predicts that the UK will run out of space for new graves in 20 years. So what are our options to stay environmentally conscious in death?

One new funerary rite is resomation, otherwise known as “alkaline hydrolysis” a process in which corpses are placed in high pressured containers in potassium hydroxide, which dissolves soft tissues and turns the bone into an ash similar to the product of cremation, which the families of the deceased can keep or scatter like normal cremation ash. The soft tissue solution consists of peptides, amino acids, sugars and soap, which can be treated in a normal municipal sewer system, because it contains no harmful material such as pathogens or DNA. Alkaline hydrolysis is only legal in six states, so it’s not a viable option for many people. It is also water intensive, requiring about 300 gallons per body.

Another option is a “green burial” which eschews embalming and traditional caskets and instead includes burials in simple wicker caskets or even just shrouds. The idea is to avoid the cost, both environmental and monetary, associated with traditional burials in vaults. Proponents liken the process to the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” philosophy of the Bible and praise it for its eco-friendly slant. However, state laws requiring embalming may not permit the burial of un-embalmed bodies which would prevent a burial from being truly “green.”

Overall, despite their growing popularity, alternative “green” funerary practices are far from ubiquitous in the US. Increased awareness of these new alternatives and more regulatory freedom across the states will be essential to these options becoming more accepted. It seems that people who want a greener death will just have to live a little longer.

What do you think of these new “green” practices? What do you want to happen to your body after you die? Was this post too morbid for you? Let’s discuss below and thanks for reading!

 

Sources:

Corley, Cheryl, and Heidi Glenn. “Burials and Cemeteries Go Green.” NPR, NPR, 16 Dec. 2007, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17232879.

Keijzer, E. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2017) 22: 715. https://doi-org.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/10.1007/s11367-016-1183-9

McManus, John. “The World Is Running out of Burial Space.” BBC News, BBC, 13 Mar. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/uk-31837964.

Philip R. Olson . Flush and Bone: Funeralizing Alkaline Hydrolysis in the United States. Science, Technology, & Human Values, Volume 39, Number 5 (September 2014), pp. 666-693, <http://ejournals.ebsco.com.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/direct.asp?ArticleID=4587A6D7DA66BAE470B2&gt;

“What Is Green Burial? | Green Burial Council.” Certifying Green Burial, greenburialcouncil.org/home/what-is-green-burial/.

Wong, K. (2014). Ancient Burial. Scientific American, 310(3), 19.

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20 thoughts on “Dying to Go Green: Environmental Impacts of Modern Funerary Practices

  1. This definitely isn’t something I’ve thought of but very interesting. Seeing how small of a percentage burials are and the ingrained traditions surrounding burials, I don’t see a change towards eco-friendly burial options being very popular. While the new form of cremation seems like a possibility, I think the idea of burying someone you love in a wicker basket is painful as opposed to a vault. Yes, they’re going to decompose either way, but a vault at least appears to be a safe haven from creepy crawlies. Very interesting thoughts either way!

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  2. This was an interesting read and something that I did not think of prior to this blog. Personally, I did not know other options than burial or cremation existed, so learning more about the green practices such as alkaline hydrolysis and green burial could help the environment. I think most people would like to go through the traditional practices, but I think with time, no space, and awareness, these green practices will be more frequent.

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  3. I never really thought of what my impact on the environment may be after I leave this world. I really only thought burial and cremation were my two options. I would be interested to see what the costs associated with alternative methods may in fact be. Funerals can get expensive and add additional costs to the already expensive burial process may deter people from utilize alternative methods. Also the idea of your body melting away in a vat of chemicals doesn’t sound to appealing.

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  4. For our generation, the idea of being buried in a nice, pretty cemetery like our great grandparents is just not an option. Most if not all of us will be cremated. I laugh at the line about how death is actually one of the smallest environmental impacts within our lives, yet ironic that even after our death we still contribute to climate change. Of course public health precautions must be met when burial options are considered, so we do not spread disease or proliferate pests. I love the idea of cremation through composting. There are trials ongoing right now, but many questions remain about certain chemicals in our bodies like metals, pesticides, and prescription drugs and disease prevention. I love the idea of my remains being used to grow tomatoes or apples.

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  5. This is a very interesting read. It is something that not many people think about. With having to deal with the death of a family member just two weeks ago this post really hit home for me. It made me think about what I want done with my remains when I pass.

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  6. This is an interesting blogpost that I think essentially addresses human culture and why people can be so specific about how they want their remains to be treated. I had never thought about the impact of death environmentally. I would like to know why some states have laws against burying unembalmed bodies. Are these laws a result of cultural influences or are there safety/health reasons behind it?

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  7. In the future I see the practices of cremation, donating your body to science and some form of natural burial becoming more and more popular as they become more and more cheaper. The average cost of a funeral today is about $7000. A cremation, by contrast, typically costs a third of that or less. I feel the slowest to change would be religious groups as burial rights hold religious value. Another cool, ecologically friendly alternative where the body is frozen with liquid nitrogen and then vibrated into a fine powder with sound waves. Water is removed with freeze dying, metals are removed and what’s left is buried and will turn into earth in twelve to eighteen months.

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  8. This is interesting to me as one of my best friends’s mom wants to be buried in a burial pod. It is essentially a biodegradable capsule that is buried under the roots of a tree. As the body withers away, the tree is growing and developing. It is a nice idea to think that the nutrients from the decaying body are cycling back into the ecosystem. We can still grow trees even after we are dead!

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  9. This may be one of the most interesting blog posts I have read simply due to the nature of the subject matter. I think this green funeral movement is something to consider, however the movement to me is entirely trivial from an environmental standpoint. This isn’t something that will benefit the rest of the population, being just .03% of an individuals lifetime environmental impact. The concept is very interesting, and I’m not saying people shouldn’t consider some of the “green” funerary practices, they should. However we still need to focus on the big things like daily energy consumption to really combat our impact on the environment.

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  10. As the population of the world inevitably increases so will the demand for alternative funeral methods. At some point land will becomes too valuable to bury the dead on. Cremation is an option but with global warming proceeding to impact the earth, there will be a push for a resting process that does not harm the planet. I think that though there may be pushback due to religion and tradition, burial practices will change.

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  11. Firstly, what an interesting topic and something I had never really considered before. I’ve always believed that there were only the two options of burial and cremation, but this is very interesting. While I recognize that this is becoming a problem, I personally believe in the traditional form of burial. This is the way all of my family has been put to rest and I plan to follow. Hopefully I will live long enough for these other methods to develop and for me to have a more open on the subject, but for now I’ll stick with burial.

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  12. Thank you for posting such and intriguing topic on multiple levels. I’m so glad to hear that burial practices are not a huge threat to environmental issues. Because burial practices are tied to spiritual beliefs that are important to people, i do not think we should meddle with them. At the same time, burial practices are also a business and there are probably elements that have been solely added for profit gain and have little to do with spiritual beliefs – I don’t mind making environmental improvements in these areas.

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  13. Interesting read!! I can get behind some green funerary practices. This post reminds me of an article that I read a while back, that says spoke of an idea proposed in which you could choose to be buried in an egg shaped burial pod and planted with a tree. Essentially, over time, the tree would get nutrients from the decomposing egg and technically your dead body would turn into a tree. (http://nypost.com/2015/02/27/heres-a-plan-to-bury-corpses-in-pods-grow-trees/) It’s all hypothetical now, but still pretty cool.

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  14. This is a very interesting article. It is also a touchy subject due to some people religious’s restrictions on how to manage their corpse and also on the person’s own desires for their burial. The potassium hydroxide would be a lot cleaner method however, some people may be scared away from that option since it is a newer practice. However i will keep my ears out to see where the future of this will go.

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  15. This was a really interesting post! Personally the environmental hippie in me has always thought it was a bit weird that we’re so careful about deserving dead bodies. I want to be eaten by the worms and turned into wild flowers. But today there is so much.. erm… human body mass on the planet that needs to be disposed of each year. I’m sure there is some point at which scattering your ashes in the ocean becomes bad for the ocean. I wonder if more “green” burial practices catch on if we would be pushing up against that carrying capacity of what the natural world can handle.

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  16. This was super interesting! I recently heard about “green burials” for the first time and thought it was actually a really interesting idea. You are so right, this is something that we rarely assess in terms of sustainability, but like all things there are always improvements that can be made to make this process more environmentally friendly without sacrificing the traditions of many cultures and families.

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  17. This was a very interesting article to read. The green burial practices will probably never really take of because of how people tend to cling to traditions. If the “old way” did have serious environmental impacts then there may be cause for a change, but as is it seems like the traditional ways will be the primary methods for a long time

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  18. I hadn’t really though much into how our elaborate way of burials would have an impact on the environment. I’d say that if I had to choose I’d do the green burial because I don’t think it would really make a difference to me at that point and it’s eco friendly.

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  19. Its very interesting that you broke down the total CO2 emissions for burial/cremation. I read about a company that actually will use your cremated ashes as nutrients for a tree….. seems like a cool idea in the midst of massive deforestation trends.

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  20. I love that you chose to write about this. This may seem weird, but this is a topic that I find myself thinking about a lot. It seems a waste to me to spend thousands on an elaborate casket that is just going to go into the ground and decay, also a waste of materials. I do understand the need to have a space dedicated to your remains for your loved ones to visit and mourn, which is why I would prefer being turned into compost for a tree. That way, there is a tree that your loved ones can visit that represents your grave and also new life that was brought out of death. I think it is a beautiful concept and cycle.

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