Death and funerals, topics we generally prefer not to think about, are an inevitable reality for us all. And an important question to ask ourselves is: Would I want to turn a loved one or myself into pollution when they or I pass on? Of course not! But this is exactly what we do. Instead of our decaying bodies nourishing future life, we let them pollute our ecosystems and us.
This small series explores these issues and the alternatives. Today we look at the problems with the current system. Next time we will focus on earth friendly alternatives.
“To not think of dying is to not think of living” – Jann Arden
With growing carelessness, humans have been consuming fossil fuels and electricity, as well as energy and resource-intensive foods and products. This comes at a high price. As our heedless consumption levels have grown, so we have been able to witness the harmful and growing impacts on the planet and ourselves. You may think this destructiveness comes to an end when you eventually give up your ghost. Not quite!
In nature all ‘waste is food’ as things that decay become food for other organisms – an elegantly balanced, cyclical system. Whether it is a plant, animal or other organism that dies, the decomposition sets free nutrients that become food for other life to thrive on.
Our distant ancestors too, like animals in the wild, decomposed where they happened to fall or, later, were buried in shallow graves without coffins, thus nourishing life.
We break the cycle of nutrients
However, our modern funeral practices are far from being in tune with this law of nature and are under growing pressure for their polluting practices. We don’t allow the cycling of essential organic and inorganic matter as our body decomposes, plus we introduce numerous toxic substances into the soil, water and air.
This all got me thinking many years ago when I planned for when I eventually reach my expiry date. My objective was to minimise the ecological damage of my funeral and to maximise the utility of my remains. So I decided to become an organ donor (to hopefully prolong someone else’s life) and to bequeath the remains to a medical school (for students to enthusiastically pick apart; and possibly learn from).
More recently, however, I undertook some research in preparation for a presentation on eco-funerals I was giving to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). The result: it is again time to change my will.
But let’s first take a look at how we currently turn our human remains into pollution. Broadly speaking, there are two mainstream options available for dealing with the body: cremation and burial.
Cremation leads to global warming
Cremation is a practice widely used and is the process of burning a human body in a special chamber. Its benefit is that it reduces land pressure, because many cemeteries are bursting at the seams. But this is where the benefits end.
- For starters, significant amounts of fossil fuel are required to reduce the body to ashes, thus contributing to global warming.
- In addition a host of other harmful substances are emitted into the atmosphere. Toxic compounds include persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which also include carcinogenic dioxins and furans – Wikipedia them; they are all rather unpleasant compounds that are harmful to all things living. Also released is the toxic heavy metal mercury, which mostly comes from our amalgam fillings. In the UK, it is estimated that crematoria emit 16% of national airborne mercury and 11% of airborne dioxins. These toxins eventually find their way into the food chain and inevitably us. As an example: pregnant women in many parts of the world are advised not to eat tuna, because of the high mercury content. As a result of these concerns, residents in many countries now actively campaign against having a crematorium sited near them. A growing number of governments are putting pressure on crematoria to reduce harmful emissions. But even then, this will only make them marginally less bad.
Bury at our peril
Burial, you may think, surely nourishes the soil because the body is placed underground. But the facts here are also rather depressing.
- Let’s start with commonly used coffins and caskets. The wooden ones are often made from pressed wood and foil board, which contain fossil-fuel-based, toxic glues, nylon or other plastic linings and cushions, and varnishes.
- The negative impact of producing the steel or aluminium coffins and caskets is probably even greater. The mining and refining of the metals is a highly energy intensive and polluting process, and then of course the other non-sustainable finishes will be added to the final product.
- This means that caskets and coffins in general require much energy to produce and transport, are typically made from non-renewable resources, only decompose partially, or not at all, and introduce toxins into our soil and water. It thus does not come as a surprise that in the US, casket manufacturers are listed as one of the top 50 hazardous waste generators.
- A further problem is that the body is usually dressed in clothes containing synthetic fibres and dies – again both ecologically undesirable.
- In some cases, where a body needs to be transported or is wished to be preserved for other reasons, they are embalmed prior to cremation or burial. Formaldehyde and other objectionable substances, such as preservatives, disinfectants and additives to sanitise and slow decomposition, are used.
- These compounds can contaminate the soil and ground water, and formaldehyde is a carcinogenic hazard putting mortuary workers at risk. For this reason, a growing number of countries are banning the use of formaldehyde
- A further quandary is that the coffin is typically buried one-and-a-half metres or more under the ground. Such deep burial sadly results in the mortal remains decomposing in an oxygen-starved environment and this anaerobic process leads to the release of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide (CO2).The less potent CO2 is released when organic material decomposes, like in normal composting, in an aerobic environment. A deep burial also means that the body’s nutrients are situated below the level of the rich topsoil and are too deep for shallow-rooted plants to access.
- Then one must not forget the tombstone, which was quarried, processed and shipped longer distances – in rare cases even across oceans (the mind boggles).
- We then still need to factor in the considerable space a cemetery requires, as well as its operations, which includes excavators, tractors, water, herbicides and pesticides, and synthetic fertilisers.
The better of two evils?
There is no doubt: our cemeteries should be declared hazardous waste sites. If you haven’t yet thrown up your hands in ecological despair, you may be asking yourself the question: “Which is less bad for the environment and ultimately us, cremation or burial?” This is difficult to answer, as it depends on numerous factors.
An Australian study, only looking at carbon dioxide emissions, indicated that on the day that a cremation or burial takes place, cremation produces about four times more carbon dioxide emissions. But when long-term grave and cemetery maintenance are factored in, burial performed marginally worse in terms of emissions.
I would not suggest using these results to come to a verdict between the two options. There are many factors that may vary considerably (e.g. crematorium equipment, soil type, depth of burial, cemetery maintenance effort, and how far the cemetery is located out of town) and there are other factors that are not included in this comparison (e.g. mercury and other airborne pollutants in the case of cremation or soil and water pollution in the case of burial).
The bottom line is both are bad and are to be avoided. Their impact on the environment is high and this is not something one would like to associate with the respectful passing of a loved one.
So, how do we prevent turning humans into pollution? What can those who care do about seeking a more responsible funeral?
Read part 2 of this series in the next issue of the Green Times for friendly ways to depart this earth.
By Robert Zipplies
Robert is a sustainability consultant, trainer, speaker and writer. He is the editor of the climate change book Bending the Curve.
Robert also offers ‘Be the Change’ courses for people ready to turn their concern about the state of the world into inspired action. The course challenges, motivates and equips participants with the tools and know-how to re-focus their lives and drive the positive change we all want to see in the world. Tailored Be the Change courses are also available for organisations.