Is Cremation or Burial The More Eco-Friendly Option?

Burial Or Cremation: Which Is Greener?

Cremation has been growing in popularity for the past few decades to the point where over half of all those who die in the US go this route.  It has become the default option in many parts of the Western world with rates running 75% and higher.  There are many reasons for this, but one of the most popular rationales for cremation is the belief that it’s the eco-friendly option.  Is this true?  How much pollution is created by cremation compared to burials?  How much fossil fuel energy is used?  Is cremation truly the ‘greener’ option? 

The answer, not surprisingly, depends.   The environmental cost of cremating or burying someone is a small link of a much larger chain.  For the sake of this discussion, let’s compare the pollution impacts of typical burials and typical cremations. 

With each, there are a couple points to consider.  First – How is the body processed after passing? And then – Where will be the remains be laid to rest?  Both of these decisions impact the ecological impacts of burials and cremations.

Typical Burial

The default choice for body disposition over the past century in the United States has been burial. In the first step of this process, the body is embalmed.  The bodily fluids are removed and replaced with up to three gallons of embalming fluid. Embalming fluid – a mixture of formaldehyde, dyes, and other chemicals – delays bacteria from breaking down the body’s cells.  The fluid actually kills much of the bacteria, but nature always wins and decomposition will eventually happen. 

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and those exposed to embalming fluids over a long period of time have three times the normal risk of contracting ALS (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry) and eight times the risk for leukemia (Journal of National Cancer Institute).  The CDC has noted that all the specific risks combined results in embalmers to be thirteen times more likely to die due to chronic exposure to these chemicals. 

Embalmers are careful when they work on a body, but some fluid is inevitably spilled during the process. This ‘lost’ fluid gets washed down the drain, ending up in our municipal water processing plants. 

Embalming chemicals are nasty, but the process does give friends and families the invaluable benefit of more time for viewings and memorial ceremonies.

Once the ceremonies are over, the casketed body is buried in a cemetery – those beautiful expanses of grass that are scattered throughout our country.  They may be beautiful, but the maintenance of cemetery grounds is a major component of the environmental impact of traditional burials.  Grass is much thirstier than comparable native ground cover, requiring lots of artificial irrigation.  Our growing population has a growing need for water making it an ever more precious resource.  It will become harder over time to justify the use of water on these vast lawns, particularly in the Western US.

Cemetery groundskeepers use fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make the grass thick and green, and keep the bugs and weeds at bay.  These chemicals also make their way into the soil, our waterways, and the ecosystem at large. 

The acres of grass are regularly cut with mowers that spew CO2 and other pollutants into the air. The EPA estimates that the standard gas-powered mower generates as much pollution as 40 new automobiles for every hour of operation.  Like the mortuary staff with their chronic exposure to toxic embalming fluid, the groundskeepers operating these mowers are exposed to the dirty exhaust day over day, giving them an increased risk of cancer, pulmonary, or respiratory diseases. 

This pollution is introduced week over week, month over month, and year over year.  Once our loved ones move into a beautifully manicured cemetery, we expect that it will be kept that way for eternity (or at least long, long after we’re all gone).  And remember the embalming fluid?  Over time it will drain from the body and make it’s way into the ground. 

Every year, we bury over a million caskets made of metal or wood.  However, these aren’t usually buried directly in the ground.  Instead, the caskets are put into concrete burial vaults.  Without the vault, the weight of the earth and decay would eventually lead to the casket collapsing, creating a depression in the ground above. 1.6 million tons of concrete for vaults and 93,000 tons of metal caskets are put into the ground annually in the US.  That’s a lot of material to put into the ground.  Cemeteries are like well-manicured landfills! 

Pollution from transportation adds up as well, as all of these heavy caskets and burial vaults need to be shipped from the manufacturers to the various cemeteries around the country – more fossil fuels used by our trucking fleets!

To recap, traditional burials aren’t particularly eco-friendly.  The highly toxic embalming fluids can affect our mortuary professionals and will make their way into the ground and our water treatment plants.  The unnatural cemetery grounds also introduce pollutants into the ecosystem through fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. We have CO2 and other emissions introduced by all the mowing and the transportation of millions of pounds of burial accouterments.  Traditional burials have a high ecological cost, but how much better are cremations?

Typical Cremation

Cremation is often thought to be a greener route, but there are a lot of options in play that have huge impacts on the ecological cost.  Direct cremations, where the body is sent to the crematory without prior ceremony, are most common.  Of the 1.1 million (and growing) cremations in the US every year, around 1/3 of families choosing cremation still hold a viewing and full services.  For these, most of the negative impacts from embalming fluids still apply.  The remaining decedents get to bypass the use of these chemicals and be more eco-friendly.

During cremation, the body is burned in a 2,000°F furnace until there is little left – a few pounds of bone fragments.  These remains are processed to a coarse sand-like consistency that we typically refer to as ‘ashes’.

There are emissions that result from the cremation process.  Older crematories can emit particulate and mercury pollution from silver amalgam dental fillings.  The use of the silver amalgam has been declining significantly over the past several years, but there are millions of people with the older fillings.  Newer crematories are cleaner with lower emissions through better, more efficient designs and filtration.  The advancements in crematories are similar to the evolution we’ve seen with automobiles over the past few decades.  As cremation grows in popularity, modern cleaner crematories are being added to meet the demand as older units are upgraded.

Crematories are fed by natural gas, with a typical adult cremation requiring the energy equivalent of 1 – 3 tanks of gas.  On it’s own, that can seem like a lot of energy.  However, people will often travel long distances to attend a funeral. This travel by car or plane will consume much more energy than what would be used by the furnace.

Like burials, the final resting place for cremated remains has a big impact on the eco-friendliness question. If the remains are placed in a cemetery – whether they’re buried or placed in a mausoleum niche or columbarium – the grounds keeping pollution still applies.  The mowing, fertilizing, and other chemicals are used for the benefit all of the cemetery’s residents and have to be included into the environmental costs of those who were cremated.

On the other end of the scale, ashes may be kept in a container in the home or a church columbarium. We’ll assume that any lawn care pollution would happen whether cremains are stored there or not.  In this case, there are no meaningful environmental costs associated with the cremated remains final resting place.

Some choose to scatter the ashes someplace special.  See our scattering post for more info on where you can scatter ashes.  Cremated remains aren’t a biohazard or toxic.  All of the organic materials are eliminated through the cremation process, leaving mostly just calcium phosphates, which is similar to fertilizer.  Spreading, burying, raking or other means of returning the ashes to nature doesn’t have a negative impact to the environment.  However, the rich mineral composition of the ashes could create temporary harm to sensitive areas like tundra if they’re highly concentrated.

So Which Is It?

Generally speaking – yes, cremations can be more eco-friendly than traditional burial.  It’s a complex question that goes well beyond the simple act of cremating or putting someone into the ground.  Cremations are energy-intensive and put some emissions into the air.  Typical burials involve embalming with toxic carcinogens that make their way into the environment and over time can harm the professionals that provide an invaluable service for grieving families. 

There are secondary pollution costs with both.  Groundskeeping at cemeteries creates pollution, and this applies to all residents whether they’re buried or cremated.  Transporting heavy caskets, burial vaults, and even bringing mourners to memorial ceremonies all add to the environmental costs.  

Is cremation greener? Yes, but it depends…  For those truly dedicated to reducing their environmental impact, there are better options.  Watch for an upcoming post on some green, non-traditional methods of body disposition. 

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