I hate to bring up such a morbid topic, but do you ever wonder what the environmental impact of death is? With over 50,000,000 people passing away each year, the funeral industry has a constant demand, but their practices are less than sustainable.
There is a common misconception that embalming is necessary for health and sanitation, when really it is only required if the body has a communicable disease or is travelling a long distance. The fluids used for embalming are normally formaldehyde-based which is a known carcinogen and can cause adverse health effects after long periods of exposure, and 800,000 gallons of it enter US soil annually! Embalming fluid, when placed in graves can also seep into the groundwater, contaminating local supplies. Green burials generally ban embalming along with tombstones, steel caskets and vaults, which require land space, resources and delay the decomposition process.
Some more sustainable alternatives include:
– Natural markers like the one pictured
– Biodegradable caskets or shrouds (buried shallower to allow oxygen to aid in aerobic decomposition; anaerobic decomposition, without oxygen, produces methane which is 23 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide)
– Being buried in a natural location (The location of a loved ones remains is sensitive and therefore the natural site will likely remain protected)
– Consider cremation rather than a traditional burial
– Use recycled paper for programs, organic food and flowers
– Consider offsetting the impact by donating to a carbon fund
As you can see, there are a variety of simple variations to the traditional burial that could make it more sustainable.
While cremation is a more eco-friendly option, it involves the burning of natural gas and the vaporization of chemicals in the body (such as mercury from dental fillings), which results in the emission of greenhouse gases. However, land is preserved, embalming is unnecessary, and more sustainable practices and systems are being developed.
This article discusses controversy over a cremator in the UK holding off on the process until enough bodies are accumulated to “justify the operation”.
Liquid cremation has also become an option more recently. According to this article, it has just been introduced in a funeral home in Florida. The process involves the pressurizing of the remains in a water and potassium hydroxide solution. The makers of this alkaline hydrolysis system claim:
“The process produces a third less greenhouse gas than cremation, uses a seventh of the energy, and allows for the complete separation of dental amalgam for safe disposal. Mercury from amalgam vaporized in crematoria is blamed for up to 16% of UK airborne mercury emissions, and many UK crematoria are currently fitting mercury filtration systems to meet reduced emission targets.”
Promession is also being considered an option though not yet commercially developed because it is fairly controversial. In this process, the body is frozen using liquid nitrogen, and crushed into a compostable powder. This way, the water in our bodies evaporated and toxins such as mercury can be separated.
The green burial trend began in Britain as early as 1991, it is quite mainstream in England but is becoming more popular in Canada and the US. More and more products and services becoming available to ensure a lessened impact even after death. For example, the Poetree is a type of ceramic urn with the loved ones details in which their ashes can be used to grow a tree. While the tree and ceramic ring act as a monument, the cork bottom decomposes into the soil after time, it is a fresh new idea that focuses on the idea of renewal and sustainability.
For more information you can check out these sites!
http://www.treehugger.com/htgg/how-to-go-green-funerals.html there are some links at the bottom of this page for even more information, http://www.naturalburialassoc.ca/ is the only Canadian organization listed.
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/09/0909_050909_greenburial.html (Eternal reefs – allows ones remains to be added to a constructed coral reef)