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September 13, 2012

Will You Be Dead Right, Or Wrong? Why Traditional Burial is Environmentally Risky



For everyone, the time will come when we have to leave behind our “body of work” on the planet Earth. When it comes to after-death planning, there are more options now than ever before—conventional burial, natural burial, cremation, resomation, cryonics—and while they offer a different level of emotional comfort to each person and his or her loved ones, they also entail environmental  consequences, some of them surprisingly harmful.

According to the Centre for Natural Burial Cooperative in the United Kingdom, conventional interment is rife with residual ecological risks. A ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground, the group says, contains “enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another 20,000 tons of concrete for vaults. Across North America enough metal is diverted into coffin and vault production each year to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete is used to build a two-lane highway from Toronto to Montreal–and back again.”

In addition, formaldehyde, the primary ingredient in embalming fluids and a potential carcinogen (on the European Union’s list for possible banning) is another concern. Millions of gallons of embalming fluid go underground along with the deceased every year in North America, some of which eventually leaches out and runs into surrounding soil and groundwater.

“Not enough research has been done to make definitive judgments about formaldehyde’s effect on the environment; however its effect on members of the mortuary trade is clearer. Numerous studies have shown that embalmers and funeral directors exhibit a higher incidence of leukemia and cancers of the brain and colon, among other ailments,” according to the Centre’s website.

By contrast, a natural burial leaves fewer dangerous chemicals to be dealt with by the living population. The body is prepared for burial without chemical preservatives and is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket that might be made from locally harvested wood, wicker or even recycled paper. A natural burial ground often uses grave markers that don’t intrude on the landscape. These natural markers can include shrubs and trees, an engraved flat stone native to the area or centralized memorial structure set within the emerging forest that provides places for visitors to sit. As in all cemeteries, there are careful records kept of the exact location of each interment, often using modern survey techniques such as GIS (geographic information system).


Image via Shutterstock 

However, according to a recent survey, many of us no longer want to be “planted” underground, naturally or not. In India, this past July, a blog for senior citizens conducted a poll on preferences about body disposal after death. For religious reasons, about half of the respondents preferred open-air cremation (using firewood or electricity). Surprisingly, close to 40 percent wanted their bodies donated to medical institutes; 6 percent wanted traditional burial, and 1 percent asked to be mummified and preserved.

In other regions, a lack of space for burial has made double-decker plots (think, Japan) or other modes body disposal more popular. In the United Kingdom, nearly 75 percent of the population prefers cremation. According to the Cremation Society of Great Britain, in 2011, out of 556, 229 deaths, 413,845 (74 percent) were followed by traditional cremation.

In addition, much of Australia, especially highly urbanized areas, is facing a shortage of conventional burial plots - a consequence of population growth and soaring land prices. Partly as a result of that pressure on burial space there has been an increase in the rate of cremation, which now stands at more than 50 percent.

And in the United States, the number of cremations also is rising. More than a third of the 2.5 million Americans who die this year likely will be burned in crematories rather than buried in caskets. The Cremation Association of North America estimates that cremation will account for the disposition of nearly 60 percent of all bodies in 2025.

However, going the “ashes to ashes” route also has its problems. Globally, cremation emits over 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, accounting for around 0.02 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions, experts estimate. It also causes mercury pollution when tooth fillings are vaporized. Currently, up to 16 percent of all mercury emitted in the United Kingdom comes from crematoria, which could rise to 25 percent by 2020 without any action, according to government figures. Accordingly, cremators have until year-end 2012 to incorporate mercury filters into their systems.

So what’s a body to do? There are new choices, including resomation—an alternative to cremation and burial that offers a number of environmental benefits, including:

  • A significantly lower carbon footprint
  • Substantially less energy required than cremation in the form of electricity and gas
  • No airborne mercury emissions
  • The sterile liquid effluent safely returned to the water cycle free from any traces of DNA

In resomation the coffin is placed into a “Resomator,” and instead of fire, uses a water and alkali based method - also known as alkaline hydrolysis - to break the body down chemically. The process is normally two to three hours long, the same length of time as an average cremation and once complete, a sterile liquid and bone ash remain.  The sterile liquid is returned to the water cycle— and just as in cremation; the bone ash remains are placed in an urn and returned to loved ones. The price also “is competitive” with that of cremation.

A number of states in America, including Florida, have approved the resomation process individually; in others, such as New York, approval is pending. Orlando based, Matthews Cremation and Anderson-Mc-Queen Funeral Homes of St. Petersburg, Florida, already are offering what they have brand-named Bio Cremation as an option. They claim that the process involves four times less the carbon impact and an eighth of the energy usage.

“Today, we live in a world that encourages us to protect and preserve our natural resources and lower our carbon footprints by reducing greenhouse gases,” said Steven P. Schaal, Matthews Cremation’s president, North American Region. “Bio Cremation from Matthews gives individuals and families another choice at the end of life’s journey, allowing them to honor a legacy created on earth with a final gesture to preserve it.”

As for cryonics— which involves cooling a legally-dead person to liquid nitrogen temperature, where physical decay essentially stops, in the hope that future technologically advanced scientific procedures will someday be able to revive and restore him or her to good health—the not-for-profit Michigan-based Cryonics Institute says it is getting a bad rap. 

The Institute claims that it is not as expensive as word-of-mouth would have it: “Good news!” CI said. “With CI, the minimum fee for cryopreservation … is $28,000 — a one-time fee, due at time of death. And though it can be paid in cash, usually a member has a life insurance policy made that pays the amount to CI upon death. To have all this and also to have a cryonics team wait by the bedside ("Standby") to perform rapid cooling and cardiopulmonary support upon pronouncement of death can sometimes be paid for by a larger life insurance policy. But many CI Members simply take the $28,000 option, without Standby, which can cost around $30 a month for someone starting his insurance when middle aged and in good health.”

To save money, some people—including baseball’s legendary Ted Williams—go for neurocryopreservation, which is the practice of removing and cryopreserving only the head of a person declared legally dead. The theory is that only the information contained in the brain is of any importance, and that a body to contain the revived brain could be cloned or regenerated at some point in the future.

In either form of cryonics, according to the website Longecity, “A small amount of electricity is used to make liquid nitrogen, but it is relatively pollution free process and the overall electrical costs of a patient could be offset for 25 cents a month.  No company currently offers carbon offsetting, but that could be set up in a patient's trust currently and may be set up by a cryonics company in the future.”

But relax, if you live in a developed country—where the average age of death is close to 80 now—you may have a few years to think this over. Maybe by then there will be even more options to consider. 

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Edited by Braden Becker

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