A Fresh Green Perspective on the Cremation vs. Burial Debate

Every year in America, more and more families opt for cremation as an alternative to a casket and a cemetery burial.  A trend that began in the 1960s with less than 4%, the cremation rate in the U.S. reached 40% in 2010.  With growing interest in sustainability some marketers have espoused cremation as a green alternative to a casketed burial in a cemetery.  Let us examine cremation with carbon life cycle assessment and our definition of Green as it applies to death care to also include political, economic, and toxicity perspectives in promoting a healthy environment for all living things.

A typical cremation includes a cardboard cremation tray or container and human remains.  Cremation uses high-temperature burning, vaporization, and oxidation to reduce human remains to basic chemical compounds including gases and mineral fragments. Crematoriums in the U.S. use a fossil-fuel powered incineration process that takes 2-3 hours for the stages of warm-up and burning with temperatures reaching 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.  An Australian study determined the combined release of CO2 from burning the fossil fuel, cremation container, and human remains is 350 lbs CO2.  Other sources suggest the carbon impact of incineration is closer to 600 lbs CO2 and depends on the mass of the human remains.  

The manufacture and distribution of a steel casket compares at 2000 lbs CO2--that is four to six times more CO2 than the cremation. The Australian study at 350 lbs CO2 compares favorably to a steel casket.  On the other hand, the carbon impact of a green casket made locally from sustainable material is just 50 lbs CO2.  In this comparison, a cremation has seven to ten times greater carbon impact! 

An interesting side note might be to combine a green casket alternative with cremation.  By substituting a locally made sustainable wooden casket as a cremation container, we can actually reduce the carbon impact. Cardboard is a water intensive process and 1 lb of cardboard generates almost 4 lbs of CO2 equivalents.  Interestingly, a 2011 Netherlands study revealed that cremation with wooden caskets result in less fossil-fuel used during incineration.  The wood serves as a renewable fuel source--thus the more wood used in the cremation container, the less fuel required during incineration. 

The toxicity of cremation is harder to quantify than the carbon impact.  Cremation generates emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).   For a human body that contains metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases harmful dioxins and mercury--there is an ongoing debate on how to address mercury poisoning from cremation which the United States EPA believes is the 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.  The United Nations has estimated that 0.2% of the global emission of dioxins and furans are from cremation.  While embalming is not required for direct cremation, circumstances that include a viewing or service prior to cremation often include embalming.  The toxic gases released by cremating an embalmed body are cause for further controversy over the health and environmental impacts of cremation.

One green argument in favor of cremation invokes the social, political, and economic factors of land use.  Studies in Australia and the Netherlands concluded that the carbon impact of cemetery maintenance alone could account for as much as 30 lbs CO2 per grave site every year.  Some believe that a casketed burial in a cemetery occupies precious land space that could serve other useful purposes.  The Netherlands study points out that land competition is a contributing factor for cremation if we consider the land use involved in producing the particleboard, wood, and cotton used in cremation containers.  Add to this the land use required to extract, refine, store, and distribute fossil fuels.  We should also consider that a large contributor to the growing popularity of cremation since the 1960s has to do with the acceptance of cremation by the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church maintains that cremated remains must be entombed in an appropriate container in a cemetery, mausoleum, or columbarium--all of which occupy land space.  From a full-story perspective on land use by itself, cremation and cemetery burial might be comparable in environmental, political, and economic factors when it comes to promoting a healthy environment for all living things. 

I offer another consideration on the subject land competition when comparing cemetery burials with cremation.  America's cemeteries serve our cities, villages, and towns as green space.  Some cemeteries serve their communities in the same way that a park does by offering a safe and quiet place for a walk or exercise.  Cemeteries provide wildlife habitat for birds, butterflies, and squirrels as well as storm water run-off control.  More recently, America's growing number of conservation cemeteries for natural burials both preserve and protect lands for public enjoyment and for natural wildlife habitat.  Families concerned about land competition may be interested in options for nearby conservation cemeteries where funds raised through the sale of burial plots serve to maintain and protect the land for conservation, wildlife, and recreational purposes.

Every individual has the liberty to make their own choices when it comes to end-of-life care.  We in the death care industry must take responsibility for ensuring an individual's choice be an informed one.  We fail to serve our families if we are complacent in accepting an individual's decision without understanding the motivation or values upon which that decision was made.  That is not to say we should question an individual's values, but rather educate with factual content so that our families can make informed decisions in accordance with their individual values.  After all, isn't it our duty to inform our families without questioning their values or judging their wishes?