The American Way of Death and Sustainability: 10 Troubling Facts

The American Way of Death, when studied from perspectives that include carbon lifecycle analysis, biodegradability, local-sourcing, toxicity, and sustainability, reveals many sad truths.  The death care industry causes significant and unnecessary harm to our planet.  Here are a 10 sad truths worth talking about.

2.5 million tons of CO2
The CO2 emissions from the American way of death including cremations, buried steel and wood caskets, and concrete burial vaults add up to an annual carbon footprint of more than 2.5 million tons of CO2. It takes half a million acres of forest to offset this amount of CO2 every year. That’s a forest about the size of Rhode Island.

18,078 tons per capita
The United States has the largest per capita carbon footprint on the planet.  More than 3 times the world average and more than 10 times that of India.

100,000 tons of steel, brass, and copper
Every year we bury more than 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel burial vaults, and 2,700 tons of copper & brass caskets in America’s cemeteries.  We bury enough steel to build a 100-story high-rise building every year.  These metals will never be reclaimed or recycled.  These are expensive materials in terms of the carbon footprint and the toxic pollution required to extract, refine, and manufacture them.  

1400 degrees Fahrenheit
A typical cremation exposes human remains to a direct flame reaching temperatures of 1400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for a duration of 2 to 3 hours resulting in a carbon footprint of 350 to 600 lbs. of CO2.  It’s high school chemistry and conservation of mass.  Take the combined mass of human remains, cremation container, and fuel used in cremation less the mass of cremated remains returned in the urn.  Fossil fuel, a hydro-carbon, is composed of Hydrogen, Carbon, and Oxygen.  Our bodies are 65% Oxygen, 18% Carbon, and 10% Hydrogen by mass.  Incineration of our bodies with fossil fuel primarily produces CO2. 

3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination
The US EPA estimates that cremation is the nation’s 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.  The National Research Council estimates that more than 60,000 children are born each year at risk for adverse neurodevelopmental effects due to in utero exposure to mercury.

37 people in 1 day
At the Madison Isthmus Green Day Festival last April, I kept a tally of 37 individuals who pledged to change their end-of-life funeral plans from cremation to a natural burial after learning about the toxicity of cremation.  Making clear and objective information available to families who want to make an informed choice has a profound impact.

43% cremation rate
The cremation rate estimated by the Cremation Association of American in 2012 was 43.2%.  This is a 1% growth from 2011 compared to more than 2% growth in the previous five years.  In the same time period, the number of green & natural burial cemeteries has grown from less than 25 to more than 200 in America

800,000 caskets annually
One company, Hillenbrand, Inc. (HI), manufactures and sells 45% of the 1.8 million caskets sold in the United States annually under the Batesville Casket Company brand acquired by John A. Hillenbrand in 1906.  Profits from casket operations have fueled decades of diversification and growth and continue to do so generating annual revenues of $500 million with net profit in the 40% range.

2500 lbs. of CO2 from wicker caskets
Many funeral homes offer natural burial caskets made of wicker, seagrass, banana leaves or bamboo.  While these 60-75lb. caskets are biodegradable, distributing them to your funeral home via air freight from our nation’s ports generates a carbon footprint of 1000 lbs. of CO2.  Add that to the carbon produced to grow and manufacture the natural burial casket and you have a larger carbon footprint than a steel casket at 1500 to 2000 lbs. CO2!  Biodegradable is not the same as Sustainable.

1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults
Every year America’s cemeteries bury enough steel reinforced concrete to build a highway from New York to San Francisco.  Prior to 1900, concrete vaults were unheard of.  While concrete vaults provide function in both convenience and safety in cemetery service, the Funeral Consumer Alliance reports that no state law requires them.  In terms of carbon, concrete production is the world’s most expensive building material and is responsible for 5% of the global carbon footprint.

Concrete burial vaults weight between 2000 and 3000 lbs.  Concrete is one of the most most expensive materials on the planet in terms of Carbon Footprint.

Concrete burial vaults weight between 2000 and 3000 lbs.  Concrete is one of the most most expensive materials on the planet in terms of Carbon Footprint.

US Steel in Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan. Every year America's cemeteries bury nearly 100,000 tons of steel caskets and steel burial vaults.

US Steel in Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan. Every year America's cemeteries bury nearly 100,000 tons of steel caskets and steel burial vaults.