Greener Funerals with Green Caskets

This column originally appeared in the June, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Greener Funerals with Green Caskets
Comparing caskets with carbon life cycle analysis.

Last month we discussed trends in green cemeteries in America.  Another popular topic in greening the funeral industry is green caskets.  Families seeking green alternatives often start with questions during casket selection.  In the last several years dozens of green alternatives for burial containers ranging from wood and paper caskets to cloth burial shrouds have surfaced in the market.  The green claims behind these products are as creative as the entrepreneurs marketing them.  This month we discuss carbon life cycle analysis as it applies to casket selection for a green funeral.

When comparing caskets and other creative burial containers it helps to consider three key activities that contribute to the carbon footprint of the product.  These activities include raw material extraction or production, manufacturing, and transportation.  We should consider the carbon impact, or carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e), for each of these three key activities in our attempt to objectively compare different green caskets and casket alternatives.
Before we talk about casket production, let us first illustrate the CO2e of familiar activities as we compare.  For example, burning a gallon of gasoline releases 22 lbs CO2e and a kilowatt hour of electricity produced from coal generates 2 lbs CO2e.  A typical 4-person family produces 50 tons of CO2e each year.  On the side of carbon sequestering, a typical leaf-bearing tree absorbs 1 ton of CO2 over its 100-year life.  An important observation on carbon impact and sequestration is the aspect of time.  A child learns with a weekly allowance that it takes time to save but any amount saved can be spent in no time at all.  Next, let's look at the carbon impact of raw materials, manufacturing, and transportation for different caskets.

Let us compare a green casket to a conventional 200-lb casket made from imported Chinese steel, manufactured in the US, and distributed in the Midwest.  I have not yet found a comprehensive carbon life cycle analysis on caskets, so we will use some comparisons.  Carbon life cycle analysis in the automotive industry estimates that manufacturing a 3600 lb sedan produces 18 tons CO2e, or 1000 lbs CO2e for every 100 lbs of sedan.  This includes producing raw materials like steel, fabric, plastic, metal hinges, handles, etc.  This estimate includes transporting raw materials and operating a manufacturing facility.  If we compare a sedan to a conventional steel casket with cloth interior, rubber seal, brass hinges and latch, and a painted "automotive" finish, the impact of manufacturing a steel casket, at 200 lbs, might be about 1 ton CO2e.  If we investigate more closely, we know that producing steel has a net impact of about 1/2 lb CO2e for each pound of steel--or 100 lbs CO2e for a 200-lb steel casket.  Significant research on the carbon impact of ocean cargo and freight trucking informs us that the impact of moving 200 lbs of freight from China to the Midwest is nearly 300 lbs CO2e!  With 400 lbs CO2e just to manufacture and transport the raw steel to the Midwest, our estimate to extract, produce, and transport raw materials, manufacture a steel casket, and transport to the US is probably reasonable at 1 ton CO2e for a single steel casket.

A popular category of green caskets are those woven from grasses such as willow, bamboo, and seagrass.  These grass crops are generally grown and harvested in cottage industries without the impact of industrialized equipment and manufacturing processes.  Most woven caskets are made by hand and thus have a very small carbon footprint.  At 50 lbs shipping weight woven caskets also benefit by reducing the carbon impact of transportation.  However, few of these products are made in the United States and most are imported from Indonesia, China, or Europe.  If shipped by ocean cargo to a US port and then via freight truck to the central US, the total impact of a 50 lb seagrass casket from Indonesia might be 150 lbs CO2e.  That same casket, however, shipped by air freight produces 2400 lbs CO2e--the air freight alone is more than the impact of 1 ton CO2e estimated for steel casket shipped from China by ocean liner.

A locally-made pine casket has a very small carbon impact.
Dozens of casket makers in the emerging US green market are building caskets from locally sourced and reclaimed woods.  The carbon impact to produce a board-foot of lumber varies by species and region and ranges from less than 1/2 lb CO2e for softwoods to just more than 1 lb CO2e for hardwoods.  Smaller caskets require 60 board-feet of pine while others may require 120 board-feet of hardwood making the material carbon impact range from 30 lbs CO2e for an eco-friendly pine casket to 120 lbs CO2e for a conventional oak or cherry casket.  The impact of manufacturing processes also varies widely and largely depends on the source of heat/electricity in the facility and the finishes applied to the casket.  An unfinished pine casket made in an eco-friendly facility may have as little as 20 lb CO2e whereas a commercial operation might be as high as 100 lbs CO2e for a similar product.  The greatest benefit of locally made caskets is reduced transportation.  A locally delivered casket with a light commercial truck averaging a 500 mile trip produces 15 lbs of CO2e by sharing the load with other deliveries.  The same light truck on a dedicated 100-mile trip would contribute far more--as much as 200 lbs CO2e for the round-trip.  The total impact of a locally made wood casket ranges from as little as 50 lbs CO2e but up to 250 lbs CO2e depending on the wood used, manufacturing processes, distance traveled, and method of final delivery.

In each of these example scenarios we see that transportation can be the largest factor in the carbon impact of green casket alternatives to a steel casket.  For the steel casket, due to great efficiency in ocean cargo, the dominating factor is the impact of the steel production and casket manufacturing processes.  Let's summarize the comparison of green caskets to a domestically manufactured steel casket from imported Chinese steel at 1 ton CO2e.  A woven casket shipped by ocean cargo compares at roughly 150 lbs--more than 90% less CO2e than a steel casket.  However, the same woven casket shipped by air freight exceeds 2400 lbs CO2e which is 20% more than the steel casket!  An eco-conscious casket maker using local sustainable pine compares at 50 lbs CO2e when being conservative with transportation.  A locally made pine casket may have the smallest carbon footprint comparing at 98% less impact than a steel casket and 1/3 the impact of a woven casket.  But again, if shipped single-unit on a light truck for 200 miles round-trip, the impact of the same pine casket may be as much as or exceed the 150 lbs CO2e estimated for an imported woven casket.

So what do I recommend as the "greenest" alternative in caskets?  Buy Local.  Drive Less.  And get to know your supplier by asking lots of questions.