How Does Cremation Measure in Sustainability?

With each passing year, more Wisconsin families choose cremation over a conventional casketed cemetery burial when it comes to end-of-life choices for our loved ones.  Since 2011 the number of cremations have outnumbered burials in Wisconsin.  What is the impact on our environment?  Are we moving in the right direction?

Before getting into the details of cremations and burials, let’s take note that end-of-life choices are exactly that: choices.  What we choose for ourselves or for our loved ones is a private matter.  Like all choices in our lives, we like to make choices that are consistent with our values.  Our values are formed over a lifetime of experience and do not change quickly or easily.  Our choices, however, can change quickly—especially upon learning new information.  When I listen to people describe their end-of-life plans, I ask questions to better understand their values and offer information that might help individuals make choices in good alignment with their values.

You’re likely reading this blog because preserving natural habitats and sustainable living are held highly in your own core values.  It may alarm you to learn that the act of disposing your earthly human remains could have a larger impact on the planet after your death than all of the activities of a Tibetan’s entire living life!  What’s even worse is that these harmful activities bring no enjoyment or betterment to our lives or those who will survive us.  The environmentally wasteful activities in death care are entirely avoidable.  The good news is that we need not petition our legislature to change laws.  Nor do we have to wait for large corporations to offer alternatives.  Change can happen right now—starting with you and me.  We have the power to make an immediate impact by simply informing ourselves and others of our end-of-life choices and how our choices will impact the environment.

There are three talking points for cremation regarding the environment:  carbon footprint, toxic pollution, and land use.  One public perception is that occupying a cemetery plot wastes valuable land resources that could otherwise be put to better uses.  The reality is that the land used to extract, refine, store, and transport the few pounds of fossil fuel required for a single cremation is significantly larger than the area of a cemetery plot.  Furthermore, the type of land where we extract fossil fuels (natural gas) take us to wildlife habits in precious areas of our world including Alaska, Canada, and the oceans.  And then there is high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas.  Fracking requires sand which is being mined here in Wisconsin.  Now imagine that cemetery plot—it is minimal in comparison.

On the topic of toxicity, the EPA attributes cremation as the third largest polluter of our waterways with mercury.  Add to this the cocktail of emissions including 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 body that contains metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases even more harmful dioxins and mercury.  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.

Incineration of fossil fuel during a three-hour cremation generates 600 lbs of CO2e.  The carbon footprint of a steel casket is 2000 lbs of CO2e (carbon-dioxide equivalents).  However, a simple wooden locally-made natural burial casket has a footprint less than 50 lbs of CO2e.  A natural burial shroud has an even smaller footprint.  Planting 100 seedling trees can sequester 200 lbs of CO2 in the first year.  If carbon footprint is important to you, and you prefer cremation over a natural burial, consider planting 100 trees that will offset the carbon footprint of your cremation in 3-4 years time.  Don’t wait, plant them now.