The Impact of Death on the Environment: “We Need to Die Smart” to Save Our Planet
By Space Coast Daily // November 18, 2021
When a loved one passes away, those closest to the deceased are usually focused on making funeral preparations and planning a dignified service. However, most don’t consider how severely common funeral customs affect the environment.
Reducing environmental impact with funeral services is a topic that’s uncomfortable for many funeral providers and mourners. That’s because it requires changing traditional burial or cremation practices and encouraging bereaved individuals to plan a service that’s slightly different than they anticipated.
However, addressing the environmental issues associated with funerals has an enormously positive impact on the climate change crisis.
We examine the impact of death and burial on the environment and address how this can be resolved.
How Do Funerals Impact the Environment?
There are four major areas of impact:
■ Land Use
Each of these issues contributes to a huge carbon footprint for funerals in the U.S. The problem is that the carbon footprint comprises emissions from several industries (e.g., lumber, metalworking, combustion fuel), constituting a secondary carbon footprint that is more complicated to address.
Funeral services would be required to make sweeping changes to almost every part of the burial process to reduce environmental impact substantively.
So which areas can be addressed easily, and which are the most damaging?
Impact of Burial Materials on the Environment
Burial materials include the materials used to construct a wood casket or a metal casket as well as the materials used to furnish and support a graveyard(burial vaults and monuments).
According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America (CFSAA), a typical wooden casket uses 130-150 board feet of lumber. While there can be no strict figure given for the number of trees needed to provide wood caskets for the deceased, figures suggest that 40% of the 2.8m Americans who pass away every year opt to be buried in caskets, since this is traditional.
This figure includes metal caskets as well as wood caskets. However, depending on the type of wood used, these can be more affordable options and remain extremely popular.
Consequently, this represents a huge number of felled trees, and the environmental impact includes:
■ The power used by lumber mills producing the boards
■ The land use associated with growing trees for lumber
■ The impact of felling trees (as they provide a valuable carbon sink)
■ The cost of transporting huge quantities of lumber around the American nation
Secondary footprints are difficult to calculate, but this part of the funeral business alone has a wide-ranging and substantial impact on the environment.
Tens of thousands of tons of metal caskets are buried each year. Steel caskets are often more affordable than hard wood caskets and are the most popular choice for metal caskets in the U.S., according to the CFSAA. Copper and bronze are also used in more expensive models.
However, all of these materials are equally harmful to the environment. The issue with using metal caskets for burials is that it will never be recycled. Unlike in many other industries, like construction, these materials will never be reused for new projects. Instead, they will remain in the ground indefinitely.
Using non-biodegradable metals for burials creates a serious issue: not only are finite resources being used with no chance of reclaiming or recycling, but the land used for burials will always contain non-decomposing metal caskets. This makes it impossible to repurpose the cemetery’s land for most other uses, even decades after it was last used for burials.
While the environmental impact of metalworking has been reduced significantly in recent years, it still accounts for around 25% of the emissions produced by industry in the U.S. In addition, associated issues like the cost of transporting caskets also apply to metal caskets as much as wood caskets.
Reinforced concrete is used to create vaults that protect funeral caskets from decomposition. The Berkeley Planning Journal suggests that 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete are added to burial sites per year.
Concrete is widely considered to be among the most environmentally destructive materials in the world today. Creating it produces massive volumes of CO2, and the construction sector is one of the most polluting industries of all. Therefore, its widespread use in burials is a concern for the funeral industry.
Some caskets are also made from concrete, although protective burial chambers account for most of the concrete poured into burial sites. Questions linger over whether these sites (which have grown in popularity over the past century) still have a place in American cemeteries when environmental concerns are growing.
Impact of Embalming on the Environment
Embalming involves the use of chemicals to preserve a body. It has been used for thousands of years, perhaps most famously by the Ancient Egyptians in a process called mummification.
Embalming is more popular in the U.S. today than anywhere else in the world. It is widely used to enable mourners to say goodbye to their loved ones at open-casket funerals, as embalming slows the decay rate. It has become an essential emotional coping method for mourners of their loved ones, as it presents a more familiar and less morbid image of the deceased.
However, embalming comes at a price.
The process uses harmful chemicals, including:
Formaldehyde is the main agent used in this process. It is a naturally occurring chemical and is biodegradable but releases carbon monoxide when it breaks down in the air and is extremely toxic to aquatic life. The NFDA suggests that around 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid are leaked into the environment each year.
Other chemicals such as disinfectants that are used in embalming are not biodegradable and may cause lasting damage to their surrounding environments. There is dramatic potential for these chemicals to be harmful, and a major factor urban planners must consider is how close burial sites are to tap water sources.
Impact of Cremation on the Environment
Cremation is the most popular type of funeral service in the U.S., with the NFDA reporting that 57.7% of funerals are projected to involve a cremation in 2021. Cremating a body means that no physical burial place is necessary, as the ashes can be scattered anywhere.
Some might think cremation solves issues associated with burials. However, cremations do not necessarily circumvent the environmental impact of other methods. When a body is cremated, it will typically enter the crematorium in a cremation casket. The casket is incinerated along with the body’s remains, but the environmental cost of building the casket still needs to be taken into consideration.
Bodies are also often embalmed before cremation, meaning that any potentially harmful chemicals will be released into the atmosphere. Formaldehyde is typically released as carbon monoxide during a cremation, but there are two other harmful substances that are released into the environment as a result of cremation: mercury and combustion fuel.
Mercury is a toxic metal that is commonly used in dental fillings. When a body is cremated, researchers estimate that 2-4g of mercury can be released into the environment. This is a cause for concern because the emissions can enter the rain cycle, contaminate clean water reservoirs, and be re-consumed by aquatic lifeforms.
In addition to the harm it does to aquatic lifeforms, mercury poses a risk to humans. When humans consume fish or water that has even minuscule amounts of mercury present, the exposure can cause issues like birth defects in pregnant women.
Mercury released into the environment presents a unique challenge for the funeral industry, as this is a by-product of the deceased body rather than the process. Burials don’t release mercury like cremations do, but this doesn’t necessarily make burials a more environmentally sound choice.
Therefore, finding an ethical solution to cremating body parts that may contain trace amounts of mercury plays a key part in addressing the funeral industry’s harmful effects on the environment.
Crematoriums have made efforts in recent years to move to more environmentally friendly combustion fuels, but most are still reliant on natural gas to achieve combustion (especially older crematoriums). Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it is considerably cleaner than coal or oil, it still has a significant environmental impact.
Cremations will always emit carbon into the atmosphere, as the body of the deceased and a wood casket are carbon-based. Therefore, burning any carbon-based entity will cause CO2 and other gases to be released in addition to the impact of the materials used for combustion.
However, cremations typically have a far small environmental impact in terms of land use than burials using a wood casket or metal casket, which is why some see them as a more environmentally sound option.
Environmental Impact of Land Use for Burials
Cemeteries take up a large amount of space. It has been suggested that 140,000 acres of land in the U.S. is occupied by cemeteries, although this estimate was made using old data. The report points out that reburials are practically unheard of in the U.S., meaning that the need for cemetery land only ever expands.
It should be noted that cemeteries contain graves for individuals whose funerals were done by cremation, which may not involve the physical burial of a body. Therefore, there’s more of a need for land space than most people realize.
Land used for funerals and cemeteries has to be cleared and needs to be located in a place where there is minimal risk of chemicals like formaldehyde. Many cemeteries are built in urban spaces, but there are hazards associated with this approach. Once a cemetery is used for burials, it fundamentally changes the environment below the surface.
Metal caskets and human remains can affect whether a plot of land would be usable for any other purpose for many years after burial.
Secondary Land Use
Connected to the use of wooden caskets, the issue of secondary land use in the funeral industry is concerning. Land that is cleared and not replanted is devastating for the environment, especially when it goes on to be used for agricultural purposes in poorly regulated areas.
Flowers for Burial Sites
Flowers are a traditional part of paying respects to the dead. However, a large proportion of the flowers produced for funeral services and mourning in the U.S. are grown in South America in greenhouse conditions that produce greenhouse gases.
This is arguably out of the hands of funeral providers, although many local funeral services work closely with these flower providers.
What Can Make Funerals More Environmentally Friendly?
Although the funeral industry’s impact on the environment is widespread, it’s possible to make funeral services more environmentally friendly with a few simple choices:
■ Consider using alternative materials other than hardwood or stainless steel for caskets. For example, wood veneer caskets decompose more quickly and are an increasingly popular option, while funeral shrouds are also a possibility and are used for religious burials in many parts of the world. Consider using regular 20 gauge steel, or 18 gauge steel caskets instead of stainless steel, or copper.
■ Skip embalming services when it’s possible to ensure that chemicals do not impact the environment.
■ Consider reburials to keep cemetery land use to a minimum, especially in urban environments.
■ Avoid using natural gas for cremations wherever possible.
■ Minimize the use of reinforced concrete in burials and considering whether a funeral provider should offer protective vaults built from this harmful material.
■ Offer flowers sourced from ethically sound suppliers as part of a funeral service.
■ Ensure that the land that wood caskets are sourced from is reforested, so it has no impaction on the American natural environment.
Dying Smart and Preserving Dignity
If funeral homes and cemeteries continue to use the same funeral practices as hundreds of years ago, and disregard concerns about land use for burials, we will see a rise in greenhouse gas emissions and a significant impact on the earth’s ecosystems.
Large factories produce thousands and thousands of harmful chemicals as a side effect of the production process, including funeral merchandise, unfortunately, these days everything spinning around the money, and the funeral sector was always quite pricy.
Some people might think that having an eco-friendly service will require drastic changes and impact the quality of service.
However, it’s possible to make a funeral service more environmentally friendly while still preserving dignity by using alternative materials for caskets, and by getting these caskets from a smaller company that cares about the environment more than large suppliers, probably for less money.
Some casket companies like trustedcaskets.com can offer more eco-friendly funeral options and caskets which are eventually 100% biodegradable and reduce the impact that burial materials have on land, water, the air, and local aquatic life. Today, everyone has the right to make his decision and contribute to the future of the nation, So let’s not waste it, but make it right.