Any effort to conserve the earth is important, but some are quite common while others are greatly overlooked. At this point, we all know the importance of recycling, limiting water usage when showering, brushing teeth or washing dishes, choosing a refillable water bottle over plastic, using reusable bags at the grocery store, skipping the plastic straw or using a glass or bamboo one instead, buying organic produce, limiting or eliminating our meat consumption and so on. What is less considered is the environmental impact of death. Yes, dying is a natural process and something that we will all go through. Some of the practices used post death however are less than natural and have a lasting impact on the environment. The good news is there are several options available that are kinder to the earth, and with this awareness we can make better informed decisions for ourselves or our loved ones. Having conversations and planning for how we want our body cared for after death is something that we can do! The power of these conversations and choices has the ability to leave a positive contribution to the earth, rather than a lasting toxic imprint that many of the traditional methods have.
Conventional burial methods are extremely hard on the environment. With traditional practices, the body is embalmed to prevent decomposition. Chemicals that make up embalming fluid include formaldehyde, methanol, glutaraldehyde, dyes, disinfectants and other toxic substances. Over time these chemicals begin to leak into the earth. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, an estimated 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid is leaked into our waterways and soil every year. In addition to that, concrete vaults and wooden caskets covered in lacquer also leak chemicals into the earth, as well as taking up precious land space, preventing the growth of native plants and animal habitats.
Cremation is a popular alternative to traditional burials. While in some ways it is more eco-friendly, there are other aspects of this process which can be harsh to the environment. Cremation requires a lot of energy and is typically sourced from natural gas. On average, the process takes about 2 hours to incinerate the body and the temperature is held around 1600 degrees during that time. More of a concern than that is the emissions from the process. Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen fluoride and mercury vapor are some of the gasses that are released as cremation takes place, and filtering these fumes does not prevent the toxins from being released into the air.
Luckily there are other alternatives to conventional burial and cremation that are gentler to the environment. If the more traditional methods are appealing to you, you may opt for a green burial. This looks similar to a conventional burial with a few eco-friendly changes. The body is not embalmed with green burial and therefore decomposes naturally. In place of a casket, the body may be wrapped in an unbleached cloth shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket. Native plants and grasses often grow naturally at green burial sites and the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides that are applied to the grounds of traditional cemeteries are omitted.
If cremation is what you are set on, there are some earth friendly changes that can be made. First, you can ask the cremation provider if they can recycle any pacemakers, medical devices or prosthetic limbs, rather than having them go to the landfill. For those who are wanting to bury the urn holding the remains, biodegradable options are available. Having the cremated remains mixed with soil and packed into a biodegradable urn can allow you or your loved one to grow into a tree or flowers. If the idea of being at sea is more appealing, you can have the remains mixed with an environmentally friendly cement mixture and then placed at sea, to help grow and create an artificial coral reef and restore aquatic life.
A newer style of cremation, known as water cremation or aquamation, is a wonderful alternative to traditional cremation. With this process, the body is placed in a steel tube that is filled with 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The mixture is held at 350 degrees and the vessel is gently rocked from side to side for about 20 hours. This causes the body to dissolve, just leaving behind the skeleton, which is then ground into ash like in traditional cremation. The process uses 80% less energy as cremation, does not emit any chemicals, and the liquid solution remaining after the process makes a nutrient dense fertilizer for those who want to use it.
In addition to making greener choices to how we dispose of the body of our loved one, there are other steps we can take to support the earth. Traditionally flowers are staple item for a funeral or memorial service. While this is a beautiful addition to a gravesite or gift to the grieving family, most of the flowers sold in the US are grown overseas with lots of chemicals and pesticides. Instead of purchasing traditional flowers, look for those that are local, organic or sustainably grown. Ask your florist if they can skip the foam and plastic that is often used in making wreaths and arrangements, and use biodegradable materials instead. In lieu of flowers, consider asking for donations to you or your loved one’s favorite charity. Another idea is having donations made to a carbon fund, to help offset the carbon emissions and environmental impact of the service and ceremony.
Whatever you decide, know that your choices have lasting impacts. Though you may no longer be here to see that, your loved ones and the earth will feel the effects. With so many options available, it is easy to find something that honors your wishes while honoring the earth. Mindful, environmentally friendly choices will ensure your legacy includes a positive lasting imprint on this world.