Cremation and its Environmental Concerns


CREMATION AND ITS ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS


In 2018 the Cremation Society stated that in Australia nearly 70% of people chose cremation for their final send off. With the ecological issues surrounding conventional burials becoming more well known, many people are choosing cremation because they believe it is the more environmentally conscious option. But is it? Mark Harris wrote in his book, Grave Matters, that “Shrouded burial in a woodland cemetery that’s devoted to restoration of the land is likely the more conserving and less polluting choice than cremation”. This post examines his assertion.


Coffins

Coffins and caskets are overwhelmingly the option chosen for the cremation process despite shrouded cremation becoming more available and popular due to its affordability and environmental benefits. Caskets can be made of hardwoods that are not only often made from old growth forests but are also usually chemically lacquered. Since they are significantly more solid than shrouds, they take more energy to burn and the chemicals from the lacquer are released into the atmosphere. Cardboard coffins are a popular choice for cremation these days as they are less expensive, and take less energy to burn. Whilst cardboard is a more  environmentally sustainable option, it is worth bearing in mind that cardboard coffins often contain toxic formaldehyde, are usually not made from fully recycled materials and a significant amount are imported from overseas which adds carbon miles. Lee Webster expands on this by saying,

“Consumers are looking for biodegradable caskets and shrouds, preferably made locally, and they are also becoming increasingly aware that what looks green may not be—the wicker basket that looks great on the green wall until they are reminded that they are made of nonnative materials shipped long distances, for instance. Are they biodegradable? Are they “green”? On the one hand, it’s up to the informed consumer to decide whether the footprint of transporting the products outweighs the functional aspects of natural decomposition.”

An Australian made shroud will be the most ecologically friendly option for cremation and luckily there are many funeral professionals that will support this choice. 


Pollution/energy

The average cremation uses 106 litres of fuel to completely consume a body, emitting approximately 45 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere Every cremation releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury as bodies are burned, 75% goes into the air and the remainder ends up settling into the earth and water. It would be possible to drive 7,725 kilometres on the energy equivalent of the energy used to cremate a person, that is comparable to driving from Melbourne to Darwin and back again. Additionally, “If a body has been embalmed this adds another foreign product to the mix, during the cremation process the embalming fluid is released into the atmosphere via the crematorium flue, which has the potential to settle into the groundwater and circulate throughout the environment.” 


Ash/bone

A common misconception about cremains is that they are ash. Referring to these remains as ash causes confusion and heartbreaking issues with memorial plants.

“Cremated remains [cremains] are bones that have been processed into fine particles following cremation. The cremation process stops natural degradation by removing all organic matter and bacteria from the bone. The bone becomes stable and does not change when scattered on earth or at sea.

During the cremation process every part of the body is burned away leaving just bone matter, these parts are then pulverised and turned into the customary ash-like remains. The cremation process changes the chemical composition of the bone, locking the mineral nutrients within them. This sets cremains apart from fireplace ash or blood and bone and causes them to actually be harmful to plant life. Cremains are also extremely high in sodium, 200-2000 times too high for the average plant to handle. In addition to this, the pH level of cremains is 12-14, which is the same level as household bleach and almost a million times too high for sustaining plants in its oxidised state. Plants need a level of around 6.4 to be able to unlock the nutrients within the remains and actually benefit from their introduction to their soil. 

“This is the reason why so many public and private areas do not want cremated remains scattered on their grounds—they will remain visible because they do not decompose. People scatter cremated remains with the best intentions believing they are helping return their loved one back to nature. The reality is that they are not returning them to nature but in fact may be causing more harm than good.” 

 

Options and solutions:

In Australia we are lucky to have access to the Living Legacy Forests. To improve the sustainability of cremation, we recommend opting for shrouded cremation then utilising the services of Living Legacy to treat the cremains, making them safe and beneficial for plant life.  The process only takes a couple of days to lower the pH and sodium to levels that are safe for interring amongst vegetation. You are then invited to choose a tree to be planted in one of their forests along with the cremated remains. The microbiology used actually transforms the ash into molecules which are then absorbed by the tree and eventually distributed by seeds back into the earth; a full circle of life. If you are interested in this option please contact the Living Legacy Forests through their website at https://livinglegacyforest.com/ 


Another option for neutralising the negative effects of cremains is a product called Let Your Love Grow. This product is a vessel of specially modified soil that treats the pH and sodium levels to make the cremains safe for plant life. The bonus of this product is that it can be done personally and you can keep your tree or plant in your own home. The downside is that it takes up to 120 days to fully neutralise the cremains. Even after this process, the resulting soil is not recommended for  orchards or bonsai trees as they don’t use enough soil to benefit from the process and may die. Let Your Love Grow is currently unavailable in Australia but hopefully it will be here very soon! https://letyourlovegrow.com 


The last option is to avoid cremation and choose a green burial, wrapped in an ethical and sustainably sourced shroud and buried in a shallower than standard grave to allow for swift decomposition, as nature intended. Green burial removes the need for hardwoods, lacquers, embalming fluid and plastics whilst avoiding toxic carbon emissions. Hopefully in a few years the Living Legacy Forests will have this option available for those looking for an extremely sustainable final resting place. In the meantime, green burials can take place within specialised sections of traditional cemeteries and is the most environmentally friendly option available in Australia currently.


NB: we are not affiliated with Living Legacy Forests or Let Your Love Grow, but we appreciate their work lowering the environmental impact of cremation!