Updated: Jun 8
Interest in reducing our carbon footprint has grown significantly in recent years. But what kind of footprint do we leave after we are gone?
Trigger warning: this post is about death, burial practices, and its relation to the environment, and may be sensitive to some readers.
Ok, I'm not going to lie - this was my favorite thing to write and research. If you know me, you know that I am absolutely fascinated with death science. I understand death is a sensitive topic to many and it's uncomfortable to think about. But my understanding and approach to death has always been one of curiosity, inner spirituality, and acceptance. I think there is beauty in the circle of life, from beginning to end.
In my process of becoming vegan and continuously learning about sustainability and our carbon footprint on the planet, I started thinking about how burial practices affect the environment long term. Some of the impacts seem obvious, but are there some more eco-friendly alternatives out there?
There are many different and fascinating burial practices and rituals all over the world. Every culture and religion has their own beliefs and I think that many can be beautiful for coping with death. This isn't a deep dive into all of those rituals and beliefs, however I am writing about some of the most common and interesting ones for perspective.
Embalming: Not a type of burial, but it is often part of the process and important to understand. Embalming is not always required, but it is the process of preserving the body to slow down decomposition by use of chemicals. These chemicals include formaldehyde, methanol, humectants, disinfectants and preservatives.
In Ground Burials: With these burials, the deceased are placed in a casket that is then buried in a gravesite and marked with a headstone. This provides a way for the bereaved to visit their loved ones.
Traditional burials: the body is embalmed and a viewing and funeral service is held.
Direct burials: this is done very soon after death and does not involve a viewing and service. Embalming is not required.
Mausoleums: These are above ground buildings that house the casket, like a tomb. Embalming is sometimes required.
Cremation: This is the process of burning the body down to ashes, which are then given to the bereaved in an urn to keep or return back to the Earth. This can be done at a crematorium, or in some countries, using a funeral pyre outside (though this has become less common).
Ossuaries: An ossuary is a dedicated site, such as a chest, tomb, or cave, that houses skeletal remains after being temporarily buried. This is often done where not much burial space is available. An example of an ossuary would be the underground Catacombs of Paris.
Columbaria: A columbarium is similar to an ossuary, but houses cremated remains in urns.
When we really break it down, some of the most common methods of burial are actually pretty terrible for the environment. Cemeteries take up a lot of land and if land is being cleared for burial plots, that obviously affects the ecosystem. Don't forget to add in all the water and other resources needed to keep up the cemetery grounds.
Wood and metals, like steel, are the most common materials used to make caskets in the United States. The amount of wood, steel, and concrete needed for traditional burials in the United States alone is staggering. This obviously leads to deforestation and more CO2 emissions from steel production.
Over time, many different factors can cause the casket to break down. Wood caskets will likely break down more quickly as they are not as sturdy as metal. When the body is embalmed, it only slows down the decomposition process and does not prevent it, so eventually all those toxic chemicals (formaldehyde is a known carcinogen) will end up back in the Earth. If the casket is sealed, the decomposition process may cause pressure and moisture to build up. Metal caskets may eventually rust due to moisture in the soil also, which can compromise the structural integrity. Basically, piling a bunch of heavy, non-biodegradable boxes filled with toxic chemicals into the ground is just not a good idea.
One might think cremation would be the way to go, right? Cuts back on land use and material production. That's what I always thought anyways. However, it turns out cremation is also not good for the environment. Factors like the size of the body can affect how long it takes to incinerate, the average amount of time being about 2-3 hours. The furnace temperature can range anywhere from 1500-1800 degrees Fahrenheit, so a significant amount of fuel is needed to run the crematory. In this time, many toxic chemicals are released into the air. Carbon dioxide emissions are upwards of millions of tons every year.
These same issues exist with open-air cremations using a funeral pyre (only done in certain parts of the world). The pyres are made of wood, the body is placed on top, and the pyre is lit. This burns a lot slower and the emissions being released directly into the air are less controlled. Interestingly, green alternatives are being developed so those that still practice this ritual can do so in a more environmentally friendly way.
So what is the most environmentally friendly way to be buried?
Green Burials: No embalming, no cremation, no caskets. The body is placed in a biodegradable container or wrapped in a shroud. It is then placed in the ground and can return to the earth naturally without all the chemicals and other issues. Simple coffins made of soft wood, like pine, wicker, or cardboard may be used.
Water Cremation (alkaline hydrolysis): This type of cremation uses water, lye, and heat. The body is placed in a chamber filled with water and either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, which is then heated, but also pressurized to prevent boiling. The body breaks down, decomposing everything but the bones, which can then be crushed to ashes for the bereaved. The water can be treated before releasing it, just like any water filtration process, to reduce environmental issues. Various religions, personal beliefs, and traditional burial businesses oppose this process however, and it is currently only legal in 18 states.
Sky Burials: Common in some parts of Asia, this is the practice of placing the body outdoors for scavengers to eat or for the body to decompose naturally in the environment.
Sea Burial: The deceased are put to rest in a body of water, wrapped in a shroud or placed in a water soluble container. This is commonly done by the United States Navy and may be done by citizens as well. The EPA has a set of regulations for proper sea burials.
Body Farms: One option is to donate your body to a body farm. Forensic anthropologists use body farms to study the natural decomposition of bodies in various environments. This is a huge benefit for the criminal justice world.
As the demand for sustainable alternatives grows, more and more eco-friendly burial methods will be developed. As a society, it is important to be able have these difficult discussions so that we can move towards a greener future.