The environmental impacts of death are just as important as life’s environmental impacts, but death is often overlooked in environmental actions. This oversight is typically due to cultural discomfort with death, resulting in a lack of environmental considerations when it comes time to plan for a funeral/burial. So, since death is important to the environment and culture, it is important to find eco-friendly options that still work with cultural frameworks. To explore the environmentally friendly options available, the “traditional” Christian American burial will be used as a case study to look at some of the most environmentally damaging death practices.
Modern American death traditions have several key components, but the most environmentally damaging components are embalming of the body, the use of caskets*, and cemetery interment.
Embalming became a cornerstone of an American death during the Civil War as embalming allowed for the bodies of dead soldiers to stay intact on the long train rides home for burial. However, embalming’s ability to temporarily preserve a body is due to its ability to kill or inhibit decay-causing bacteria, but the damage also extends to other biological tissues. The main chemical responsible for this preservation is formalin (formaldehyde mixed in water), which is a highly toxic carcinogen and is linked to a variety of health problems. Combined with formalin’s long-term potency, the liters of formalin put into the ground with an embalmed body can leach into the surrounding ground contaminating the soil.
While not directly damaging, caskets and cemeteries also negatively impact the environment. The materials used in caskets, wood, plastics, metals, fabrics, and paints/varnishes, all create different environmental hazards in their production, transportation, and use. The use of grave vaults**, which are subterraneous boxes for the casket, further contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by using concrete and requiring fossil fuel powered machinery. However, these impacts are smaller when compared to the continual use of fertilizers and pesticides used by cemeteries to maintain the lush green grass appearance. The large amount of space, combined with the fertilizer-enriched water run-off and chemical hazards these cemeteries create, all contribute to prolonged environmental damage.
These negative impacts of modern funerals can be countered in two ways: swapping aspects of the burial for greener alternatives or changing the burial form entirely.
The option to use more eco-friendly substitutes is possible in many cases. Embalming, which is optional***, may not be used at all and if a body needs to be preserved short-term, keeping the body in refrigeration works well. Alternatively, if a body requires embalming, there are a growing number of non-formalin options available, such as the Enigma brand of embalming fluid, which provide similar preservation but with decreased environmental impact. As for alternative casket options, they can be made of recyclable and/or biodegradable materials or replaced by shrouds, and some careful planning prior to burial can allow for a non-vaulted and/or natural burial ground (burial grounds that do not have heavy maintenance). Some natural burial areas can even provide environmental protection to habitats; these are called conservation burials.
Overview of a traditional vs. natural burial // Source: Stephen J. Beard, designer: Nathan Butler
The option to change the burial form often centers on what form the body is in when buried, an intact body or ash. Cremation is a better option than the standard American burial, but cremation has negative environmental impacts too. The heating of the body to around 1000°C for multiple hours requires prolonged burning of fossil fuels. Additionally, the high temperatures burn a variety of body tissues and substances creating different hazardous gases, including dental mercury, which is vaporized and released into the environment leading to health hazards in the surrounding area.
Many of the negative effects can be reduced by using different forms of cremation, forms which still create “ashes” but by different processes. Water cremation (aka alkaline hydrolysis) cremates a body by putting the body into a water-lye solution which over the course of a few hours leaves an intact skeleton that is then processed into ash****. The process requires the same amount of water consumption as a single person would use over a two-day period, needs a fraction of the energy of fire cremations, and has no direct GHG emissions. Another eco-friendly option that is still in development is promession, which would be a freezing cremation. The method would break down the body by freeze drying it, then vibrating the body making small pieces, which then have excess water and metal removed, creating ashes. Though this process is still developing, the process offers an energy efficient, non-toxin producing method for burial practices.
Overview of water cremation // Source: The Planet Magazine
Overview of promession process // Source: Design Boom
With life’s guarantee of death, the environmental impact of death will always be present, which is why greener options for burial are needed.
If you are interested in green burial options, the best plan is to explore what options are available to you – internet searches and local funeral homes are a good place to start. Other resources include, the YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician”, books, particularly “Grave Matters” by Mark Harris, or societies, such as The Green Burial Society of Canada.
* Fun fact: caskets are rectangular funeral boxes with hinged lids which differs from a coffin, a tapered box with a removable lid.
** Grave vaults are often sold as being required by cemeteries because it prevents the casket from collapsing underground, which keeps the ground level even, thereby maintaining a consistent lawn aesthetic
*** It is important to know that corpses, unless in rare circumstances, are safe; embalming is not a requirement to make a corpse safe to be near or touch.
**** Despite TV/film depictions of cremated human remains, remains do not fully become ash by burning. Burning breaks down the soft tissues and some smaller bones but larger bones, and teeth, with their protective enamel coating, are left behind. These bone fragments are then ground into ash.
This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!