Why Funerals Are Bad For The Environment

By Sarah Stefanson
[Getting it Done]
With the many environmentally unfriendly aspects of a typical funeral, more and more people are looking into green funerals.  Sarah Stefanson explains.

I first heard about the concept of green funerals on HBO’s fabulous Six Feet Under.  Nate’s hippie wife Lisa tells him she doesn’t want to be pumped full of chemicals and buried in a casket.  After viewing the episode, I did some research and what I learned made so much sense to me that I informed my family and fiancé of my wish to be buried green.

Funerals: Enemy of the Earth

The damage to the environment from a typical funeral begins with the embalming of the body.  Embalming is a process of injecting the body with various chemicals combined to make embalming fluid, including formaldehyde (a Class 1 Carcinogen), glutaraldehyde, phenol, methanol, antibiotics, dyes, preservatives, additives, disinfectants and sanitizing agents.  The purpose is to temporarily prevent decomposition of the body so that it may be displayed at a funeral.  An embalmed body also looks more natural.  Even a body that has been ravaged by disease or trauma can look more pleasing after embalming. 

When the embalming chemicals leak into the soil as the body decays, they may have negative effects on the surrounding environment.  827,060 gallons of embalming fluid is buried in the United States each year.  The main danger of embalming fluid is to the embalmer and those that manufacture the fluid since it had been known to cause cancer.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no law that states that a body must be embalmed.  In most places in North America, the only reason you must embalm a body is if you are transporting it by plane.  Traditional Jewish funerals do not involve embalming. 

The ornate decorated coffin you would see at a normal funeral is not only expensive, but it has dire effects on the earth.  Many are made from rare hardwoods, which need to be transported causing environmental damage along the way.  Using coffins means that in an average year we bury 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and over 30 million feet of hardwoods in the earth.  Much of the material used to make caskets is non-biodegradable and they are often covered with toxic lacquers.

Other environmental costs of funerals include the water, emissions and pesticides involved in maintaining an average cemetery.

Cremation is also a burden on the environment.  Every time a body is cremated between 0.8 and 5.9 grams of mercury is released.  This results in 1,000 to 7,800 pounds of mercury per year.  Seventy-five per cent goes into the air and the rest ends up in the ground and water.  The energy used to cremate one body is enough to drive 4,800 miles.  In a year of cremations, you could get to the moon and back 83 times.

Green Funerals: Earth Friendly

Over 200 green burial sites (also called woodland cemeteries or eco-cemeteries) currently exist in the United States and a movement is afoot to bring the practice to Canada.  Green cemeteries are pieces of land kept in an untouched state where bodies can be returned to nature.  The grounds are allowed to grow naturally so no pesticides or other chemicals are used in maintenance and there are no emissions from mowing grass.

Embalmed bodies are generally not accepted at green cemeteries since they want to place the body in the earth in as natural a state as possible.  Coffins are made of cardboard or local lumber harvested using sustainable methods. You can also opt for a simple cotton shroud, preferably made of organically grown fibres.  Basically, any kind of biodegradable material is encouraged.

As for a gravesite marker, an expensive, engraved gravestone is eschewed for a flat, indigenous stone or a tree planted by the family.  No artificial flowers or other decorations are allowed on the grave.  Real flowers and wreaths, without vases, are preferred.

If you are considering a green funeral, make sure to see the site and meet the proprietors of the cemetery.  You will want to make sure that the process will go smoothly and your gravesite will be properly respected.  There are groups attempting to establish regulations for green burials in North America, which will greatly improve the industry.  As of now, there are no specific guidelines for green funerals, so make sure you get all the information from the site you choose when making your “pre-need” plans.

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