I’m a self proclaimed geek. Admittedly, the area that I get really geeky is in a topic that most people recoil from, but for me, there is something fascinating to me about the logistics and environmental impacts of death care.  See? Right there! Total geek.

The cremation vs. burial debate is, not surprisingly, quite complicated.  The question is completely quantifiable, and yet, no one has put forth any substantive research on the topic. With that disclaimer out there, what we are left with is largely anecdotal evidence and conjecture. For the purposes of this article, we need to make some sweeping generalizations to create a thought experiment (we don’t have a lot of space here!). We have to look at the death process through some critical eyes so that we can, at the very least, make some rational informed decisions about what it is that we’re doing to our planet.

Choice sign

Freeway ends. Make a choice.

Cremation is a fossil fuel process.  It is the reduction of human remains to calcium deposits (bone) through intense heat. That intense heat isn’t fueled with wood nymph pixie dust that is inert to our atmosphere. Nope! It is straight up carbon based fuel.  Most crematories run natural gas, some run propane, and a very few use… diesel. Yup. [cringe] Now, in defense of the crematory manufacturers, they are producing units that are orders of magnitude better than just 20 years ago, but the principal hasn’t changed.

Cremation opponents say that cremation is a dirty, nasty process that takes the amalgam in fillings and pipes it into the air, only to choke and suffocate baby koalas and make the salmon look like peacocks. Ok, I’ve never heard that accusation, but dental fillings are usually the first thing that comes up on the toxicity reports by environmentalists.  I’m not going to tell you that these things don’t come out of the chimney. I have EPA documents that show me exactly what comes out. What I will tell you is that I think we need to step back and take a look at the whole picture of the evils.

Burial is, in principal, eco-friendly. You create a cemetery that is dedicated green space that can’t be used for commercial or residential purposes and can foster wildlife and has park-like benefits for the community. It’s a winner. Let me take a brief moment to dispel the “running out of space” issue: unless you live in Tokyo, there isn’t a cemetery crunch.  It’s the first thing I hear from people that seem to think that the real green problem is land use issues. “We’re going to run out of space aren’t we?”  No.  What we really need to ask is “is the space being used in an ecologically conscious manner?”  If you think about the amount of water and fertilizer and the amount of gasoline that is dumped into that John Deer required to manicure grandma’s 3’x9’ patch of permanent real estate, the only thing that’s green, is the grass.

I'm sure this guy is looking into solar alternatives.

Look Edith, it runs on bio-diesel!

I’m definitely not going to settle the cremation debate in one simple blog post. With this limited picture of how each of these is detrimental to the environment, what are we left with to make this better? Natural (green) burial is by far the best option for families. Unfortunately, for a sundry of reasons, it doesn’t fit the plans of many of today’s families. What we need to do is look at the processes (burial is a process, not an event) alongside each other to identify what the larger impact is over time. Think about what is involved in each process as you make the decision.  The burial process has environmental impacts that continue for years to come. Whether it’s embalming fluid leeching into the soil or lawnmowers and irrigation to maintain the grave, they are long term issues. While the embalming process only takes a couple of hours, what are the offshoots of that? The carbon released from the process is one part, but so is mercury and arsenic. A good article for emissions can be found at the University of Virginia’s site. There is a lot of hype on both sides of this issue, and I think what the UofV article does well is to point out that in the grand scope of industrial emissions, cremation is pretty small.

It’s my humble opinion that, in a research setting with an appropriate length of time being analyzed, that the cremation process would prove out to be the “greener” of the two with the caveat that natural burial in a cemetery that focuses on habitat restoration is the greenest of all.

As you go forth and research on your own, I want you to be skeptical of any source that is emphatic about one or the other. What are they analyzing? If all they are looking at is the burial process up to the point of putting the casket in the ground, it isn’t a fair assessment.  If they only look at the carbon output of the cremation process, they are missing a large part of the picture. Also, take a look at who’s behind the message. There are organizations out there whose sole purpose is to support some aspect of one of the options.

Relative to the processes being used to suck the grease out of the sand in Alberta to fuel our SUVs, either of these end-of-life options are a pretty paltry impact, but don’t underestimate the power of a movement. We need to sweat the small stuff in all of our life’s areas so that we can make this blue globe safe for the next group of toddlers.