The Environmental Impact Of Death And Decay (Part 1)
Lisa de Kleyn is a sustainability writer and consultant. She is principal of Open Space Consulting.
If you’re interested in reducing the environmental impact of your day-to-day life, you might consider ways to reduce your impact after you die. To do this, you need to understand what happens, and what the impacts are.
The first part of this article describes the key stages, processes and resources used from death to decay. As you read it, try to estimate which stage has the most significant environmental impact.
The second part of the article, will give you the answer based on conclusions from a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment, Carbon Footprint Analysis and other research.
The process from death to decay
A medical practitioner is required to pronounce the death of an individual, which is formally registered with a death certificate. After death is pronounced, the body is transported for preparation.
Preparation of the body
The body will be prepared for viewing and the funeral ceremony. It may be covered with a body bag and needs to be kept cool to delay decomposition, which may be via a cool blanket, plate or refrigerated holding facility.
It will be washed including the hair and body, clothed, groomed and often adorned with jewellery. Water from washing is disposed of through sewerage.
In some cases, the body will also be embalmed, by law or by request, which involves injecting an embalming fluid called formalin into the corpse to preserve the body, draining the blood and organ fluid, and other treatments to improve the corpse’s appearance and prevent fluid leakage. Formalin includes formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic to humans with prolonged, high level exposure.
The location where the body is kept uses resources including energy for lighting and cooling.
Funeral ceremonies vary. However a standard package offered by funeral directors comprises a funeral notice, coffin, flowers and memorial book.
In addition to these resources, death notices are often published by the family and other close contacts in newspapers. The funeral will be held in a venue with its own running costs, the funeral director will transport the body, and attendees will travel to and from the service.
A final service generally follows, and includes catering, a venue and transport for attendees.
A lot of fly-in mourners can really boost the carbon footprint of a funeral | Image: Shai Barzilay via Flickr (CC)
Burial and cremation
Burials involve mechanically digging a grave; lowering the coffin into the site, which may be done mechanically or manually; filling the grave; a headstone, which has been treated, engraved, transported and installed on a concrete base; and maintenance of the cemetery.
The body is buried along with materials such as metals from medical implants.
The depth and duration are legislated at the state and territory level. The depth depends on whether the gravesite is sealed or unsealed, ground conditions and number of people buried in the same plot.
The duration of burial varies. In Victoria it’s currently in perpetuity and in South Australia it’s 25 to 50 years in some cemeteries. After that time the body has decomposed and the remaining bones are removed and buried in the ground or stored in an ossuary.
Cremation is the incineration of a corpse in an oven at a crematorium. Before cremation occurs, pacemakers are surgically removed as the batteries have a risk of exploding.
An average cremation takes 1.5 to 3 hours at 750°C in gas-powered ovens that are often managed by a computer system. When ready, the remains are raked out of the oven, cooled in a steel container, and transferred to a cremulator, which is a rotating machine with steel balls that refine the ashes.
Once refined, the ashes are removed and stored in a can and any metals are separated for recycling.
The final location of the ashes varies as they may be transferred to an urn, buried or held at a cemetery or other location, scattered or disposed of. Each of these options may include a monument.
So, which stage in our final departure has the most environmental impact? Read Part 2 to find out.
Title image: pixiepic’s via Flickr (CC)