The Environmental Impact Of Death And Decay (Part 2)
Part 1 outlined the environmental impacts of each stage in the process from death until final disposal of the remains. So which stage of the after-death experience do you think has the most significant environmental impact?
Based on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) conducted in the Netherlands, you might be surprised to know that the answer is: the ceremonies*.
The most significant impacts from ceremonies are the greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use from transport including the funeral car and attendees. This is followed by the production and transportation of newspapers for notifications and flowers, and then food and beverages. Compared to these impacts, the impact from electricity use for heating and lighting is negligible.
The LCA assessed a standard ceremony, however all aspects of a ceremony can vary immensely including the number of death notices and attendees, how far they travel, arrays of flowers and style of catering. Coffins also vary from sustainable cardboard and unstained plantation pine coffins, to ornate solid timber and metal coffins complete with plush interiors and ornaments.
The environmental impact of the ceremony will reflect a person’s culture, resources, community and values about what an appropriate final ceremony entails. Overall, the impact from this stage was found to be two to three times higher than the next most significant stage: burial.
In this study, the primary impacts from a standard burial are land use and the head stone. Standard cemeteries transform and occupy land, which is then maintained, and in The Netherlands, the impact from land occupation accounted for 43% of the overall impact of burial and the headstone around 20%.
There is a risk of soil and groundwater pollution, which is greater if the body is embalmed due to the use of formalin. However the LCA concluded that there is limited research on the impacts of cemeteries and no consensus on whether they cause substantial pollution.
The environmental impacts of coffin choice vary markedly |Image: Jaroslav A. Polák via Flickr (CC)
Cremation was found to have around half the environmental impact of burial. The primary impacts are from flue gas emissions and gas consumption. Cremation also benefits from a slight reduction in its overall impact, as metal is recycled as part of the process.
In an Australian Carbon Footprint analysis comparing burial and cremation, cremation was also found to be a more environmentally sustainable option, even though this analysis excluded the impacts from the preparation and maintenance of the grave and memorials and disturbance of top soil in burials, which were key impacts in The Netherlands study.
The primary factor was the effect of the decomposition process on carbon stored in the body and coffin. In the study, it was assumed that an average Australian adult body weighs 75kg and its carbon content is 18%. When buried, the body decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), and the carbon in the body is emitted as methane, which has a global warming potential 21 times greater than carbon dioxide. When cremated, the carbon is emitted as carbon dioxide.
There are other options to burial and cremation, and other methods within these options.
In Australia, an individual can donate their body to science, after which it is generally cremated.
“Water burial” or Aquamation is available, which involves dissolving the body through a process called alkali hydrolysis. Aquamation was assessed in the LCA and found to have a lower impact than cremation. However, as equipment producers provided the figures they haven’t been discussed in this article.
Finally, there are increasing opportunities for natural burial with a limited number of natural burial sites around Australia. In the Life Cycle Assessment, natural burials were found to reduce the environmental impact of burial, to the point where the impact was in line with a standard cremation.
Variations and additional options will be developed, but people will need to imagine different scenarios and understand the processes before there will be any demand for new services. The funerals of the future might be quite different to those of today, but for now, cremation and natural burial look like the ways to minimise your environmental impact in the afterlife.
*The Life Cycle Assessment was categorised into the Preliminary Part, including the impacts from the preparation of the body and ceremonies, and the Final Part, which is burial and cremation. This article separates the preparation of the body and ceremonies for simplicity of explanation. This doesn’t affect the results as the preparation of the body was found to have negligible impact in the LCA.
Keijzer, E., (2011), Environmental impact of Funerals. Life cycle assessments of activities after life.
Carbon Neutral, Carbon Inventory Project. Carbon Footprint Report, January 2012. InvoCare.
Title image: ortica* via Flickr (CC)