Eco-friendly Cremation

**Time for this post? Reading…10 minutes. Viewing…24 minutes. Assimilation…up to you.

Last week I wrote about green burial, and what options are available where I live. Today we’ll take a look at cremation from a similar perspective.

Cremation is inherently more environmentally friendly than burial because it does not require land and doesn’t leave toxic formaldehyde leaching into the soil.

Even so, cremation is not a perfect solution.  It is done at temperatures of 1400-1800°F for 45-90 minutes. This consumes large quantities of fuel, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. There are toxic emissions from lacquers and glues in the containers that are incinerated with the body. Toxic mercury vapours from amalgam fillings also come out of the smokestack. According to sevenponds.com

Vaporized mercury disperses into the air primarily in gaseous form as a particulate, and eventually returns to the earth through various forms of precipitation. After this mercury has deposited on land or water, it can convert to the highly toxic compound known as methyl-mercury.

Methyl-mercury contaminates waterways and groundwater, and we consume it in the water we drink and the food we eat. Although some people see no need for concern because cremation is a relatively small source of contamination, it is beyond dispute that mercury emissions are undesirable.

Doing the least harm possible…

  • Request a direct cremation. In a direct cremation, the body is taken to the crematorium and processed immediately, without an advance viewing or funeral service first. The cremated remains are then available if the family wishes to have them at a memorial service. Because this happens immediately, there is absolutely no need for embalming.
  • Request the most basic of containers. Crematoriums require containers to be rigid and combustible. That makes sense because they need to be able to push the body into the chamber. Recycled cardboard is the most eco-friendly choice—non-toxic and fast-burning—so it makes a minimal impact on fuel consumption and toxic emissions compared to a wooden casket.
Basic Cremation Container

A totally basic and legal cremation container

  • Ask that amalgam fillings be removed before cremation.
  • Authorize the crematorium to recycle medical parts and metals.
  • Select a provider that uses an energy-efficient furnace and a good filter system for emissions.
  • Opt for bio-cremation if available.

Bio-cremation? What’s that??

Bio-cremation, also called resomation or alkaline hydrolysis, is a method of decomposing a body by rapid oxidation in an alkaline solution rather than through the use of flame. After a few hours, all that is left is bone ash and a non-toxic liquid that is filtered, purified, and recycled back to earth in lakes and streams. In essence, the body is recycled without harm to the environment.

Patented in 1888, bio-cremation received little attention until the late 1990s when a few American research facilities began using this method to cremate cadavers donated for research. It is currently approved in less than one-third of the provinces and states in North America. When I investigated whether bio-cremation is available to me, the answer was no. There are only three provinces that approve bio-cremation. Alberta is not one of them.

Environmental benefits of bio-cremation…

This is a cleaner process, with less environmental impact than flame cremation. It is said to have a 75% lower carbon footprint, using only one-eighth the energy of traditional cremation. No container is used for the body, so it saves trees. It eliminates the issue of emissions—e.g. mercury is contained and recycled. And the effluent that results from the process is non-toxic and can be returned to nature.

If you want to read more about how bio-cremation works in practice, check out this article in The Walrus.

And for something way out on the fringe…

Promession, decomposition through freeze-drying, is not yet in use, as far as I know. But it’s intriguing to see where things might go…

More about cremation containers…

Be aware that the cardboard container will have a maximum weight rating. If it’s 250 pounds, that’s reasonable. However, some funeral homes offer only a light-weight container that handles a maximum of 150 pounds. This is basically a token offering to look as if they are providing options, while knowing full well that many people will be beyond that weight limit and will have to pay extra for an upgraded container.

I did a bit of web searching to get an idea of the prices a person might expect to pay for different types of cremation containers. At Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services they are:

  • basic cardboard tray   $65
  • basic plywood with lid   $365
  • unfinished birch veneer   $640
  • cardboard with cloth covering, styled like a casket  $955

Casket Outlet has three cremation containers, all lacquered wood veneer with velvet interior at $490 – $890.

Haven Casket has a pine cremation container at $890, walnut at $1290, and mahogany at $1490. They state that “the ideal container for cremation is made of wood.” I disagree. It seems a waste of good wood to me. Especially for a direct cremation where there is no viewing or service with the body present. But, of course, upgrading the casket is one way for them to increase their profit.

Getting what you want…

I’ve concluded that if you want eco-friendly disposal of your body, it’s up to you to know what you want and to seek it out. That means shopping around, something that obviously needs to happen in advance of your need for the service!

From what I see, the better options exist, but they are the least expensive ones—and the funeral home is not inclined to give them any air time when discussing their offerings.

Worse than that, it is known that up-selling occurs as funeral directors do what it takes to increase their commissions. If you think this is just me being cynical, watch this episode of CBC’s Marketplace. You may be surprised at what their undercover investigation reveals in six locations of a major funeral provider.

Last words…

  • Know the options available.

  • Decide what suits your situation.

  • Stand your ground.

  • Let your family know what you decide.

2 thoughts on “Eco-friendly Cremation

    • Good question. I would tell the funeral director I’m wondering if they have energy-efficient equipment with upgraded filters. Then I would assess their reply. Anyone who does will likely be enthusiastic about it and happy to share details. Those who haven’t upgraded their equipment will likely be dismissive or vague in their reply. You can asses the quality of their replies to make a decision. Obviously this would be research you do in advance, not at the time you or a family member are in need of immediate cremation.

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