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Environmental Costs of Cremation

Your death is a pretty personal thing. You are the only one who can prepare yourself for it. And you should be able to choose a method of disposition that is fitting, meaningful and comforting to you and your loved ones.

For a growing number in the U.S. that choice has been cremation. The percentage of deaths resulting in cremation has increased exponentially over the past 50 years, from 4% in 1960 to now more than 40% annually. Many people view this as a more environmentally friendly alternative, and cremation can be a much less expensive option.

While cremation can leave less impact than a burial with a steel casket and concrete vault, it is not without its drawbacks. The cremation process can take 2-3 hours from warm-up to incineration and reaches temperatures up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The amount of non-renewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America each year is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the Moon and back!

Ashes aren’t the only product of a cremation. While there have been a number of advances recently to improve the emissions from the cremation process, we’re still releasing carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and trace heavy metals (most significantly the mercury from amalgam fillings). For those concerned with their carbon footprint, each cremation releases about 350 lbs. of CO2. Nothing near the 20 metric tons the average American uses annually, but when you consider that the average tree can only offset 1 ton in its lifetime it is important to consider trimming our consumption wherever we can.

So how can an informed consumer who still prefers a cremation offset some of these effects? Well one way is by choosing to have your remains scattered or buried with an organization that has some positive environmental purpose – say, for instance, a nature preserve cemetery that is serving as a steward of the land and improving the health of our environment and community. *cough, cough, Foxfield Preserve, cough* 😉 You can make sure to choose a minimal cremation container as opposed to a wooden casket. You could also question the crematorium on their practices and their efforts to “scrub” their emissions – and feel comfortable to go elsewhere if you aren’t happy with their answers. You might even consider offsetting your carbon usage by requesting mourners to plant trees in lieu of flowers.

Whichever option is most appropriate for you, it is most important that you leave this world in a way that is fitting for the life you lived here.