Life-Cycle Studies: Burials

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Fernwood CemeteryBackground

As the old saying goes, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Burial rites have become increasingly involved over time, particularly for those who can afford it - as the Great Pyramids testify. Today, in the United States, a US$25-billion death-care industry oversees 1.8 million burials a year, with the average funeral costing about $6,000. As millions of baby boomers are expected to die by 2040, the market will only expand.

Funerary options vary widely around the world, depending on culture and lifestyle. In Bombay, India, the Parsi community follows a centuries-old tradition of using vultures to dispose of the dead. U.S. residents can buy specialty urns bearing the insignia of the deceased's favorite sports team. And one enterprising company, LifeGem, will create a certified, high-quality diamond from the carbon of your loved one.

Environmental Impacts

Modern funerals are resource-intensive. Bodies are typically embalmed in toxic formaldehyde; sealed in impervious, laminated wooden caskets (often derived from slow-growing trees); and then placed in lined graves or cement vaults.

Cremation is considered a more eco-friendly option, requiring less land for burial, but it's not without impact. Between 1975 and 2004, the share of Americans cremated grew from 6 percent to 31 percent. Today, there are more than 1,800 crematoriums nationwide, and some 200 new ones are built each year. These facilities require energy, typically from fossil fuels, and the incineration process releases dioxin and mercury (up to 6 grams per body). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that crematoriums emit 145 kilograms of mercury per year (largely from dental fillings), though activists say the real figure could be as high as three tons.

Cremation may be greener overall, however. An Australian study found that a cremation generated 160 kilograms of CO2 on average, compared to 39 kilograms for a standard burial. But when the cost of maintaining gravesites was included (high pesticide, water, and mowing requirements), burials released 10 percent more emissions.

Closing the Loop

Residents of several U.S. cities have successfully fought plans to build new crematoriums, and critics have called for stricter emissions controls on them. Other proposals for reducing emissions include removing mercury fillings from corpses before cremation and using liquid nitrogen to reduce bodies to dust. Adelaide's Centennial Park cemetery plants trees to offset the site's emissions, and Koekisha, a major funeral home operator in Osaka, Japan, uses dry ice and a cold insulator to reduce carbon emissions from bodies.

Eco-friendly burials, popular in the United Kingdom for years, are catching on elsewhere. Low-impact offerings include naturalfiber shrouds, fair-trade bamboo caskets lined with unbleached cotton, and the $5,000 Ecopod, a biodegradable coffin made from recycled newspaper. In Japan, options include vegetable protein urns and capsules made from tea leaves.

Death is also becoming a vehicle for conservation. The UK is home to some 180 natural or woodland cemeteries, accounting for more than 10 percent of all burials. And Fernwood Cemetery in California, one of a handful of U.S. natural cemeteries, offers low-impact burials in wildflower meadows or redwood groves. Georgia company Eternal Reefs will incorporate your ashes into artificial coral reefs, used to restore fish habitat.

Lisa Mastny is senior editor of World Watch. She can be reached at lmastny@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.