climate change and cremation

I intend to write a much more thorough piece about this later but here are some quick thoughts on the recent climate change report and the inevitable cremation we will all experience.

Most people in this country are going to be cremated when they die. For decades now it has been presented as the logical way to fight back against the sins of the funeral industry, their bloated service fees and environmentally harmful practices. Cremation is just easier, right? It saves time, space and money, plus we’re so dispersed that no one is around to come to our funeral anyway.

The not-so-secret secret is that cremation is definitely not environmentally-friendly and will ultimately cost us in the long run if we don’t change our ways or stop choosing it completely. Since many people believe we are going to run out of land if we keep burying people, this is not likely to happen but I’ll get that later.

Regarding cremation, burning a retort (oven) uses enough energy to power a 500+ mile road trip. It emits carbon dioxide, among other chemicals, into the atmosphere and the resulting ashes are inorganic material with a high PH that can actually damage the soil where you spread them. But, you will probably be dealing with a cremation in the future so let's look at what you can do to reduce your footprint right now:

  • Choose the crematory closest to you that has the newest equipment. The newer retorts are going to be subjected to strictest emissions regulations - for whatever that is worth!

  • Buy carbon offsets yourself or find a funeral home the purchases these for every cremation. See if you can purchase additional offsets for the cost of the drive over there and for the courier who drives to get cremation permits.
    A word about offsets: I know there are a lot of scammy offset programs and the whole cap & trade idea they are born out of feels likes helping the rich profit off of climate control, but there is some (small) evidence that they are helpful. Do your research and purchase from groups with proven results (full disclosure: my friend who owns a funeral home uses this group).

  • Don’t buy funeral products that insist they are going to make a tree out of the ashes. For one thing, the tree doesn’t grow from the ashes because they basically turn to cement when they get wet. Second, the product was most likely shipped, or needs to be shipped, to you creating more of a carbon footprint. Instead, read this soothing gardening forum about how you can bury ashes in a meaningful way yourself.

On the topic of land. Land use and management, already a big issue, is going to become an even more urgent issue in the next...12 years. To that end, traditional cemeteries are definitely not a sustainable option and have never been. Aside from their well-documented pollution, one body, one grave is a uniquely American notion. Other countries that have much less land have practiced sharing grave space, renting graves and have been leading the green burial movement for decades. Green burial has started to make an impact in this country but funeral and cemetery laws differ from state to state and have made it difficult to dedicate space for this.

In short, (like, very short) green burial is legal in all states. At its most useful, green burial can restore a landscape and protect it from further harmful industrialization while sustaining the wildlife that thrives there. While reforestation is the best carbon filter, prairies and meadows can make a substantial difference in removing toxins from the atmosphere.

Start asking local environmental organizations you support if they would consider stewarding land that could be used as a green burial ground which could also act as reserve for endangered wildlife and plants. Start advocating locally that your city cemeteries allow for green burial space.

I am working on a couple projects like this in Texas and if you would like to get involved or you have land available, get in touch.

At the very least, keep an open mind about what death and funeral rituals should look like because truly, they need to change.