For most of us, options for true green cremation are still relatively limited. Never the less, cremation is generally considered to be less damaging to the environment than traditional in-ground burial. Cremation doesn’t require the vast acreage of land needed for cemeteries and doesn’t leave behind some 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde each year. With in-ground burial, there is also the problem of huge amounts of unrecycled metals, concrete, and wood left in the ground.
But even green cremation is far from perfect. Its facilities consume large amounts of energy and release greenhouse gases, mercury, and other particulate matter into the atmosphere. State-of-the-art cremation furnaces have come a long way in reducing emissions, but they still burn natural gas which means the release of potentially harmful carbon dioxide and other gases.
New technologies for filtering and metal abatement continue to be put into service along with improvements in energy efficiency. Nevertheless, critics argue that the environmental impact of cremation is still much too severe.
Tips for Making Your Cremation a Green Cremation
There’s not much you can do about the technology that is used for cremation, but you can take steps to make sure that your cremation does the least amount of harm to the environment as possible.
- Choose a casket or cremation container made of non-toxic materials such as recycled cardboard.
- Purchase a biodegradable urn or container for the remains.
- Authorize your cremation facility to recycle medical parts and metals.
- Make a contribution to the carbon fund to offset emissions.
- Select a cremation provider that uses an energy efficient furnace and filtering to minimize pollutants.
- If you are in an area where it is legal, consider bio cremation.
- Opt for a direct cremation in order to skip embalming.
- Scatter the ashes or consider burial at sea.
Bio Cremation (Alkaline Hydrolysis)
The disposition method that currently holds the most promise for providing environmentally gentle disposal is alkaline hydrolysis. Also referred to as bio cremation, aquamation, or resomation, alkaline hydrolysis uses a solution of water and potassium hydroxide instead of high heat flame. The solution is heated to approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit which dissolves the body. What remains is a sterile liquid and bone fragments. The process takes 2-3 hours and is said to use 1/8th of the energy of traditional cremation. It also eliminates the emission of mercury vapors that result when dental amalgam is burned.
Bio cremation is not new. In fact, Amos Herbert Hobson was granted a patent for the process in 1888. It received little attention until the late 1990s when the University of Florida began using bio cremation to dispose of cadavers that were donated for research. The Mayo Clinic began using it in 2006 and UCLA adopted the process around the same time.
The commercial use of bio cremation is legal in fourteen states with several others considering legislation to permit its use. Unfortunately, though, legal does not mean readily available. In some states, such as Florida, the process is used at the University of Florida for disposal of research cadavers but the process is not yet commercially available to the public. In California, alkaline hydrolysis has been in use at UCLA for some time but was only recently cleared for use by consumers. It will still take some time before the process becomes commercially available to the public.
STATES WHERE ALKALINE HYDROLYSIS IS LEGAL*
- North Carolina
*Source: Cremation Association of North America
To find out if the bio cremation or other green cremation options are available in your area, check with a local funeral director.
As consumers continue to look for more environmentally responsible alternatives, the process should become more widely accepted. The industry, however, is slow to change so for many, traditional cremation is the only option.
When the body is prepared for cremation, one of the first steps taken is to remove medical implant devices such as pacemakers and dental prosthetics. The crematory may then contract with a specialized recycling company to handle the materials. The devices should never be sold back for orthopedic use, instead, they are generally melted down and repurposed.
Some states prohibit crematories from profiting from the sale of medical devices. In states where profit is not prohibited, recycling might be donated to charity or used as another revenue stream. It is up to you to decide if this type of income generation makes a difference in determining what facility you choose.
Most reputable crematoriums will disclose their policies and procedures for recycling in the authorization materials that you are asked to sign. If you do not see this in the information you are provided, do not feel uncomfortable asking about it.