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Are cremations eco-friendly?

Is cremation environmentally friendly? Cremation or Burial, which is the greener option? These are good questions with no easy answers …

Most people don’t base a decision on whether to get cremated on environmental grounds – either you want to be buried or you want to be cremated. Interestingly, over 70% of the UK population chooses a cremation and of those that prefer a cremation, close to 80% would like their ashes to be scattered as opposed to kept.

If you have a strong green bias, then there are arguments for both methods. That being said, the comparison is difficult and in order to be accurate, it needs to take into account the entire lifecycle of the processes, which adds to the complexity.

The process of cremation, because it uses a lot of energy has a higher carbon footprint than a burial. But taking into account the long-term maintenance of a grave, the land use and the pollutants introduced into the ground, at most conventional cemeteries, a burial is generally worse for the environment.

However, there exist the option, not yet popular unfortunately, to organise a green burial at a natural or woodland burial ground.  At these sites, strict guidelines prohibit embalming or the use of non ethically produced coffins; trees can be planted over the interments and can serve as remembrance marker, later to be visited by relatives and friends.  The land may have a secondary agricultural or forestry use or operate as a green space and nature reserve.  If there is no site nearby then the negative carbon impact of travel should be considered.

UK regulations specifies that crematoria will have to abide by 2020 to strict environmental standards on mercury emissions caused by tooth fillings using abatement technology on the flue gas. This focus on air quality is to be compared favourably with the toxicity of embalming chemicals, which can easily seep into the water table.

The following chart details the environmental impact of various funeral options as measured by a composite measure called the ‘shadow price’; the higher the shadow price, the higher the price on the environment and the least eco-friendly the solution is:

 

NB. Burial here represents the impact of using traditional funeral processes at a conventional cemetery; also please be aware that Water Hydrolysis is currently not available in the UK

All in all we would suggest that irrespective of the choice that you are making, you actively put in place mitigating strategies to limit the environmental impact of end-of-life ceremonies.

Here are some useful things to consider:

  • If practical choose a location for any ceremony near the greatest number of mourners. Carbon from travelling to the service, depending on the number of mourners, dwarfs most other impacts;
  • If there is a choice of crematoria look for the one that has the best record on emissions; more information can be found at the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities. We at NEO Cremations only work with crematoria which have been extensively diligenced and are scoring highly on our Crematorium Sustainability Index.
  • Choose a coffin that is environmentally friendly such as cardboard coffins, wicker coffins, coffins made from FSC certified wood, or even simple shrouds. As much as possible, try to buy one that is manufactured locally, preferably from products grown in the UK;
  • Think of alternative to floral tributes; most flowers are flown in adding to the carbon footprint. Also ask the florist to avoid the use of non compostable products like florist foam in plastic trays and cellophane wrapping. Using seasonal British flowers is also recommended.  Alternatively make your own tributes from your garden.

As for the environmental impact of scattering the funeral ashes themselves, the Environment Agency has produced some guidance on this. Essentially, don’t scatter ashes:

  • In rivers near places where people bathe or fish;
  • Less than a kilometre upstream of where water is taken for drinking;
  • Anywhere with a fragile ecosystem eg. mountain tops;
  • And please remove plastic wreaths that may end up in the water.
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