Person lying on the ground with plants growing out of their body
Dead Serious

Ways the funeral industry impacts the environment

Dead Serious

Ways the funeral industry impacts the environment

The impacts of the funeral industry on climate change are forcing providers to make serious changes.

Humans have been burying the dead for a long time. Like a really long time. And in a lot of different ways. Today, the US funeral industry is a booming enterprise worth approx. $20 billion annually. With an aging population and rising death rates, there’ll always be someone to bury or cremate.

But this industry isn’t without some consequences. Burying or cremating are not harmless actions when it comes to the environment. Even above-ground burials come with some effect on the surrounding area. Whether we want to believe it or not, even something as simple as a burial or cremation can have long-lasting consequences. What are those consequences and how does the funeral industry affect the environment? Let’s take a look below.

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  1. How are traditional burials bad for the environment?
  2. Is cremation bad for the environment?
  3. What does this have to do with climate change?
  4. Are there any green burial options out there?

How are traditional burials bad for the environment?

Traditional burials, like those seen in many Christian denominations, affect the land around them. And not always for the better. According to Mary Woodson of Cornell University, burials in the United States use an absurd amount of chemicals, wood, and steel. Approx. 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, 16 million tons of concrete, and 17 thousand tons of copper are used in burials every year!

All those chemicals seep into the ground as bodies decay. Of the 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde makes its way into the ground. And the wood used in caskets each year could build approx. 40 homes. It’s not out of pocket to view cemeteries as quasi-landfills, where dangerous chemicals and materials are stored in one place. This deadly combination can pollute the ground and may even find their way into a community’s drinking water. So cemeteries can have an adverse effect if people aren’t careful. But what about the other most popular method of dealing with dead bodies?

Annual amount of substances used in burials

Four sections in a rectangle detailing amount of materials used in funerals. Clockwise: board of feet of hardwood, 20 million, gallons of embalming fluid 4.3 million, tons of concrete 1.6 million, and tons of copper 17 thousand.
Green Burial Council, “Disposition Statistics", updated Jan 2022.

Is cremation bad for the environment?

More people are choosing to cremate their loved ones. But while cremations are greener than burials, they aren’t fully green. Is cremation bad for the environment? Well, the furnaces in crematories often release dangerous chemicals into the air. On average, one cremation can last for hours and release almost 600lbs of carbon dioxide into the air. For comparison, that’s almost the same amount of emissions as two tanks of gas in an average sized car.

It doesn’t end there. While the cremation process may not be great for carbon footprints, the ashes themselves must be harmless, right? Mm, not quite. Media is always showing ashes being scattered on mountaintops or at the ocean. But cremains (cremated remains aka bones) have an incredibly high pH balance and sodium levels that can be toxic for plants and soil in large enough amounts.

What does this have to do with climate change?

Look, we get it. Things can be bad for the environment without necessarily adding to climate change. While the numbers above may seem shocking, compared to other carbon emitters, they appear relatively small. But cremations are becoming more popular. Approx. 70% of people in Canada choose cremations over traditional burials. Without appropriate equipment, that’s a lot of carbon dioxide being put into the air.

And we’ve already noted that cemeteries have the potential to introduce harmful chemicals into the ground, which can affect the health of nearby soil and contaminate drinking water. And as Pew Research notes, by 2025, half of the world’s population will reside in water-stressed areas. Not only will drinking water be affected, but there will be less water available to keep cemeteries green. A few years ago, one Californian cemetery used 293 million gallons of potable water!

Then we have to think about more erratic weather patterns. Let’s take New Orleans as an example. The city’s famous above-ground cemeteries are due to necessity as it sits below sea level with high water tables. So when floods happen, water shifts the graves around and bodies may be washed out into the open (as if New Orleans wasn’t spooky enough). If flooding is going to become more common around certain US areas, we’re going to have to figure out new methods of dealing with bodies.

Are there any green burial options out there?

Luckily, the funeral industry is taking steps to mitigate some of these harms and there are sustainable death or green burial alternatives. Crematoriums are developing better filtration systems to avoid putting chemicals like mercury into the ground. And some communities, like Los Angeles, have put limits on the hours that crematoriums can run in the past.

Funeral homes, for their part, are recognizing the benefits of green burial alternatives. There are coffin alternatives, such as wicker or woven caskets. And some have even started to offer shroud burials, where the deceased is wrapped in cloth or linen as opposed to a massive casket. Shroud burials aren’t a new idea (it’s where the classic image of a “bedsheet” ghost comes from), but with climate change, interest is returning.

Regardless, climate change is going to alter the way that we honor our dead. We’ve been burying people for millennia, and we don’t doubt we’ll continue to do so. What those methods look like, we can only imagine. The next part of this piece will explore more eco-funeral options that may become more popular in the future.

The opinions we expressed in this post are for general informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations.