Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and use science to find everyday solutions.

I’m Megan Hall. This week’s question comes from listener Charlie Bakst. He was a columnist at the Providence Journal for forty years and he’s beginning to think about his own mortality. He says he wants to be buried when he dies.

Charlie Bakst: I have a problem in my imagination with the idea of being cremated. I don’t like the idea of them taking my body and consuming it. I don't know what they do exactly, but I don't want to know

But he’s curious, is burial or cremation more environmentally friendly?

We had Alina Kulman and Molly Magid from our Possibly team look into this question. Welcome Alina & Molly!

Alina Kulman: Hi Megan!

Molly Magid: Hello!

Megan Hall: So, what did you find out?

Alina: Well, we started by going down to Swan Point Cemetery to visit a place that’s set aside for what they call “green burials.”

Molly Magid: The president of the cemetery, Anthony Hollingshead, says these green burials start with a completely different type of coffin.

Anthony Hollingshead: It's a willow casket. Totally biodegradable… no artificial material around the grave.

Alina Kulman: These coffins make it easier for your body to degrade and turn into soil.

Megan Hall: But what about the chemicals used to preserve a body, doesn’t that harm the soil?

Molly Magid: Well in a green burial, the body isn’t embalmed with chemicals like formaldehyde.

Alina Kulman: Which means the body isn’t preserved, so the funeral usually has to happen closer to the time of death. That means that if you’re interested in having a green burial, it’s worth planning it ahead of time.

Megan Hall: Is there anything else that’s different about a green burial?


Molly Magid: Yes, Anthony explained that you don’t have your own gravestone. Instead, there’s a memorial stone for the whole area. This reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that come from pouring concrete for each person.

Alina Kulman: But green burials still take up space. And cemeteries have to mow and irrigate plots, which uses energy and water.

Megan Hall: Ok, well what about the impact of cremation?

Alina Kulman: Well, cremation definitely saves more space because ashes don’t have to be buried.

Molly Magid: But there are other things to worry about, starting with the energy that’s used to cremate someone.

Alina Kulman: It’s hard to get precise numbers, but the Cremation Association of North America says that, on average, the whole process releases about 70 kg of CO2 per cremation. 

Megan Hall: Is that a lot? 

Molly Magid: About as much as the emissions associated with a one way flight from Providence to Washington DC.

Megan Hall: Is that better or worse than the emissions from keeping a burial plot watered and mowed?

Molly Magid: Well, it depends. A normal burial is definitely worse, but some green burials grow native plants around the gravesite to limit the need for mowing and watering. So, it all comes down to how many resources are used to maintain your plot. 

Alina Kulman: But let’s put this into perspective- your burial isn’t going to significantly impact the planet. The carbon emissions from people flying to your funeral could be more than your burial or cremation. In the end, how you live matters much more for your carbon footprint than how you die. 

Molly Magid: And for something as profound as your final resting place, you have to think about your personal preferences and the preferences of your loved ones. For instance, Charlie says he still wants to be buried but…

Charlie Bakst: She has other plans. She wants to be cremated. We know this about each other and we don't really debate it. We just have different tastes.

Molly Magid: And now that Charlie knows about green burial, it’s something he’s considering for himself.

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks Alina and Molly.

For more information or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, please use our question page.

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public's Radio.  

Resources

  1. Environmental impact of Funerals. Life cycle assessments of activities after life. Keijzer, Elisabeth. September 2016 The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 22(5) DOI: 10.1007/s11367-016-1183-9
  2. Barbara Kemmis, Cremation Association of North America, personal communication, October 7, 2019.
  3. Carubia, J. (2013). Sustainable end-of-life arrangements: An overview. NCUR.
  4. “A different way to die: the story of a natural burial.” https://www.vox.com/2016/5/29/11775976/natural-green-burial
  5. “Ever Green” http://eastsidemonthly.com/stories/east-side-monthly-august-2019,32564
  6. “Death Be Not Manicured” https://slate.com/technology/2006/12/the-latest-in-green-burial.html
  7. Sustainable End-of-Life Arrangements: An overview http://ncurproceedings.org/ojs/index.php/NCUR2013/article/view/360/359
  8. “Eco-Afterlife: Green Burial Options” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eco-afterlife-green-buria/
  9. “How Does Cremation Measure in Sustainability?” https://www.northwoodscasket.com/northwoodscasket/2014/10/18/how-does-cremation-measure-in-sustainability

Cremation emissions calculations

The “worst case scenario” is only one cremation per day, since with multiple cremations, the chamber retains heat and uses less energy for subsequent cremations. The amount of energy used in this scenario is 13-14 therms. These figures comes from the following calculation (numbers from Barbara Kemmis at the Cremation Association of North America):

1.     The burner uses ~1.32 mmBTU/hr

2.     The total process is ~2 hours but the burner is on for only ~1 hour for the initial heat up, since after it’s heated, the air is circulated to maintain heat and minimize smoke emissions. This means it uses 1.32 mmBTU.

3.   1,320,000 BTU* 1 therm/99976.12 BTU = 13.2 therms

4.   1.32 mmBTU * 117 pounds CO2/mmBTU (from: http://bit.ly/2JzxpPV) = 154.4 pounds CO2 = 70 kg CO2