Insights into The Environmental Cost of Death, and a Guide to Creating an Eco-Friendly End-Of-Life Plan
By Sarah Kessler of JoinCake.com
You might do everything you can to live an eco-friendly lifestyle and reduce your carbon footprint with the way that you live. But what you might not often consider is that dying can have a substantial impact on the environment, too.
Traditional funerals and final disposition methods (burial and cremation) are major contributors to our carbon emissions problem.
Making eco-friendly decisions for the end of life can help to protect the environment and reduce the amount of waste produced by traditional end-of-life practices.
Death is as natural a process as there is, so how can it have such a negative impact on the environment?
That’s because modern death care involves many chemical and mechanical processes that counteract the nature of decomposition and negatively affect the environment.
Traditional burial involves chemical embalming, plus burial in a hardwood or metal casket, often placed inside a concrete burial vault. This translates to hundreds of thousands of gallons of formaldehyde and thousands of tons of steel and concrete going into the earth each year in the US alone.
While cremation is often considered a more sustainable choice, it also has its drawbacks. Cremating a single body releases approximately 600 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere on average.
An eco-friendly end-of-life plan is a plan for your funeral, final disposition, and distribution or disposal of your belongings in an environmentally friendly way, ensuring that you are reducing your environmental impact even after your death.
Unfortunately, we can’t always rely on the people we leave behind to honor our environmentally friendly lifestyle after death. Even if you do your best to live a carbon-neutral life, your family and loved ones might just go the traditional route for your funeral and final disposition. And this can end up canceling out a lot of the work you did to honor the environment while alive.
The only way to ensure that your values are carried on after your death is by creating an end-of-life plan.
If you’re ready to create an end-of-life plan that’s environmentally friendly and sustainable, here are some factors to consider putting in writing.
Embalming is toxic to the environment and unnecessary. Contrary to the marketing efforts of many funeral homes, embalming does not halt the decomposition process; it only delays it and makes it more harmful to the Earth.
The purpose of embalming is actually to preserve the body so that it can be viewed at a funeral. However, you can choose not to have a viewing or preserve the body through freezing rather than embalming.
If you opt for burial, another option you have is to choose a biodegradable casket. Funeral homes often only sell hardwood and metal caskets, which aren’t biodegradable and interrupt the natural decomposition process. It’s important to know that the funeral home must accept a casket purchased elsewhere, and they can’t require you to buy a casket from them in order to receive their services.
If you’re creating your end-of-life plans, it’s a good idea to shop for the biodegradable casket you want to be placed in, and you can even buy the casket ahead of time. Some options include softwood (typically pine) caskets, wicker caskets, cardboard caskets, and fabric burial shrouds.
Not all cemeteries permit burial without embalming or in a decomposable container. A solution to this problem is green cemeteries. If you want to create an eco-friendly end-of-life plan, it’s a good idea to search for green cemeteries in your local area.
List this cemetery in your plans as where you want to be buried. You can even call the cemetery ahead of time and ask about pre-purchasing a plot.
Green cemeteries also benefit the Earth because they typically abstain from harmful groundskeeping practices, such as the use of fertilizers and excessive watering.
If you would rather be cremated after you pass, there are some steps you can take to mitigate the environmental impact of cremation. One way to do this is to shop around your local area for a crematory that has strict pollution controls in place.
Call the crematories in your area to ask how they control their emissions, and choose the crematory that has the strongest controls in place. List this crematory in your end-of-life plan as the place you would like to be cremated.
Another cremation option that can reduce emissions is water cremation, also known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis.
With water cremation, the body is placed in a container filled with water and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. This solution is heated up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (drastically lower than the high heat required for flame cremation) and agitated for about 20 hours.
At the end of the process, only the skeleton is left. This can then be ground up into a powder that can be returned to your loved ones.
Aquamation is friendlier to the environment than flame cremation, and it closely imitates the natural decomposition process (albeit at a sped-up version).
If you want to contribute to the health of the Earth after you’re gone, you might want to consider human composting. Only six states in the US currently allow human composting (Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York), but if you’re in one of these states, it’s worth considering.
In the human composting process, the body is placed in a large compost container and covered with straw and other natural materials. The body decomposes and turns into compost material just as any other organic matter would.
After only about a month, the body is reduced to compost that can be used in a garden. The family members of the deceased receive this composting material.
Being buried at sea is another way to promote the natural decomposition process.
Several services along the coasts of the US offer full-body water burial. With these services, a boat takes your closest family and friends out into open water, and your body is lowered into the sea with a small ceremony.
You can also have your ashes or aquamated remains turned into part of a coral reef that supports sea life.
Making end-of-life plans used to be a daunting and unapproachable task. But today, there are many online tools that help you put your wishes into writing and even share them with your loved ones.
Cake’s end-of-life planning tool lets you record and share your wishes by answering several prompts. You can print, share, and change your plans at any time, for free.
Cake also offers an online will-maker, which allows you to create a simple will for a much lower cost than an attorney, as well as many other tools and resources to help you plan for the end of life. Using a will, you can ensure that your belongings are also disposed of and distributed in an environmentally friendly way.
Most of the impact we have on the Earth is caused by our actions in life. But it’s also important to consider the environmental impact caused by our deaths.
By avoiding toxic practices like embalming and burial vaults, as well as incorporating Earth-friendly practices and materials, you can leave a legacy of sustainability and eco-consciousness that will last beyond your death.
About the Author
Sarah is a writer at JoinCake.com, an end-of-life planning website with free resources and information on how to estate plan and honor loved ones’ final wishes.