Is cremation bad for the environment? Yes, but it’s getting better!

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Despite more environmentally friendly options such as human composting becoming available, traditional cremations and burials are still the funerals of choice. Cremation is steadily increasing in the U.S according to the Cremation Association of North America – by 2023 nearly 60% of people are expected to be cremated. However, as well as living a planet-friendly lifestyle, people are increasingly considering their environmental impact after death. This raises the question – is cremation bad for the environment? Well, yes – but it is getting better!

What’s the bad news?

Emissions released during cremation

Carbon dioxide is emitted when a body is cremated – it is estimated that around 540 pounds of carbon dioxide are released during an average cremation. Significant strides have been made in terms of emissions. For example, most crematoriums must now have a filtering system to get rid of certain pollutants such as mercury emissions from dental fillings. However, carbon dioxide remains. This presents a significant environmental problem since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas – it contributes to climate change by trapping heat.

Energy used during cremation

It is estimated that a single cremation uses approximately the same energy as an individual uses at home every month. To make matters worse, this large amount of energy is largely derived from fossil fuels. As well as being non-renewable, the fossil fuel industry also brings significant environmental impacts including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, cremation of the dead is not the only activity fossil fuels are used for. However, it does support the fossil fuel industry and contributes to its environmental impacts.

It should be noted that alternatives to fossil fuels are increasingly being used. Holland and Germany are pioneers in moving towards more environmentally friendly and their products are being snapped up all over Europe. These models can even operate carbon neutral if green energy – such as that from solar panels – is used. A significant step forward for the industry.

Scattering ashes can be harmful

Human ashes are largely composed of dry calcium phosphates and minor minerals. Although these are not toxic, they can still have significant effect on the environment they get scattered on. If concentrated on a small patch of grass it can have a similar ‘burning’ effect to overusing fertilizer. Furthermore, some particularly sensitive ecosystems can have their ecology altered by the scattering of ashes. The more common spots are usually ok, but you should always do a bit research on your chosen spot – particularly if it is out of the ordinary!

However, there are some advantages…

No space is needed!

Space is a precious resource that we often don’t consider when we think about post-death options. Graveyards are quickly running out of space. Although initiatives such as grave ‘recycling’ are becoming more commonplace, it is a challenge we face. Cremation avoids all of this! Apart from land required for the crematorium and potentially that needed to bury an urn, it is extremely effective when it comes to space needed.

No chemicals introduced into the soil – unlike burials

Embalming is the process by which a body is preserved temporarily. The body is drained whilst a chemical mixture (including formaldehyde) is injected. When a body is buried, the chemicals used for embalming will eventually leach into the soil. Although the full impact of this is not fully known, what is certain is that it is not meant to be there!

The practice of laying flowers by a grave can also introduce some chemicals into the environment. Florists often treat flowers with chemical pesticides to control pests and diseases. Unfortunately, as well as repelling their target pests, these can pollute soils and local waterways.  

The bottom line

Traditional cremation is far from perfect – but the industry is taking strides forward to make it more environmentally friendly. Significant energy is still required for the process and harmful emissions released. However, like most things, the adherence to strict environmental standards will vary from place to place. Some will have more eco-friendly practices than others (some may even be fully electricity-powered!) Despite the main concerns with cremation, there are certainly some benefits. A very small amount of space is needed, and it does not lead to the same soil pollution issues that a traditional burial does.