It is impossible to put a price on the comfort which services like burials and cremations have brought to the bereaved in the last few hundred years. However, recently, we have become increasingly aware of the unintended consequences of some of these actions and the negative impacts that they are having on our environment.
Funeral Directors, Crematoria, and Cemeteries alike are facing a significant challenge in the Bereavement Sector – the climate crisis. Namely the impact that funerals, burials, and cremations are having on the environment and how these ways of putting our loved ones to rest have unknowingly been contributing to Global Warming and Climate Change.
Primarily, when we look at cremations, there is a major concern with rising carbon dioxide levels. When a cremation occurs, large quantities of CO² emissions are expelled into the atmosphere, requiring huge amounts of energy to cremate one single body. In contrast to a natural burial, cremated ashes are sterile and do not supply any nutrients back into the earth. Because of cremations, millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions are produced each year, causing significant concern for environmentalists and pushing us to re-evaluate the cremation process.
Burials, too, have their own sets of challenges regarding sustainability. Toxic chemicals which leach into the soil can be detected in groundwater around cemeteries, exposing funeral workers and the natural environment to potential hazards. Furthermore, the intensive maintenance of the green and luscious memorial plots is extremely demanding on carbon fuels to power lawnmowers and other equipment
And it is not simply the act of burials or cremations that is doing the damage, but the entire process. Today the use of chipboard with quality veneers is common for the construction of less expensive coffins. However, the resin composition can contribute to pollutants in the soil, and granite is imported from overseas used for headstones does not support the local ecology. Casket wood is also a major worry, knowing deforestation is already playing a huge part in the climate change we see around the world.
So, the big question is, how can we limit the damage that we are doing to the environment? How can Funeral Directors, Crematoria, and Cemeteries all ensure they are following best practices when it comes to protecting our planet?
It cannot be avoided that approximately 1% of the populace die each year, and the dead must be laid to rest. We sadly cannot avoid the fact that both interments and cremations have negative impacts on the environment and always will do to a degree, no matter which process we use. However, we do have ways in which we can minimise the impact on the environment. We can choose to embrace the roles of custodians and stewards of the land in four key areas; Pollution Reduction, Ecological Habitats, Recycling, and Energy Consumption.
- The construction of chipboard and MDF coffins involves the use of formaldehyde and other resins to bind together the material. It is known that this produces NOx during the cremation process, which is a greenhouse gas. To prevent the formation of NOx alternatives to chipboard/MDF coffins, the education of Funeral Directors, informative literature, and alternative products should be considered.
- The cremation process produces a range of potentially harmful emissions, including mercury, heavy metals, and dioxins. Manufacturers have developed technology to filter/treat these harmful emissions, and these should be installed.
- The intensive maintenance of grounds has been recognised as damaging to the environment. For example, the widespread mining of peat releasing stored CO² into the atmosphere. The use of peat-free compost, limiting the application of chemical-based pesticides and herbicides, the reduction of ornamental lawns requiring intensive maintenance, setting aside and rewilding natural areas to encourage wildlife can all benefit the environment.
- It is important there is a mixture of formal and natural areas within the grounds.
- Areas identified and specifically maintained to ‘welcome wildlife’ through a recognised maintenance regime. To ensure they are not mistaken for ‘neglected areas,’ there are clear indicators that the grounds are managed to encourage wildlife, for example, a mowing strip along the edge, provision of bug hotels, woodpiles, nest boxes, a good variety of bee-friendly wildflowers and information signs
- A considerable amount of energy is used/generated in the cremation process, the vast majority of which exits directly into the atmosphere. The installation of new technologies, including heat exchangers, enables some of this energy to be recovered to heat the facility. Thus, reducing the negative impact on the environment by reducing the energy required to heat the building.
- Changes to our climate and future weather patterns indicate that the UK and mainland Europe can expect to experience longer, warmer, drier summers and warmer and wetter winters. Climate change predictions highlight the need to manage our water usage more efficiently to minimise the effects of these changes on our daily lives. Rainwater harvesting reduces water bills, demand on supply, reduces flooding, and soil erosion.
- Most Memorials are now made from granite, which is imported from countries including China and India. The considerable distances involved in transporting the granite increase its carbon footprint, creating considerable amounts of CO². In addition, the granite itself does not support biodiversity. There are more environmentally friendly alternatives that support biodiversity, can be recycled, or are produced locally.
- Raising the temperature of cremators to operating levels uses considerable amounts of energy whilst producing CO². This negative impact can be mitigated by carrying out several cremations once the cremator is at operating temperature.
- Renewable energy is energy that is collected from renewable resources, which are naturally replenished on a human timescale, such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves, and geothermal heat. It promotes:
- making use of secure and local resources
- reducing your dependence on non-renewable energy
- helping to reduce the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Yes, we are facing a crisis, but we are also at an exciting time to trailblaze solutions. These are just some of the activities, referred to in the UK Crematorium Compliance Scheme operated by the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, that need to be undertaken today to protect our planet for the future. What innovative ideas have you implemented?
To find out more, check out our Climate Emergency Webinar Series on our resources page.