Cremation or Burial – Carbon Emissions and the Green Effect

Mar 16


Hal Stevens

Hal Stevens

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There is no denying the evidence that cremation is becoming a popular alternative to burial. And, more funeral homes and cemeteries are joining the trend of “green burials” which don’t use harmful chemicals in preparing the body. And many use biodegradable caskets. But which one of these is more environmentally friendly? The answer might surprise you.


The trend toward more “green” funerals and burials is rooted in being more environmentally friendly, Cremation or Burial – Carbon Emissions and the Green Effect Articles as well as, lowering costs.  For example, each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid which includes formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals. Buried caskets contain 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods. Cremation and burial vaults contain 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel. These statistics were complied from some very reliable sources which include: Casket and Funeral Association of America, Cremation Association of North America, Doric Inc., The Rainforest Action Network, and Mary Woodsen, Pre-Posthumous Society. 

In addition, Casket manufacturers are listed on the EPA’s top 50 hazardous waste generators list due to chemicals such as methyl and xylene used in the protective finish sprayed on the caskets exterior.  On a segment of a Fresh Air interview on NPR, Mark Harris, author of “Grave Matters: Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial” told host Terry Gross that the amount of wood from coffins located in a ten-acre cemetery is enough to build 40 houses and that there is enough concrete to build swimming pools for all of them.

On the surface cremation seems like a more friendly and convenient way to deal with the bodily remains of a loved one. But, let’s consider the impact of this truly industrial process. Like most modem, natural-gas devices, the technology is becoming more efficient and clean burning; however the amount of non-renewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the Moon and back… each year.

There is also a growing body of research that indicates cremation has a significant impact on the environment. Cremations lead to emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP). The United Nations indicates that crematoria contribute 0.2% of the global emission of dioxins and furans. 

“Green burials” in a “green cemetery” seem to be a viable alternative to both traditional burials and to cremations. Centennial Park Cemetery in the South Australian state capital of Adelaide said it had studied the carbon impact of burials and cremations. The Centennial Park Cemetery carries out more than 900 burials and around 3,300 cremations a year. Cemetery chief executive Bryan Elliott said that every cremation created around 160 kg (353 pounds) of carbon dioxide, compared to 39 kg of carbon dioxide for each burial. But when the cost of maintaining grave sites, mostly covered by lawns at

Centennial Park, is taken into account, cremations came out 10 percent greener than burials. “This is because we must look after the gravesite for a number of years by watering and mowing the surrounding lawn area and maintaining the concrete beam on which the headstone is placed,” Elliott said. “Burial is a more labor and resource intensive process, consumes more fuels and produces larger quantities of waste than cremation” added Elliott. 

Ok, so both cremation and traditional burials have both been found to be environmentally unfriendly. So what’s the best alternative? One thought is to use a nature preserve setting where funeral preparations and then burial is handled in a “green” way. The pollution impact is minimized and the beautiful forest-like setting is used to create a natural environment that is aesthetically beautiful and multi-functional. It can serve as both a cemetery and park to celebrate the environment and, celebrate life.  

So, which is really preferable? I am not suggesting cremation over burial, or vice versa; I am simply suggesting that whichever choice you make, make sure it is what the deceased wanted and that it is a most natural and beautiful celebration of that person’s life.