Ask Pablo

After the Grim Reaper arrives, what's the greenest way to dispose of our bodies?


Pablo Plastic
August 11, 2008 2:45PM (UTC)

Dear Pablo,

If you want to have the smallest impact on the environment when you go, which do you choose: cremation or burial?

At first I thought this topic was too morbid for my upbeat and positive column. But then I received an almost identical question a week later and I realized every one of my readers has something in common, namely they all die someday. And since most people are reading this column because of their care for the environment (or to deny climate change and proclaim that the world is flat) it follows that my readers want to not only live green but die green. (I ought to copyright that.)

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Some have realized this opportunity before me, and several companies offer green burial or body disposal options. But before we explore those, let's look at the initial question: cremation or burial? While there are carbon-dioxide emissions associated with cremation, the decay of a buried body in the absence of oxygen creates about the same amount of methane, which is 21 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. Pair that with the issue that valuable land is used up for burial and I think cremation wins. Add to that the impact of embalming, which involves the use of toxic and carcinogenic formaldehyde, or the less toxic glutaraldehyde. In many states, open-casket funerals require embalming, but if you opt for a closed casket, pine box and cremation, you can avoid the use of toxic chemicals.

In addition to any embalming chemicals introduced, our bodies contain so many chemicals and heavy metals that they can be considered hazardous waste under many definitions. Cremation may release dioxin and mercury into the atmosphere, while burial allows them to leach into groundwater.

According to GreenBurials.org, most people polled through the AARP Web site would prefer a green burial instead of a traditional burial or cremation. Green burials entail those that avoid embalming, use biodegradable caskets, and involve a green cemetery such as the GreenSprings Natural Cemetery in New York, Fernwood Cemetery in California or facilities that meet the Green Burial Council's standards, such as those holding a conservation easement on their land. One creative approach is taken by a Georgia company called Eternal Reefs, which mixes cremated remains (or "cremains") with concrete to produce artificial reefs that create habitat for numerous species.

A new method that has been used for years to dispose of roadkill has recently received a lot of press. Alkaline hydrolysis entails dissolving a body with lye, intense heat and pressure in a steel cylinder. The idea of flushing the resulting liquid -- it resembles motor oil -- down the drain sounds disgusting, but the method is a sanitary and environmentally friendly alternative, according to its advocates. Currently no funeral home offers this option, and it is legal in only a few states, including New Hampshire and Minnesota. A bill to legalize the process in New York was dubbed the "Hannibal Lecter Bill."

Ultimately the decision around the disposal of your body is a very personal one that needs to be carefully weighed. Luckily several environmentally friendly options are available, and you are likely to find one that meets your personal environmental values.


Pablo Plastic

Got a question about the environment? Ask Pablo at AskPablo@Salon.com.

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