Which One Is Most Eco-Friendly: Cremation or Burial?

by Taylor Evans April 29, 2022 4 min read

Laying our loved ones to rest is an important part of saying good-bye. Cultural and religious customs often dictate how we conduct our funerals, but it’s important to consider the environmental impact of these practices.

Burials and cremations are the standard practices for laying loved ones to rest. But nearly every aspect of these practices has environmental impacts, from the embalming of a body to the creation of urns for human ashes. Which is ecologically the best option? Let’s take a closer look at how burials and cremations affect the planet.

How Burials Impact the Environment

Humans have been burying lost loved ones for centuries. It’s become a deeply ingrained practice in cultures and religions worldwide.

While it may seem harmless, burials take a toll on the environment.

  • Chemicals used in embalming can leach into soil and the air.
  • Maintaining cemetery grounds is water-intensive.
  • Burials consume significant resources.

The Environmental Impact of Embalming

The embalming process uses a cocktail of chemicals to delay decay. Embalming may be performed if the body is on display for viewings or transported long distances.

Chemicals used in this process include formaldehyde, methanol, phenol and glycerin. All of these substances can cause irritation or burns. In addition, when buried with the dead, these chemicals can leach into the soil and potentially contaminate groundwater.

Burials Consume Significant Resources

According to research from Berkeley Planning Journal, burials in the U.S. consume the following each year:

  • 30 million feet of hardwoods
  • More than 100,000 tons of steel
  • 2,700 tons of bronze and copper
  • More than 1.6 million tons of concrete

Burials consume enough hardwoods to build more than a million homes.

Cemeteries Use Up Space and Resources

There are more than 20,000 cemeteries in the United States – that we know about. Modern cemeteries use up a great deal of land and maintaining the grounds can be resource-intensive. Care and maintenance require:

  • Water
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides

Fertilizers and pesticides can make their way into the soil and groundwater. They can also harm wildlife, including bees.

How Cremation Impacts the Environment

It’s clear that burials consume a lotof resources and can be harmful to the environment by polluting soil and groundwater. But what about cremation?

On the surface, cremation may sound like the more ecological option. While cremation is less harmful than burials, the process still releases harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, including:

  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Heavy metals
  • Soot
  • Mercury from dental fillings

Cremated remains are sterile, so even if you choose to bury them, they will not provide the earth with any nutrients.

Mercury is a big concern with cremation. Vaporized mercury can enter the atmosphere and cause acid rain during the cremation process. Fillings can be removed before cremation, but families must ask funeral directors to do so.

The creation of traditional cremation urns also consumes significant resources, such as bronze, wood and other materials.


Ecological Options
to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

Traditional cremation is, overall, the more ecological option compared to burials. However, there are other more environmentally friendly options available.

Biodegradable Cremation Urns

           

Whether you plan to bury or scatter your loved one’s ashes, a biodegradable urn is a more environmentally friendly option than traditional urn materials.

We have a wide selection of biodegradable urns made from materials such as:

  • Kraft and recycled paper
  • Vegetable-based gelatin
  • Tree bark
  • Himalayan rock salt
  • Earthurn paper

Some of these urns dissolve within just hours of being put in water. Others will break down naturally over the years.

You can find biodegradable funeral urns for ashes in various shapes, sizes and styles, including heart urns or urns shaped like seashells.


Tree Pods


A new trend in burials is tree pods. With this concept, a body can be placed inside of a pod that is placed in the earth and eventually, grows into a tree. Other similar concepts are available for cremated ashes.

The Capsula Mundi project is the most well-known, real-world example of this concept.

Woven Caskets


To make burials more environmentally friendly, woven caskets are an option. These caskets are made from wicker, willow, bamboo or a combination of these materials. These materials naturally break down over time, and they create a beautiful casket to bury your loved one in.

Handles are made with sturdy materials, making this casket easy to transport.

Woven caskets can also be used for cremation, so they are not only limited to burials.

The Mushroom Suit


Jae Rhim Lee, creator and co-founder of Coeico, envisions a new way to lay our loved ones to rest. She has developed a special burial suit that is lined with mushroom spores. Over time, the mushrooms consume the body.

Why mushrooms? Fungi have a great ability to absorb and purify toxins that can be harmful to the environment. As the mushrooms break down the body, they transfer the nutrients to other fungi in their network and then to neighboring trees.

Natural Organic Reduction: Human Composting 


Body composting is a new type of green burial. Also known as re-composting, the process works similarly to garden composting, where bodies are transformed into soil.

Composting recently became legal in Washington state, and other nearby states are following suit. The Urban Death Project is a full-service funeral home that offers this service. Here’s how their process works:

  • The body is placed in a vessel surrounded by straw, wood chips and alfalfa.
  • The vessel is then closed to start the transformation process,
  • The body stays in the vessel for 30 days and will create 1 cubic yard of soil
  • Families can pick up the soil and use it in their gardens.

For those who want to give back to the earth after death, composting is a viable option, but it is only legal in a few states.

Final Thoughts

Funeral practices can be hard on the environment, but families have more options than ever when it comes to cremation urns, caskets and rituals. Choosing ecological options can help reduce the environmental impact of funerals.

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