Even with the best of intentions, it’s almost impossible to avoid leaving a carbon footprint during your lifetime. Use any form of motor transport, throw away an item destined for landfill or switch on your heating on a cold day and by these simple actions you will be contributing to environmental pollution and – it is widely believed – climate change.
“But it’ll all stop when I’m dead!” I hear you say. Unfortunately, there is one final hurdle to jump before you can truly claim to have passed beyond the point of affecting the environment, and that’s the way you choose to dispose of your earthly remains.
Last year a survey carried out by the government website YouGov discovered that while 17% of people in the UK want to be buried when they die, almost six out of ten would prefer to be cremated. It takes a huge amount of energy to reduce a human body to ashes and crematoria generate temperatures of 870-980 °C (1,600-1,800 °F). The process also releases toxins in the form of gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen chloride, dioxins, furans, formaldehyde and a small amount of mercury.
Burials can be eco-friendly, provided the coffin and everything inside is made of natural materials, but some of the processes involved in burial do release damaging chemicals. For example, embalming fluid – a recognised carcinogen – will eventually leach into the soil, while coffins made of hardwood take a long time to break down and any plastic fittings attached will probably release toxins as they degrade. That’s not to mention any concrete or steel used in the creation of burial vaults, nor the upkeep of burial grounds, where energy and resources are required to maintain the lawns, pathways and flowerbeds.
Recently families in the USA and Canada have had the opportunity to sign up to methods of disposal that offer an alternative to conventional burial or cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis – known as Resomation and often dubbed “green cremation” – is a chemical process similar to natural anaerobic digestion (a process already used in medical clinics). The body is placed in water inside an aluminium container and the soft tissue is then broken down into a non-toxic liquid, using a combination of potassium hydroxide, heat and pressure. This method leaves the skeleton, as well as any medical implants, completely intact. The bones can subsequently be buried, or ground to a powder similar to cremated ashes.
There are indications that the technique may soon become available in the UK, although currently there are only around 14 funeral directors in the world offering this ‘green’ option. Further eco-friendly methods in the pipeline are Cryomation – where a body is freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen then broken up into granules for burial – and ecoLegacy, where the body is cooled, then reduced to powder using pressure waves.
Just 5% of the respondents in YouGov’s survey said they were looking for “something else” when it came to the disposal of their mortal remains, so it’s difficult to predict the level of take-up when these new options become available in the UK. Although the British public may initially be slow to break with established traditions, the introduction of ‘greener’ forms of burial and cremation will at least provide a wider choice for those of us seeking to leave the lightest possible carbon footprint on our planet.