Climate change is in the news again. Consumers feeling the bite of higher fuel costs are seeking less expensive, and more environmentally friendly, options for transportation, packaging, and everyday energy use.
Environmentally conscious consumers are applying that same thinking to end-of-life issues. Individuals who seek to minimize their environmental footprints during life are looking for eco-friendly burial and cremation alternatives. In Europe, such “green” funeral options are already available. In the United States, where cemetery space is plentiful and the environmental movement has arguably had a smaller impact on everyday life than in Europe, the idea of green funerals is new. In this article, we present a primer on cremation and new options that allow for dignified memorials and respect for religious traditions while causing minimal harm to the environment.
The Cremation Process
Cremation involves the reduction of the human body to its basic carbon components, known as cremains. The operation of a crematory results in carbon and particulate emissions, but these emissions are typically well below the limits set by most state governments (CANA/EPA study, 1999). The industry is focusing its energy on reducing further the environmental effects of crematory operations.
Cremated remains are normally returned to the family in a temporary urn. Families often choose to replace this container with a permanent urn. Hundreds of urn designs are available in a variety of natural and man-made materials. If an urn is to be buried, cemetery regulations may require that the urn be placed inside a solid burial container. The outer container, which may be made of a concrete, metal, or composite, is designed to withstand the weight of the earth and foot traffic above it. Some cemeteries permit the use of a combination urn, which can be buried without an outer container. Combination urns will not degrade naturally.
Some families choose to keep cremated remains at home. In such cases, permanent urns of glass, cloisonne, crystal, or hardwood are appropriate choices. Memorial jewelry and keepsake urns are options for families that wish to bury some of the ashes, but retain some at home as a memorial.
Biodegradable Urns – A Green Option
Because traditional urns do not degrade naturally for a significant amount of time, biodegradable urns have become a popular green alternative. These urns are designed to degrade under natural conditions. They are suitable for the scattering of ashes in water, as many will dissolve within minutes, and they are a good choice for burial in cemeteries that permit urns to be buried without outer containers. Other urns, crafted of natural fibers, may degrade over a longer period of time, and are not suitable for use in water.