Burying dead bodies takes a surprising toll on the environment

The ritual of burying a dead body is so deeply ingrained in religious and cultural history that few of us take a moment to question it.

But when you dig into the statistics, the process of preserving and sealing corpses into caskets and then plunging them into the ground is extremely environmentally unfriendly.

Toxic chemicals from the embalming, burial, and cremation process leach into the air and soil, and expose funeral workers to potential hazards. And maintaining the crisp, green memorial plots is extremely land-and-water-heavy.

For this reason, scientists and conservationists have been looking into more eco-friendly ways to die.

“The best way is to allow your body to feed the earth or ocean in a way that is sustainable for future generations,” Susan Dobscha, a professor of marketing at Bentley University and editor of an upcoming book about the green burial industry called, “Death and a Consumer Culture,” told Tech Insider via email.

Here are five reasons why modern burial practices are bad for the environment, along with some safer, more natural and conservation-focused alternatives.

The embalming process is toxic.

Richard Bryant/Wikimedia Commons

Embalming is the process of pumping a chemical cocktail of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin into the body through an artery to delay the body's rate of decay. This could be used for display purposes during funerals, long-distance transportation, or for use for medical or scientific research. It is also said to give the body a life-like appearance for public viewing.

Formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen, and can be lethal if a person is exposed to high concentrations. Its fumes can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Phenol, similarly, can irritate or burn the flesh, and is toxic if ingested. Methyl alcohol and glycerin can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and throat.

According to an article published in the Berkeley Planning Journal, more than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are put into the ground along with dead bodies every year in the US. That's enough to fill one and a quarter Olympic-sized swimming pools each year.

Many materials go into a burial.

According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, conventional burials in the US every year use 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.

The amount of casket wood alone is equivalent to about 4 million acres of forest and could build about 4.5 million homes.

Funerals are expensive.

The cost of an average funeral runs around $A13,000, according to the Berkeley Planning Journal. This includes undertaker and cemetery fees, a burial vault, flowers, clothing, transportation, and other related charges.

With nearly 2 million people buried every year, the funeral industry as a whole rakes in about $A20 billion a year.

Cremation is not much better.

iStock

Burning your body into ashes to be kept in an urn or scattered into the ocean instead of a tradition burial is becoming increasingly more common. In fact, more than 50% of Californians prefer cremation to a burial.

While cremation is less harsh on the environment than traditional burial, the process is still noxious. It releases nasty chemicals into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings, which are particularly concerning.

In contrast to a natural burial, in which a body is simply left to decompose in nature, cremated ashes are sterile and do not supply nutrients back into the earth.

Eco-friendly alternatives do exist.

Greener forms of burial include encasing your body into a pod that eventually sprouts into a tree, or sealing your ashes in a concrete ball that will plunge to the bottom of the ocean to feed coral reefs. These are the best ways to be buried responsibly, Dobscha said.

Other great ways, Dobscha continued, include foregoing embalming, getting buried in a wood-only casket, and using alkaline hydrolysis instead of cremating.

There are also biodegradable casket options, including bamboo, paper, cardboard, wool, banana leaf, and willow.

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