Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

‘Save Land for the Living’

The trend isn’t confined to urban areas. In fact, cremation is most popular in relatively less populated Western states. Percentage wise, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Arizona had the highest rates of cremation, all near or above 60 percent in 2005, according to CANA. Maine was the only Eastern state to breach the top 10.

Thanks to more responsible burial practices, most no longer regard cremation as a solution to a public health issue; Americans primarily opt for cremation because of cost. It can be drastically cheaper than a traditional burial, though it depends on several variables such as the extent of funeral services. But the second most popular reason Americans choose cremation is that it “saves land,” according to a 2005 study by The Wirthlin Group. That’s a common refrain in the international cremation community, too. “The living do not get land to put up houses, schools, etc.,” Joseph Quarcoo, of Ghana’s Ridge Cremation, wrote in an email. That company uses the slogan: “Save Land for the Living.”

While cremation was prevalent in certain cultures throughout history, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, religious doctrine has traditionally impeded its widespread practice in the West. Historically, Christians have resisted cremation, and Catholicism did not permit it until the 1960s. Jewish law proscribes cremation and, in the last century, memories of the Holocaust have bolstered that tradition. Islam also requires the body to be buried. Conversely, Hindus are traditionally cremated, as are Buddhists; the Buddha himself is said to have been cremated. But as many religions adapt to modern mores and Americans become increasingly secular, the influence of these restrictions has waned. One of the top 10 factors affecting the rise in cremation in the U.S. is “religious restrictions diminishing,” according to the Wirthlin Group study.

Though cremation has overcome many of the hurdles it faced in the U.S., it still has its critics here — and they aren’t just religionists. While more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial, cremation still bears an impact. “I think it’s the second-best option,” Kimberely Cambell said (with apparent personal interest, right or wrong). “It does take a tremendous amount of energy.”

The typical cremation takes between two and two-and-a-half hours at 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s about half the heat needed to melt steel, at the low end, or slightly less than one-fifth as hot as the surface of the sun on the high end.) Any given carbon footprint is notoriously difficult to measure because of the multiple variables involved. But one informal study, on the website, which takes into account the body, the heat and the casket, estimates that the cremation of a 110-pound woman would release 165 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — the equivalent of heating a house for two weeks. (Of course, any change in the variables — the type of casket or the size of the body — would change the result.)

Cremation also contributes a small but significant amount of pollution. It can release mercury, as from dental fillings, into the atmosphere, though this problem does not affect the U.S. as much as it does other countries, particularly Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, according to data compiled in a report by Environment Canada, a government agency in America’s neighbor to the north. And crematoria are responsible for 0.2 percent of dioxin and furan emissions worldwide, two common pollutants, according to a joint study by several international groups, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (Dioxins are a central component of Agent Orange.) “Cremation has an environmental drag,” Mark Harris said. But it also “stacks up pretty well.”

Cremated remains, or cremains — the ground-up bone fragments left behind following incineration, typically placed in an urn — can be put to use in creative and environmentally friendly ways. A company called Eternal Reefs, for example, mixes cremains into concrete to create artificial reefs. Dropped into the sea, they help to revitalize debilitated oceans by supporting the development of marine life, thus sustaining the natural ecosystem.

“This memorial is a true living legacy,” according to the company’s website. “Rather than passing an urn down to future generations, or taking space in a cemetery.”

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