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The Environmental Impact of our Death - Part 1

By Linda Banks 

 

Scientists can measure the effect of our daily living on the planet, our human footprint.  But what about the impact of our death?

Studies by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and other government and private organizations confirm what many suspect: humans use more resources than the earth can produce.  The WWF predicts that by 2050, humans will use the equivalent of two earths of renewable resources every year. Driving to work, doing laundry, watching TV in our air-conditioned home all use natural resources.  Increasingly, more of us pay attention to how we live.  We reduce, reuse, recycle.  And now we are starting to consider what impact our dying has on our planet. 

Funeral directors and crematories are the primary burial care providers in the United States. Most people still choose traditional funerals and burial, but that is changing. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (www.NFDA.com),  42% of Americans choose to be cremated in 2011. That's up from 3% in 1960, an increase of 14 times, and growing.

What is the environment impact of traditional burials on the environment?

Up until the 19th century when there were fewer of us around, death and burial was a family affair.  Families washed the deceased for a viewing in the parlor. This was followed by a graveside service and burial in the family plot or church yard in a wooden coffin.  Today however, funerals and the disposition of final remains are (mostly) done by professionals, and are more complicated.  There are more of us living, more of us dying, and most funerals are no longer simple.

Consider the materials that traditional burials usually impose on the earth:

  1. tons of polished caskets
  2. steel liners
  3. concrete vaults
  4. polished tombstones
  5. artificial flowers

The Center for Natural Burial estimates that a 10-acre cemetery contains:

  1. 1,000 tons of casket steel
  2. 20,000 tons of concrete for the vaults, and
  3. enough wood from coffins to build over 40 homes

Add to that:

  • jewelry
  • glasses
  • mementos
  • pacemakers
  • mercury in amalgam fillings
  • saline breast implants, and
  • metal alloys and plastic used in hip and knee replacements buried with the deceased,

and you get an idea of the massive amounts of debris below the earth’s surface.   

What is the impact of embalming fluid on the environment?

Also of concern to our health are the effects of the embalming fluids used by funeral homes.  Embalming, while not required by federal or state law, is the funeral industry’s most common method of preserving bodies for burial. 

The process of interveinal embalming was originally used at medical schools to preserve cadavers for extended study.  The practice was later employed on battlefields during the Civil War when tens of thousands of soldiers were dying and families were anxious to have their sons returned home for burial.  Medical doctors began preserving the bodies for travel using a mixture of chemicals including:

  • arsenic
  • zinc
  • mercuric chlorides
  • creosote
  • turpentine and
  • alcohol

After the Civil War, other less dangerous chemicals were developed for preserving bodies, including formaldehyde, which continues to be used today.  While today’s embalming fluid cocktail is not as dangerous as the chemicals used in the 1800’s, formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen. Consider also the possible effects on the plant and animal life when this infiltrates the earth’s soil.

Formaldehyde has been found to cause respiratory problems and irritation to the eyes and skin.  In June 2011, the United States issued its annual Report on Carcinogens, (RoC) (that can be found at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov). The RoC listed formaldehyde as a human carcinogen in the report titled “Substances Listed in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens.” This report is issued by the National Toxicology Program, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The government’s report warns about the danger of formaldehyde used in plywood, particle board, hair salons, and in mortuaries.   Funeral home embalmers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde report cases of leukemia and rare cancers of the nasal passages and upper mouth.  Employees of hair care salons told researchers that they suffer from headaches, burning eyes, vomiting, nosebleeds and breathing problems after using products that include formaldehyde such as hair-straighteners.

Which brings us to the question - How does cremation affect the environment? For that be sure to read part 2 coming up next week.

In Part 2 Linda looks at the environmental impact of cremation and offers some suggestions for greener burial practices.

Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother suddenly died, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day. 

 

 

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