Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is the role of biodegradability in greening the funeral industry?

Very often the first question asked of me at a presentation on greening the funeral industry goes something like this, "Isn't the whole idea of a green burial to completely decompose within a few years?"  There are three ideas hidden in this question worth exploring.  First, notice the assumption that the green in green burial is entirely about a single idea.  Second, the question suggests that biodegradability is this single idea.  And third, I find it interesting that so many people believe that rate of decay has significance in being green--as if returning to our earthly elements should be a race.

Greening the funeral industry is not entirely about a single idea.  There are many perspectives we ought to consider when talking to families.  After many years of conversations, reading countless books and articles, and cognitive discourse with industry professionals, academics, and families on this topic, I have adopted a definition of green burial to include several perspectives such as biodegradability, toxicity, sustainability, local-sourcing, and carbon life cycle assessment.  These perspectives overlap and are interrelated.  I believe that being green is a matter of maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things in the environment as they may be affected by the creation, use, and disposition of a product or service.  This definition of being green applies to any product or service and the cradle-to-grave activities that occur as a result of our choice to use that product or service--whether directly or indirectly.

More importantly, I offer that we must further allow leeway in our definition of being green, especially when it comes to funerals, so that we accommodate the different perspectives of individuals.  People have different core values and various experiences upon which their own attitudes toward the environment and perspectives on green burial will differ.  As professionals in funeral service we must recognize that an individual who values sustainability and local-sourcing over biodegradability would not be satisfied with an imported seagrass or wicker casket though it is marketed as a green casket and is 100% biodegradable.  The more we learn about the core values and experiences of our families, the better we can assist them in making choices consistent with their values.

Why is biodegradability so often the first perspective considered in green burial?  First of all, biodegradability is not a new term and not nearly as complex as sustainability or carbon life cycle assessment.  Moreover, people are familiar with "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and how this centuries-old epitaph suggests that returning to our earthly elements is as natural as it is green.  Then consider the fact that biodegradability is easy to quantify and measure--thus most green, natural burial, and conservation cemeteries have a biodegradability requirement or standard for burial containers and/or monuments.  Biodegradability is a good perspective, but it ought not be the only perspective if our definition of green is to include "maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things."

Let's think on this idea of rapidly returning to the earth somehow being greener than a slower return.  I believe this attitude may originate in individuals who are thinking about preservation through embalming, refrigeration, sealed caskets, and sealed burial vaults.  These practices invoke additional and interrelated perspectives such as toxicity, sustainability, carbon footprint, and land use.  However, the perspective on biodegradability alone is neutral, if not contradictory.  If we consider the pathology of decay for our human remains alone--without attention to the surrounding activities to accelerate decomposition (i.e. cremation, alkali resomation, cryomation) or decelerate decomposition (i.e. embalming, refrigeration) then the argument for biodegradability being green is moot.  Take this one step further and bring in the perspective on carbon footprint.  It would actually be better if our bodies were never to decay--somehow trapping permanently, or sequestering, the carbon that makes up a large part of our body mass.

The same is true if we consider the toxins our bodies accumulate throughout life.  A perspective on toxicity would suggest we contain these toxins or slow decay to give nature time to neutralize these toxins.  Take for example TED talk guest and award winner in designBoom, Jae Rhim Lee, and her Mushroom Death Suit. Her invention is a set of hooded pajamas laced with mushroom spores selected for their ability to cleanse the hundreds of toxins that accumulate in the human body during life.  Yes, that is disposition of human remains by way of feeding the fungi!  

Back to maintaining and preserving the quality of life for all living things in the environment.  Perhaps biodegradability alone should not be our first or most important perspective in greening the funeral industry.  It is an excellent start--easy to observe, easy to explain, and easy to write standards for.  There is precedent for biodegradability requirements in burial practices in many religions around the world including Orthodox and Muslim faiths.  It makes good sense to start with biodegradability, but isn't it time we expand the conversation in funeral service?

Let us advance into this next decade of the green and natural burial movement in North America by adding toxicity, sustainability, local-sourcing, and carbon life cycle assessment to the conversation. We're bound to learn something.

Is Cremation a Green Alternative to a Casketed Cemetery Burial?

In the last decade cremation has continued to grow in its appeal to families in America.  The percentage of deaths in the U.S. where families have chosen cremation has grown from less than 4% in 1960 to more than 40% annually.  With growing interest in sustainability, many marketers have touted cremation as a green alternative to a casketed burial in a cemetery.  Let us examine cremation with carbon life cycle assessment and our definition of Green as it applies to death care to also include the political and economic factors in promoting a healthy environment for all living things.

Consider a typical cremation that includes a wooden cremation container and human remains.  Interestingly, a 2011 Netherlands study revealed that cremation with wooden caskets result in less fossil-fuel used during incineration.  The wood serves as a renewable fuel source--thus the more wood used in the cremation container, the less fuel required during incineration.  The fossil-fuel powered cremation process takes 2-3 hours for the stages of warm-up and incineration where temperatures reach 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.  An Australian study determined the combined release of CO2 from burning the fossil fuel, cremation container, and human remains is 350 lbs CO2.  Other sources suggest the carbon impact of incineration is closer to 600 lbs CO2.  The Australian study at 350 lbs CO2 compares favorably to the impact of an imported steel casket at 2000 lbs CO2.  However, cremation is 7 times greater than the impact of a green casket made locally from sustainable materials at 50 lbs CO2.  

The toxicity of cremation is harder to quantify than the carbon impact.  Cremation generates emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).   For a human body that contains metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases harmful dioxins and mercury--there is an ongoing debate on how to address mercury poisoning from cremation which the United States EPA believes is the 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.  The United Nations has estimated that 0.2% of the global emission of dioxins and furans are from cremation.  While embalming is not required for direct cremation, circumstances that include a viewing or service prior to cremation often include embalming.  The toxic gases released by cremating an embalmed body are cause for further controversy over the health and environmental impacts of cremation.

One green argument in favor of cremation invokes the social, political, and economic factors of land use.  Studies in Australia and the Netherlands concluded that the carbon impact of cemetery maintenance alone could account for as much as 30 lbs CO2 per grave site every year.  Some believe that a casketed burial in a cemetery occupies precious land space that could serve other useful purposes.  The Netherlands study points out that land competition is a contributing factor for cremation if we consider the land use involved in producing the particleboard, wood, and cotton used in cremation containers.  Add to this the land use required to extract, refine, store, and distribute fossil fuels.  We should also consider that a large contributor to the growing popularity of cremation since the 1960s has to do with the acceptance of cremation by the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church maintains that cremated remains must be entombed in an appropriate container in a cemetery, mausoleum, or columbarium--all of which occupy land space.  From a full-story perspective on land use by itself, cremation and cemetery burial might be comparable in environmental, political, and economic factors when it comes to promoting a healthy environment for all living things. 

I offer another consideration on the subject land competition when comparing cemetery burials with cremation.  America's cemeteries serve our cities, villages, and towns as green space.  Some cemeteries serve their communities in the same way that a park does by offering a safe and quiet place for a walk or exercise.  Cemeteries provide wildlife habitat for birds, butterflies, and squirrels as well as storm water run-off control.  More recently, America's growing number of conservation cemeteries for natural burials both preserve and protect lands for public enjoyment and for natural wildlife habitat.  Families concerned about land competition may be interested in options for nearby conservation cemeteries where funds raised through the sale of burial plots serve to maintain and protect the land for conservation, wildlife, and recreational purposes.

Every individual should have the liberty to make their own choices when it comes to end-of-life care.  An individual's choice is personal.  What should be important to those of us in the death care industry is that an individual's choice be an informed one.  We fail to serve our families if we are complacent in accepting an individual's decision without understanding the motivation or base values behind that decision.  That is not to say we should question an individual's values, but rather inform with facts so that our families can make informed decisions in accordance with their individual values.  After all, isn't it our duty to inform our families without questioning their values or judging their wishes?