Is Cremation Green?

Cremation is nothing new, it is one of the earliest methods used to dispose of deceased human beings to prevent the spread of disease and illness, but has come a long way since the log pyres of yesteryear. Whether cremation is a green burial practice or not is still open for debate, even the new bio cremation has not achieved wide spread acceptance as of yet.

Cremation Chamber

A Modern Cremation Chamber

While cremation rates are on the rise in the United States, most likely given the cost savings when compared to traditional burial methods, there are some that are questioning the environmental impacts of the flame based cremation process. This concern has led to a push for more environmentally friendly methods of cremation and the commercial availability of alkaline hydrolysis.

The cremation method most of us are accustomed to is traditional flame based cremation. During this method, the body is placed in a cremation chamber, also known as a retort. The combination of flame, heat and air effectively reduces the human body down to ash and bone. This remaining ash and bone is then crushed to form a coarse “dust” which is what is then placed into an urn or other suitable container. Even with today’s high efficiency, computer controlled retorts, flame based cremation has come under increasing scrutiny as more crematoriums are popping up in residential areas. The concerns being what emissions are being released into the atmosphere during this process, especially when considering greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and the use of mercury based dental fillings years ago, as well as the volume of natural resources that are consumed to fuel the operation.

There are those times in which cremation is chosen over traditional burial methods because some feel it is a “greener” alternative when compared to the land use, the chemicals used during the embalming process and the resources used during the manufacture of caskets and burial vaults. Some however, are now questioning whether the original benefits thought to have been provided by traditional flame based cremation versus traditional burial are being negated by the resources used and emissions created by the very process. In fact, a number of green burial cemeteries are refusing to allow the burial of cremated remains because it does not fit the environmentally sustaining model the green burial purists are trying to promote.

One answer to these concerns may be bio-cremation. Bio-cremation, also known as Resomation or alkaline hydrolysis is relatively new to the commercial cremation market. Alkaline hydrolysis uses a steel pressure chamber rather than a retort. The body, along with water and potassium hydroxide are placed into the chamber, which is then heated to over 350 degrees and pressurized to prevent boiling. This combination of high heat and pressure, along with the highly alkaline potassium hydroxide effectively reduces the human body to bones. The water used during the process contains the salts, amino acids and fats, essentially the remaining elements of the human body. According to the supporters and equipment manufacturers of this bio-cremation process, this liquid can then be safely flushed down the drain. At this point you will have to decide if this cremation process is an acceptable alternative for you or not. Thus far the process is only legal in a handful of states and there is still concern with the safety of the liquid that is discharged during the process.

After the alkaline hydrolysis process is completed, the remaining bones are crushed into essentially the same dust as the flame based process, at which time the remains are placed in an urn or other suitable container.

Both flame based cremation and alkaline hydrolysis essentially mimic the natural burial process, reducing a human body to bones. One process uses heat and flame, one process uses heat, water and a highly alkaline substance and one uses soil, the elements and micro-organisms, each effectively coming to the same result all be it with varying amounts of time. I will let it up to you to decide what is “green” and what is not.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

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“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.”
Ayn Rand

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“Here lies my wife
So let her lie.
Now she’s at rest,
And so am I.”

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“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.
Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Cherokee Expression

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