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

Green Burial, What is it?

Green Burial 2

For those of you who may be taking the time to think about your burial arrangements and research your options, you may have heard of “green burial”, and some of you may even like the idea. Please allow me (that means keep reading!) to provide you with some basic introductory information, hopefully allowing you to make an informed decision.


What is Green Burial?


If you were to take a moment to think about green burial, it really is not something new. Green burial is more of a return to a simpler, more practical time. Green burial is nothing more than another name for “burial”, but the “burial” we are referring to here is the one that was common place years ago. Today however, green burial takes on a new meaning.

Green burial refers to methods and practices of burial that minimize the environmental impact necessitated by burial of a deceased human being. Now you may be asking yourself what environmental impact? There are several schools of thought on this subject which I believe are best addressed in a separate post (Stay tuned!), but on some basic level there are environmental impacts with the burial of humans as well as the development of cemeteries. These common environmental impacts are no different than the development of a university, mall or residential development. If you take your modern cemetery, some of the impacts to be considered are; the disturbance of soil when a new cemetery is constructed, the removal of natural vegetation, and the installation of impervious surfaces. All of these impacts are normally taken into consideration during the beginning stage of development and are usually regulated by the municipality in which the cemetery is located. None the less, many people do not want their departure from this life to contribute in any way to this sort of impact. Another consideration would be the additional environmental impacts that have more recently become the topic of discussion. They would be such things as; the use of embalming chemicals and their possible effect on the environment, or the use of large quantities of material and natural resources in the production and transportation of burial goods, such as caskets and burial vaults. These as well as other concerns are subjective and unique to each individual, but green burial gives those of us that may have these concerns options and choice, which allow us to do our small part.


Shades of Green Burial


While green burial has yet to gain wide spread acceptance across the U.S., there have been a number of new “green burial” cemeteries or sections in traditional burial cemeteries, which have recently opened. A Google search will provide you with all the results you need to find one. What one will find however, is that not all green burial locations are the same. There are several of what I call “shades of green”, these “shade of green” are certainly not any sort of industry terms or accepted guidelines, rather they are simply a general explanation, in my own words, of what one may find when researching green burial cemeteries. Let me explain.


Dark Green


Let’s take a look at the darkest shade of green. This “dark green” would include cemeteries that are strictly green burial cemeteries, unlike a traditional burial cemetery that has added a green burial section. These cemeteries would most likely appear as open pastures or even wooded forests and may provide almost no evidence that a cemetery even exists within its realm. Burial would most likely take place as the most rustic of forms; the digging of the grave, the lowering of the body and the back filling of the grave would all most likely be done by hand and may even require the family’s assistance. While this may be the darkest green of the options, one thing to remember is there will probably be few ancillary services. Vehicle traffic anywhere close to the burial location may be prohibited, as well as direct memorialization or marking of the grave in any way. Snow removal, assistance from office or maintenance staff, or any sort of customer service will probably be at a minimum. For some of you, I’m sure this is exactly how you would want it, but for some it may be a bit too far removed.


Medium Green


Here we could be looking at a cemetery that is completely set aside for green burial but their policies are not quite a rustic as the dark green. While the use of embalming chemicals would most likely still be prohibited as would the use of any sort of burial vault, this cemetery may begin to look more like a traditional burial cemetery or memorial garden. You may find some sort of headstone or memorial, be it natural stone or manufactured monument and possibly some manicured turf areas dispersed throughout a more natural setting. The graves may be dug by hand or through the use of modern equipment and cemetery staff will most likely be on hand to complete most of the work, and provide for some sort of continued customer service. This shade of green could also be provided through a separate section in a traditional burial cemetery, one which upholds a mix of dark and medium green practices and methods as a standard for burial.


Light Green


Light green would most likely be a separate green burial section in an existing cemetery or even green burials disbursed throughout a traditional burial section, with no signs of demarcation separating the two. Burial methods and practices may be much more relaxed. Graves would most likely be dug with modern equipment, manufactured monuments would probably be the norm, the use of embalming chemicals may be accepted and some sort of vault may be used. One common method to employ the use of a burial vault is to simply invert a traditional concrete burial vault over the top of a casketed burial, which would still allow the body to come in contact with the ground and return to the earth in a more natural manner. Light green may also preclude the direct family involvement with the burial process.


Green Burial Cemeteries


Any green burial cemetery or traditional burial cemetery with a green burial section may have some or all of the attributes I have mentioned, as well as a mix of them. If your shade is one that would lead you to choose an option in which you would not want to be buried amongst the traditional burials, rather, enjoined only to those that have chosen the same ideals as you, I would add one comment. In doing your research, make sure the cemetery has written into its contract, bylaws or better yet a deed restriction, mandating the section you have chosen for your burial will remain a green burial section for all time. If you have any concerns with the validity of their statements, have an attorney review the wording. This way, after you have done your part to better our environment, the cemetery cannot change the designation of the section after you have already made your purchase. (Or worse yet, after you have used it!)


Green Burial Resources


There are numerous resources available to the consumer looking for in-depth information on green burial. As mentioned before, a simple Google search will yield results ranging from green burial cemeteries to green burial organizations. You will find a few organizations whose purpose is to provide some sort of standard or accreditation pertaining to how green burial should or should not be carried out. While I applaud their efforts and see nothing wrong with their goals, these are self-proclaimed organizations that have created their own set of ideals. While these sites are certainly full of useful information and their intentions appear to be centered on consumer protection, I would like to add a word of caution. The fact that a cemetery may or may not be listed or endorsed by any of these organizations, should not, by itself, influence your decision on whether or not that particular cemetery is a good fit for you or your family. I firmly believe the consumer should educate themselves as much as possible and make a decision, no matter what the topic, based on their knowledge and personal situation.


Green Burail 1

More on Green Burial


I ask you to stay tuned for more on green burial. This post was a bit of a primer to the topic of green burial, but there is more to talk about. Is cremation really green? Green burial vs. traditional burial and more.


Which way are you facing?

I have often been asked why the graves at our cemetery were not facing east, and although I was aware of this tradition, I was unable to give those asking a direct answer. Looking around the cemetery and at the section maps, has always led me to believe that the eastern burial orientation was simply never part of the master plan.

For those of you wondering what it is I am referring to, the Christian religions have a tradition of burying their dead facing the east. It is worth noting that eastward facing burial has been traced back to some of the earliest solar based religions as well.

The tradition has been that the body is buried in such a way that the feet are oriented to the east and the head being oriented to the west. Alternatively, if it was not possible to bury someone in this orientation, the body may have been buried in a north south orientation with the head turned in such a way to face east. This tradition is still very evident today, either by conscious choice of knowledgeable cemetery managers and cemetery planners or it is because burials taking place today are buried in lots that were laid out many years ago. The practice of burying the dead facing the east does appear to be waning in more modern operations, replaced instead with layouts that are open, inviting and more cooperative with pedestrian access or a landscape plan rather than a specific direction.

As mentioned earlier, it is believed that some of the earliest solar based religions buried their dead facing east in order to face the “rising sun” and “the new day”. The Christian tradition of eastward facing burials also refers to Christ being the “Light of the World” and the sun being the physical light, but it is more firmly rooted in biblical text and the belief that Christ will come from the east at the time of the resurrection, thus the dead would rise up to face him. There are several scriptural references to this. Matthew 24:27  For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man, and Ezekiel 43:1-2  Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory.

On this same note, many churches would also orient their altars facing east for the very same reasons. So next time you’re in a church, pull out your compass and check it out. (Since you are probably in a church early in the morning or late in the afternoon, maybe just check the position of the sun and leave the compass at home, you probably don’t want to be “that” person.)

Another interesting tradition is the position you are buried as it relates to your spouse What we refer to as “proper” burial would reflect the burial of the husband on the left and the wife on the right, as you would be looking at their graves while standing at their feet. This positioning would be the same as how you stand in marriage when facing the altar in a church. This practice is still very common today, at least in the cemeteries in my area. You could say this positioning is the “default” position sans any standing instructions.

So next time you find yourself visiting a cemetery, take note of what portion of the burials in that cemetery appear to be facing the east, and how many headstones have the husbands name on the left as you are looking at it.