The conventional methods of disposing of human bodies – burial and cremation – have been deeply ingrained in our cultural and religious practices for centuries. For many people, burial and cremation remain a deeply significant part of any funeral. However, over time, societal norms have evolved and environmental concerns have become increasingly prominent. 

So how can we explore new, sustainable options for the disposal of the bodies of our people who have died? And how can these alternative methods address both our environmental challenges and cultural needs?

What are the environmental impacts of burials and cremations?

Land usage

Traditional burial practices require vast amounts of land for cemeteries. As urbanization continues to expand, the availability of space for burial becomes limited, leading to increased pressure on the environment. Because of the value of land and the requirement to maintain the graves, burial is much more expensive than cremation.

Cremation emissions

Cremation, while space-efficient, releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to air pollution. The process also consumes significant amounts of energy, often derived from fossil fuels.

Chemical contamination

Embalming, sometimes used in burials, involves the use of chemicals like formaldehyde, which can leach into the soil and groundwater, posing a threat to ecosystems and human health.

What are the cultural and religious considerations?

Our world is culturally diverse, with many religions and belief systems. Yet our society’s attitudes towards death and burial are evolving. Many people identify has either having no faith at all, or as practising a personal spirituality rather than formal, recognised faith. This, combined with growing concern about our impact on the environment, means there are many considerations with any new technology.

On the traditional side, faiths with a strong belief in resurrection, keeping the body whole through burial is critical to respectful funeral practices. Likewise, other faiths place strong importance on the rituals associated with cremation. On the more modern side, an increasing number of individuals want more eco-friendly alternatives for disposal of their bodies. In addition, they are looking for ways to express their individuality in their funeral choices. Practically, traditional methods like burial are becoming increasingly expensive. This is a challenge for many families, regardless of their faith or culture.

It is possible for new body disposal options to respect different cultural and religious perspectives on death, and hopefully drive down costs. This has happened with previous technological developments. For example, cremations used to be done in  open air pyres, using up to 600kg of wood. A cremation in a crematorium has a lower environmental impact, (although still a significant impact) but this made it harder for family members to practice the important ritual of lighting the pyre. Many crematoriums have introduced witnessed cremations, a way for families to participate in the cremation, to meet both the cultural need and achieve the technological benefits. 

Emerging Alternatives:

There are many exciting and intriguing options that are now available, or in development. Some, like cryomation, are still a way off from being available in Australia, but the following are either available now or being developed.

Natural Burial

Natural or green burials involve interring the body in biodegradable materials without the use of embalming fluids. This method promotes the decomposition of the body, allowing it to return to the earth naturally.  Natural burials are available in many jurisdictions, including the Canberra region.

Aquamation (Alkaline Hydrolysis)

Aquamation is a water-based cremation alternative that uses a combination of water, heat, and alkaline chemicals to accelerate the natural decomposition process. It has a lower environmental impact compared to traditional cremation, although it uses a lot of water. Aquamation is available in the Canberra region, but involves transport to Sydney.

Human Composting

Emerging technologies enable the composting of human bodies, turning them into nutrient-rich soil. This method not only conserves land but also provides an environmentally friendly way to contribute to the cycle of life.

 

Whatever your personal preference for how you dispose of your body is, it’s exciting and encouraging to think that so much work is being done in this area to improve the choices for all of us and the planet.

 

Key takeaways:

  • The environmental impact of traditional burial and cremation methods is significant
  • Innovations in technology are providing methods that are more environmentally friendly
  • It is possible to honour our dead, respect diverse cultural beliefs and contribute to a sustainable future for our planet

 

Further information:

From The Conversation, ‘Funerals will hit 100 million a year by 2060 – here’s how to make them more sustainable.
From The Guardian, ‘A greener way to go: what’s the most eco-friendly way to dispose of a body?
From our own blog, ‘What is Human Composting? And why would we do it?