Funerals involve a lot of various elements, from the casket to the associated transport, but we seldom stop to think about the environment. With all of this going on, funerals must surely affect the world around them in some way or another. Here’s a closer look at how funerals change or influence the environment.
While a single casket itself is not that much of a problem, the amount of funerals taking place makes the choice of material used in caskets an issue. As items that can only be used once, there is no recycling or reusing of these resources and, unfortunately, the traditional material of choice is either wood or metal. While this is something that’s declining, the numbers are still quite large. One estimate from the Green Burial Council (GBC) suggests around 64,500 tons of steel and 30 million feet of hardwood boards were required for caskets in 2014 alone. All of these materials take their toll on Mother Nature. Steel must be forged (from metals that are either recycled or mined) and wood can either be recycled or cut down in forests. In any case, these items end up buried underground, where they can no longer be used again.
Burials require a permanent space, making cemeteries themselves a vital resource. There is only so much land to go around; so new cemeteries are often competing with other industries, such as housing and farmland, for new spaces. This can be particularly difficult in already developed areas, such as cities, where new land isn’t close enough to even be accessible. Many US cemeteries, including the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, are now on the last expanses of land as a result of this continued demand. Similarly, some evidence suggests the metals used in both the caskets and the vaults can contaminate the soil at their level. This takes up the land, yet also makes it more difficult to grow plants and foliage on the ground above;
If the body is being buried, most typical funeral directors will insist on both embalming fluids and a vault to protect the casket. The vault itself is typically made of steel – as discussed earlier, this already takes its toll on the wider world – and protects the casket, stopping it from degrading. Similarly, embalming fluids feature a host of unfavorable chemicals. The GBC suggests over 827,000 gallons of fluid were used in 2014 alone. So how harmful are they? A study in 1989 reported increased illnesses in embalmers exposed to primary agents such as formaldehyde. The effects included various forms of cancer, as well as chronic bronchitis and various skin irritations. These chemicals have a proven influence on human health and, in many cases, many not even be needed, considering how long a deceased body is maintained before burial.
Similarly, many full-service funerals feature numerous cars. These help contribute to the overall carbon footprint, as each car driving to and from the location will produce harmful emissions. Aside from the hearse, there’s no important reason to use separate cars and carpooling is an already proven way of cutting emissions in other areas of life. Of course, this can also be said of the distance between people and the funeral location, as well as any transport costs associated with bringing in supplies and materials from further afield.
As mentioned earlier, cemeteries often compete for open, natural spaces, using them to for human preservation, rather than encouraging wildlife. This obviously negates to encourage local fauna but it also has an influence on the wider natural world. Research by Seven Ponds suggests that even buying cut-flowers can have a big impact on the environment. Most of these flowers are cut in other parts of the world, such as South America, impacting their local region, too. These are also often then preserved with various agents and pesticides, some of which are banned within the US itself. Seven Ponds also warns of the large demand on water these industries take and the subsequent wildlife populations. DDT, a pesticide used on flowers, is known to harm local animals while methyl bromide is widely known for the direct damage it causes to the o-zone layer.
As you can see, there’s plenty to consider when looking at how funerals influence the world around them. Many aspects, left unchecked, can cause large effects on the environment, so it’s important to think carefully about these decisions.
About the Author:
Robert Bruce has a passion for lending his voice towards multiple issues involving the funeral and memorial industry. When he’s not working with Great Lakes Caskets, he enjoys his hobby as a writer.