Environment-friendly Methods of Disposing The Dead

Uma Shankari By Uma Shankari, 18th Nov 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Community

Death is an inevitable end to life, but we can ensure how we dispose the dead does not put undue burden on the environment.

Disposing the Dead: the Problems

Death is a topic many don't like to dwell on; yet, nothing in life is more certain than death. We should look at it head-on and see that our departure from this world at a future date does not leave an ecological burden for the planet or reduce the quality of life for others we leave behind.

Why are conventional ways of disposing the dead harmful to the environment, and what can we do to reduce the impact?

Conventional funerals can take their toll on the environment through chemicals that destroy the habitat and through depleting the limited resources. Green funerals can actually make a positive contribution to the planet. How you cremate or bury the dead is an emotionally charged issue that is governed by religion or culture, and this is what makes any change in the prescribed procedure a difficult one. Yet the space constraints and environmental concerns are pushing modern man to explore newer options for dealing with the dead.

Concerned over the enormous cost of maintaining the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union and the father of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian Federation has made a historic decision to bury the body soon. Lenin's embalmed body still lies on public display in a glass coffin in a mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square since his death in 1924, even 20 years after the collapse of the former USSR.

Ecological Hazards of Burial

  • In a normal burial, depending on the depth at which the corpse is laid to rest, the topsoil microorganisms are unable to access the body and the absence of oxygen is not a favorable condition for a fast decomposition. Instead of producing carbon dioxide and water by aerobic decomposition, as your remains would if they were buried in topsoil, your body will emit methane—a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. It may take decades before the corpse is completely broken down, during which time toxic impurities are leached out and contaminate the ground water. Like marriages, funerals are also conducted in style by affluent people.

  • Special coffins or finely architected vaults/caskets are made of exotic wood or non-biodegradable steel, copper and bronze, and are sometimes shipped across very long distances.

  • The embalming fluid used to keep corpses looking fresh contain carcinogenic formaldehyde and this can leak into the soil.

  • Burial takes up valuable land. Maintenance of turf-covered commercial cemetery is also costly in terms of labor and water usage.

Options for Greener Burial

Green burial options include: pine casket, a biodegradable cardboard casket or eco-pod, or a natural fabric cloth, referred to as a shroud and made of white linen, wool, or cotton, so that the remains can return to the earth naturally, like the "Shroud of Turin", a rectangular piece of linen fabric that supposedly held the body of Christ. Shroud around Jesus

Burial shrouds were once known as winding cloths or winding sheets, because they were wound around the body.

If using caskets, make sure it is made from biodegradable soft wood, cardboard, bamboo or wicker casket, preferably without slow-to-decay nails and polyester.

Also look for a funeral home that will forgo embalming in favor of refrigeration or dry ice, or use formaldehyde-free preserving fluid.

Cremation, as Practiced in India

For the majority of Hindus, cremation is the way to go, though certain castes and tribes in India do bury their dead, and also, it is customary to bury holy men and children.

Hindus believe in the existence of a soul, which has to be prepared for its safe journey to the next world – otherwise, the soul is not sent on to the next world and remains on earth flitting about restlessly as a ghost.

In the traditional, wood-intensive cremation process, layers of wood are piled a metre high on the ground. The open-air funeral pyre burns for around six hours. It takes another three hours for the ashes to cool, after which a handful of burnt bones and ashes are collected to be immersed later in a river.

Open air cremations are becoming less frequent in urban areas. There are crematoriums in most major cities, which are in effect indoor electric or gas based furnaces, and are cheaper compared to open air cremations.

In Tamil Nadu, a few cremation sites have been fitted with gasifiers into which biomass is fed and the gas produced is used to light the furnace.

Ecological Hazards of Cremation

First of all, cremations are usually a single-time operation. Cremation is often considered greener than burial, since you won't be taking up valuable land space. No visiting mourners, which means you cut out the emissions and fuel consumption.

Yet, cremations are not without cost to the environment. You have to maintain the furnace at a temperate of 800 - 1000 °C using massive amounts of fire-wood, a non-renewable energy source. Electric cremations fare no better; in fact, an UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) report informs that they are nearly seven times more intensive in terms of emission of green house gases as compared to the traditional cremation.

An average cremation releases 200kg of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that adds to global warming, in addition to a variety of noxious gases including dioxin and mercury vapors from dental fillings. Dental fillings are an amalgam – an alloy of mercury with another metal such as silver, copper or tin – and once mercury vapors are released into the atmosphere, mercury returns to Earth via rain or snow, ending up in lakes and other water bodies and finding their way into fish and into humans, where mercury could damage the nervous system and affect childhood development.

Winds of Change in India over Cremation

Last journey with sun's benevolence: Solar crematoriums can be set up at places where sunlight is plentiful. Solar crematorium has been set up at Baroda, a city in Gujarat and at Patna, Bihar.

This option should be acceptable even to the most orthodox, if they consider the dead as being symbolically reunited in death with Surya.

Steps towards Ecological Cremation in India

In 2008, Global Environment Facility (GEF) provided 975,000 dollars, and UNDP two million dollars, for the installation of 60 alternative cremation facilities in 10 Indian cities by 2012.

A New Delhi-based non-profit environmental group called Mokshda – which in Hindi means ‘that which provides salvation’ — developed in 1992 a green cremation system using a simple heat-retaining and combustion- efficient technology. A total of 42 Mokshda systems are already up and running in six Indian states. The state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. supports this endeavor and plans to expand its operation in all the major Indian cities, including Varanasi, considered the holiest spot for cremation and other rituals.

The Mokshda crematorium is a high-grade, stainless steel and man-sized reusable bier with a hood and sidewall that can withstand temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius and prevent heat loss through air currents.

Greener Options Likely to Become Popular in the Future Steps towards Ecological Cremation in India

  • Promession: How would you like it if your body is freeze-dried by immersing in liquid nitrogen and make it brittle and then subjected to ultrasonic vibration to shatter them into powder? Any metals (from tooth amalgam, artificial hips, etc) can then be removed with a magnetic process. Promession, as this method is called, will put the powder in a biodegradable casket and inter it in the top layers of the soil, where aerobic bacteria decompose the remains in as little as 12 months. sprinkled into rivers and ocean just as per your wish.
  • Resomation: A similar process called resomation or bio-cremation uses heated water and potassium hydroxide to liquefy the body. The body, enclosed in a silk coffin, is placed in a high pressure steel chamber along with potassium hydroxide. This dissolves the body in two to three hours. The bones are then pulverized, much as in regular cremation, and the bone fragments are returned to the family.
  • Memorial reefs : Memorial Reefs are green burials at sea. This method places urns with cremated remains within 100 percent natural, PH-balanced concrete artificial reefs — hollow spheres — created by mixing your ashes with the cement and placed at the bottom of the ocean. Well, your loved ones can dive down and visit you!


Cremation, Ecological Cremation In India, Ecological Hazards Of Burial, Memorial Reefs, Mokshda, Options For Greener Burial, Promession, Resomation

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author avatar Uma Shankari
I write on society, relationships, travel, health, nutrition and fitness.
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