Living sustainably is about considering your impact upon the environment – your 'environmental footprint' – throughout your life. This includes the way your body is managed after death, since different approaches use varying amounts of energy and affect the environment in different ways.
For those who are religious, there might be fewer options but, even then, it's worth exploring modern, sustainable approaches to traditional practices. With our population rapidly growing, and an estimated 150,000 deaths globally every day, it's important we think about an end of life that is as sustainable as possible.
Traditional burials can have negative impacts on the environment due to the use of virgin resources in the materials used such as wood, steel and concrete, the toxic chemicals often involved and the creation of greenhouse gases. However, there are alternatives available to help mitigate these impacts.
Natural burials mitigate many of the environmental issues associated with traditional burials by allowing bodies to decompose naturally. These burials do not use coffins, vaults, concrete or chemicals; opting instead for biodegradable shrouds or caskets made from biodegradable materials such as cardboard. Bodies are buried at a shallower depth, without preservatives and in biodegradable materials, allowing for decomposition with oxygen (aerobic), which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Burial locations are marked by GPS coordinates and with time the land is restored to natural vegetation and trees, and may be used for another purpose such as grazing farm animals. A natural burial is the most sustainable burial option.
If you or a family member would prefer to have a coffin or casket rather than use a biodegradable shroud, there are many biodegradable options including untreated formaldehyde-free wood, cardboard, fair-trade certified bamboo, wicker, seagrass, water hyacinth, banana leaf and felted woollen coffins. Some caskets are even embedded with tree seedlings which take root as the casket decomposes. It is also possible to rent a casket with a separately sold cardboard inner. The casket can then be returned to be reused by another family.
If a more traditional coffin is important to you, look for coffins made from sustainably sourced wood rather than virgin sources and endangered trees. You can even purchase 'Shelves for life' that can be used during your life and then easily transformed to a coffin after your death. Remember to reduce your shopping miles as much as possible when purchasing the coffin that you choose, by ensuring that it isn't transported too far from where it is manufactured.
If you feel that a traditional burial is the only option for you or one of your loved ones, there are simple ways you can make this approach more sustainable.
Cremation is often mistakenly believed to be a sustainable approach to end of life arrangements because land is not used for a burial and then maintained as a gravesite. Cremations are a significant polluter, however, as they use a large amount of fuel (natural gas and electricity) to create sufficiently high temperatures for the process. Cremations release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, together with pollutants associated with the combustion of coffin materials, and mercury from dental fillings. However, there are more sustainable options that can even help regenerate the environment through tree planting and protecting marine life.
Choose an urn made from biodegradable materials such as soluble salt, coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose. Hundred per cent biodegradable urns are available, some containing the seed of a tree. Plant the urn once remains have been placed in it and eventually the entire structure becomes fertiliser for the tree. If you must choose a wooden urn, ensure that it is made from sustainable sources.
If you feel that a traditional cremation is the only option for you or one of your loved ones, there are simple ways you can make this approach more sustainable.
Aquamation, sometimes referred to as green cremation or water cremation, uses a process called alkaline hydrolysis. Also known as resomation, instead of using fire, aquamation uses a chemical solution to mimic the natural process of decomposition at a faster rate. The body is sealed inside a tube filled with water and the chemical solution and steam-heated to 300 degrees for three hours. Unlike traditional cremation, resomation doesn't release chemicals into the air and it uses approximately 80–90 per cent less energy than standard cremation.
Pacemakers do not need to be removed prior to the process, and items such as jewellery, gold teeth and implants (e.g. titanium hip implants) can be recovered and reused because they are not affected by the process. Like traditional cremation, the only solid remains after aquamation are bones, which are returned to the family as 'ashes'. The sterile, DNA-free liquid produced as a result of the process can be returned to the water cycle. Aquamation is promoted as the most sustainable end of life option currently available in Australia.
Is cremation more sustainable than burial?
Whether or not cremation is a more sustainable option than burial will depend upon the type of cremation versus the type of burial. Traditional cremations are generally considered to be marginally more sustainable than traditional burials, because they do not have gravesites that require ongoing maintenance. Using a biodegradable coffin for a cremation, where carbon offsets are purchased to compensate for the energy and emissions associated with the process, will be more sustainable than a traditional cremation or a traditional burial with a coffin.
Further research needs to be carried out, but a natural burial is generally considered to be more sustainable than a traditional cremation, and aquamation (water cremation) is promoted as the most sustainable end of life option currently available in Australia.
Organ and tissue donation is only possible after cardiac or brain death in hospital. Having cancer or infectious disease may exclude you from the donor program, but smokers, heavy drinkers and even people with hepatitis C are not necessarily excluded. Organs that are not appropriate for transplantation can still be used for medical research through associations such as the Victorian Brain Bank. Register your wishes for organ and tissue donation by logging onto the Australian Organ Donor Register (AODR). Family members have the final say with regard to organ donation so it's important to discuss your wishes with them.
Bodies donated to science are used for teaching, study, examination and investigation of human anatomy. Most of the bodies are used to train future healthcare professionals including medical, dental and physiotherapy students. Donations are accepted by medical schools such as Melbourne University, and associations such as the Victorian Brain Bank. As with organ and tissue donations, not all bodies can be accepted, such as those that have had organs removed for donation at the time of death.
Donated bodies are generally embalmed to preserve natural tissues and are cremated after they have been used for scientific purposes. At this point the ashes are offered back to the family. Contact the university or organisation to which you plan to donate to confirm the type of embalming process (formaldehyde or natural alternatives) and cremation (traditional or aquamation). Some institutions offer a regular memorial service for the relatives of donors to express the students' and the university's gratitude to those people who have donated. The use of cadavers or cadaver parts is governed by the Human Tissue Act 1982 (Victoria). Family members have the final say with regard to body donation so it is important to discuss your wishes with them.
The death of a loved one can require the disposal of a lifetime worth of belongings, such as furniture, clothing, whitegoods and household chemicals. There are a variety of ways to do this safely and minimise environmental impact through reuse, recycling and safe disposal.
A legacy or donation to an environmental organisation or charity is one way to promote sustainability and awareness amongst friends and family of the deceased.
With end of life memorials to house the ashes and hair of loved ones ranging from jewellery to glassware to vinyl (yes, vinyl), be sure to do your research about the sustainability of the products on offer.
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