The Environmental Cost of Cremation

There are many compelling reasons why people choose cremation, but presuming it is more eco-friendly than burial is often incorrect.
In cremation, the body is placed inside a combustible container such as a cardboard or plywood box. This is burned in a chamber, also known as a retort, at a temperature between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, for about two hours. During this time, the body is reduced to bone fragments which are collected in a tray or pan to cool. Any screws, nails, implants, etc. are removed. The fragments are ground into a coarse, grey or brown powder. Three to seven pounds of cremated remains, often referred to as ‘ashes’, are given to the family.
The two primary environmental issues of cremation are that the process involves high energy usage and contributes to air pollution. Natural gas is typically used as the energy source, and therefore produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Just one flame-based cremation generates 573 lbs of C02, and uses enough electricity and gas to maintain an average home’s energy requirements for 2 weeks. Nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, fine soot, and mercury are also emitted into the atmosphere. Vaporized mercury released by dental fillings is particularly harmful.
While one might expect the cremated remains to be beneficial to the garden, they are not. They do not decompose as plant matter does. While cremains include nutrients that plants require, primarily calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, they also contain an extremely high amount of salt, which is toxic for most plants.
In BC, 87% of people choose cremation, translating to almost 40,000 cremations every year. However Aquamation, which uses 90% less energy, emits no harmful greenhouse gases, burns no fossil fuels, and has no mercury byproduct, is not yet available in our province. See and sign the petition to bring this alternative to BC.
A traditional burial wherein the body is not embalmed, a grave liner is not used (in some traditional cemeteries these are mandatory), the casket is biodegradable, and the maintenance minimal, is more eco-friendly than cremation. A green burial wherein the body is returned to the earth in its most natural state, and the new growth protected, actually benefits the earth. Both of these options are available on Cortes.
One reason many people choose cremation is the cost. However, here on Cortes, where the cemeteries in Whaletown and Manson’s were gifted to the community and are managed and maintained by volunteers, the burial plots are free. The machinery cost to dig a grave is affordable.
Choosing between cremation and burial is a personal decision, and environmental impact is just one of the factors to consider. Be aware that, contrary to what many believe, a low impact burial is more eco-friendly than a flame-based cremation.