Cremation vs. burial: which one leaves a larger ecological footprint?

cremation vs. burial environment
Photo by Niels Weiss on Unsplash

Calculating the ecological footprint is essential when offering sustainable alternatives to customers concerned about the environmental impact of the products they consume. With regard to this cremation vs. burial quandary, the former one involves high initial energy consumption and high gas emissions, but the burial is a much longer process that often requires materials that are not biodegradable.

Ecological footprint: what is it?

Any human activity produces an impact on the environment that can be measured thanks to the ecological footprint, an indicator which calculates whether our actions are environmentally sustainable. This concept analyses the society’s production and consumption patterns, taking the required resources and the generated waste into account.

In 2005 Global Footprint Network calculated that we are globally consuming more resources and generating more waste than what the planet can generate and support. The imbalance between the economic growth and the environmental care alerted administrations and social agents, who set to work to devise a sustainable consumption model that does not jeopardise the wellbeing of future generations.

In addition to inspiring the Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the UN, the calculation of the ecological footprint has also been used at a domestic level and has helped many companies to improve their corporate strategy, as is the case of several airlines that have already estimated the ecological impact per passenger in order to optimise journeys. In the funeral sector, the main dilemma is cremation vs. burial: which alternative is more sustainable?

How is ecological footprint calculated

The perfect calculation of the ecological footprint can be complicated and sometimes impossible to carry out due to the large number of factors that need to be taken into account.

Let’s start with an extremely simple example: travelling by car involves fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while cycling generates no waste. The ecological footprint of cycling is much smaller, which in turn means that it is a more environmentally sustainable activity.

Now comes the tricky part. To calculate the exact ecological footprint of the bike, we would need to know what resources the manufacturer has used, how much energy it took to make it, whether the materials used are recycled and even the cost and waste generated during its transportation to the bike shop.

Despite its complexity, calculating the ecological footprint is very useful for companies seeking to improve their profitability, attract the growing niche of environmentally conscious customers and contribute to improved economic, ecological and social sustainability. Let’s perform this exercise on the two main types of funeral services to find out which leaves a smaller footprint: cremation vs. burial.

Cremation vs. burial: which option is more sustainable?

In order to determine the ecological impact, it is necessary to analyse raw materials, logistics, energy use, waste and procedures from the time a funeral home takes over a body until its services are considered completed. Regarding the cremation vs. burial quandary which is being analysed, in the case of burial, it is understood that the services end 30 years after the concession of the grave or niche, whereas in the case of cremation, the services end with the delivery of the ashes and their scattering or storage in a columbarium.

Cremation and burial environmental footprint

The ecological footprint of cremation

According to the study “Analyse environnementale comparative du rite de la crémation et de l’inhumation en Ile-de-France” carried out by Durapole-Verteego and sponsored by the Fondation Services Funéraires de Paris, gas emissions from cremation ovens are the main cause of ecological impact, without forgetting that the combustion of bodies also generates gaseous waste that can be harmful to the atmosphere.

Gas emissions from cremation ovens are the main cause of ecological impact.

On average, a standard cremation uses about 42 cubic metres of gas, which accounts for 57% of the ecological impact of the process due to the generated emissions. This calculation depends on the different types of furnace, which in recent years have undergone technological improvements that make them more efficient and include particle filtering, so that they only emit carbon dioxide and water vapour.

To calculate the ecological footprint of cremation, we must also take into account the construction of the furnace’s infrastructure, which accounts for 27% of the environmental impact, and its maintenance, which accounts for 16%.

Another factor to take into account is whether we are dealing with simple cremation without a coffin, which, despite not being a viable option in many countries, is less polluting. It is also important to consider whether cremation takes place in zinc sheets, which can seriously damage the atmosphere in the case of failure of the furnace filtering system. There are now alternatives such as No+Znc, a sanitary airtight bag that can be incinerated and is much more environmentally friendly.

Although many legislations still do not allow it, there is the possibility of temporarily overlapping two cremations without any risk of mixing the ashes, thus achieving significant energy and time saving.

The ecological footprint of a burial

Burial involves CO2 emissions equivalent to 3.6 cremations, which is equivalent to a journey of more than 4,000 kilometres by car. According to the study, burying a person involves a non-renewable energy consumption similar to that of almost three cremations. In terms of consumption of rare resources, a burial is equivalent to 3.8 cremations.

Burial involves CO2 emissions equivalent to 3.6 cremations.

These figures vary depending on the type of burial. The least environmentally friendly is the one that includes a wooden coffin in a concrete grave or niche. If we add sculptures or other ornamental elements to this, the impact can exceed that of five cremations. The reason for this is that cement and concrete are made by firing limestone and clay at over 1,450 ºC.

The environmental footprint also depends on the type of wood and trimmings of the coffin. Furthermore, at the moment there are very few coffins made of natural materials. Most of them include synthetic varnish and glue, which account for 14% of the casket’s impact.

Although in a weighing of cremation vs. burial the former option generates a smaller environmental footprint, the most environmentally friendly method is undoubtedly the direct burial in the ground, which is very rare and even banned in many countries.

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