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Dying Is Pretty Bad for the Environment

New evidence shows that cremation may be worse for us than we thought. Which doesn't leave a whole lot of options if you're aiming for a green death.

by Wendy Syfret
15 January 2015, 4:27am

Death is so complicated. Before we even get to the whole hereafter bit there is a lot of work involved. You have to make a will, say goodbye to your love ones, warn your enemies of future hauntings, and decide what you want done with your body.

Roughly 145,000 people die in Australia each year, and due to the rising cost of burials and limited space, cremation is steadily becoming our country's preferred funeral solution. But a recent report from The European Environment Bureau warns that due to the increasing level of foreign materials in our bodies when we die, cremation which has always been seen as a comparatively environmentally safe solution, could be adding to our ever troubling envirometal issues.

The EEB is particularly worried about mercury emissions from fillings in teeth. When bodies burn they naturally release emissions, but when a cremation is performed correctly at a high enough temperature those emissions are eliminated. But if the individual has fillings, the metal won't be totally destroyed, they'll smoulder and release mercury into the air.

If rates are high enough, mercury in the air can lead to decreased cognitive functions, vision impairment, and developmental issues in children. Obviously you could just remove the deceased fillings, but the ethics around that are murky. History doesn't look kindly on people who pull teeth from the dead.

Although your one or two fillings probably don't seem too dangerous, Associate professor of environmental science at Murdoch University, Francis Murray, told VICE, "People who die now have far more fillings that people used to have, so the mass of mercury in teeth has been growing for many years. And the model suggest that it will continue to grow for the next decade."

To be clear, this isn't a problem on par with power stations and carbon emissions, but assuming you don't want your final act on earth to be launching mercury into the air, there aren't many other options. Even donating your corpse to science is just delaying the inevitable. When your bits are done being dissected and studied, they still have to be disposed of somehow — unless you opt to have them plasticised and displayed in a university's anatomy museum. Chances are though they're not going to want all of you, so you'll still have to choose between being buried and burned.

Environmentally, burial has been out of eco-favour for a while due to the huge amounts of land needed for graveyards. Any areas used for a burial legally can't be developed for at least 100 years so you're really messing with your town's urban planning options. But beyond practical inconveniences Francis warns that burial brings with it the same sort of issues as mass landfills: "As a body degrades the soil becomes contaminated, and material can leech into the groundwater."

Modern landfill sites are actually constructed with a plastic liner between the waste and the soil to prevent groundwater contamination. So huge stinking piles of rotting garbage are doing more to reduce environmental destruction that your granddad's burial plot.

With groundwater contamination the main issue, the seemingly natural naked or shroud burials are actually worse than being buried in a huge coffin that may act as a barrier between your putrid corpse and nature. As the recent issues of bodies in the Ganges graphically demonstrated, bodies exposed to the elements can be deadly business.

Whether you're buried or cremated you might also want to shell out for embalming. Unless your body needs to be transported or there is a delay between death and the funeral, embalming is optional. But it's a popular choice if you're planning to have an open coffin funeral.

Most embalming fluids are formaldehyde-based, and therefore biodegradable. But last year the US Environmental Protection Agency reported that formaldehyde has been found to cause rare types of cancer. The average body needs one gallon (3.7 liters) of embalming fluid per 50 pound (22.6 kg) to be properly preserved, which isn't enough to pose too much of a threat, but with over three million litres of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid buried in the US alone a year it adds up.

Moving away from the orthodox provides fewer options than you'd think. Being immortalised as a fireworks display, a tattoo, a man made reef, or a box of pencils will all require you to be cremated first. And the energy required to keep a cryogenically frozen body frozen immediately puts it out of the running for most environmental death.

When asked what is the environmental scientist afterlife of choice Francis told VICE, "Cremation has fewer issues, and European crematoriums are beginning to put emission control technologies on the chimneys, but that will push up the price a little bit."

Despite the countless options for what to do with your body when you die, if you're trying to be environmentally friendly you really don't have a lot of choice. If you're really not into cremation, as least make sure someone lines your biodegradable coffin with a bin bag so your decomposing remains don't pollute groundwater. But as always the simplest solution is the best: before you die remove your fillings to save someone the awkwardness of doing it for you. And if possible, spend a little extra to get cremated in Europe.

Follow Wendy on Twitter: @Wendywends

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