Better Dying Through Chemicals: Environmentally Friendly Ways to Go


Have you given your corpse much thought? I don’t mean to go all post mortem on you, but talk about the ultimate carbon footprint. For those of you concerned with your green legacy, you may want to take some time to consider your final leave behind. Let’s explore the options, shall we?

Traditional burial is a good place to start. Back to the earth, goin’ compost, food for Gaia.

According to CemetarySpot, each year 22,500 U.S. cemeteries sink about 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (read: formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals) six feet under. Meanwhile, buried caskets account for 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and more than 30 million board-feet of hardwoods. And here’s a fun fact: Casket manufacturers have made the EPA’s top-50 hazardous waste generators list, primarily due to their use of methyl and xylene in “the protective finish sprayed on the caskets exterior.” (Um, protection from”¦?)

And for those of you thinking about an above-ground approach, cremation and burial vaults account for about 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel. In either case, land-use and transportation issues top off these not-so-eco-friendly end-of-life choices.

Then there’s cremation.

Now we’re really talking ashes to ashes. Burn me up, scatter me around, it’ll be just like nothing ever happened. You may be surprised to learn that a lot of people like this idea. Findtut notes: “75 percent of people in the U.K. are cremated after they die, while in the U.S. the figure has risen from 25 percent in 2000 to approximately 35 percent today.” But not so fast, green-dead wannabes: Each cremation produces about 330 pounds of CO2, of which about 220 pounds comes from burning the body and the coffin. Cremations also give off nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury (dental fillings!), hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, non-methane volatile organic compounds, and other heavy metals. Some sources says that crematoria contribute 0.2 percent of the global emission of dioxins and furans.

Bottom line for the end of the line?

These usual ways to go leave something to be desired. But never fear, the “green burial” niche is booming, says Tonic. The site reports that “eco-friendly burial grounds are opening their gates around the country,” and that the Green Burial Council recently named almost 300 funeral homes that offer environmentally friendly check-out options, up from a mere 12 at the beginning in 2008.

Perhaps the simplest option for a green burial is just doing your best to mind your matter. Digital Journal quotes Cynthia Beal of The Natural Burial Company as saying that a body should be “buried in a simple container made of biodegradable material such as bamboo, wicker, or cardboard which allows the body to decompose and return to the earth gradually and naturally. In some cases the body may only be wrapped in a simple shroud, left to return to the earth in a natural way.”

Over in the chemistry department, however, other more interesting options are cropping up.

For example, there’s the new (unless you’re a Breaking Bad type) trend of alkaline hydrolysis, a.k.a. dissolving bodies with lye. This is a hot topic right now in California, where a new law allowing the funeral business to do this as a matter of routine is making its way through the legislature. In this process, explains the Fresno Bee, mortuaries can dissolve you (Did I say “you?” Sorry.), through a combination of water pressure, heat and alkalinity, a process nicely dubbed “bio-cremation.” The whole thing takes just a few hours and emits no pollution or greenhouse gases. Bones, however, “would not be dissolved by the process, but they would be pulverized or processed for placement into an urn for loved ones.” It’s good to be informed.

Another fun choice is being offered by a Glasgow-based company called Resomation, which has come up with an approach that uses less energy than cremation and emits less CO2 by dissolving a body in sodium hydroxide at about 350 degrees. (A well-known temp for you cooks out there. Yum.) According to Findhut, the procedure produces just about 150 pounds of CO2 per body (that’s less than half of that from “usual cremation”) and has been approved for use in five U.S. states, but not yet back home in the U.K.

Last up in today’s cheerful story is Cryomation, based in Woodbridge, U.K., which, in the spirit of cool Dr. Science experiment, simply freezes remains at -319 degrees Fahrenheit with the help of a little handy-dandy liquid nitrogen, then powders the body and discards any leftover metal. The remains are then dried in a vacuum and sterilized. That way – insert drum roll here – they can be used as fertilizer! This method emits just about 100 pounds of CO2  per body.

When it comes to a green afterlife, shop around. There are a number of different ways you can go. Oh, lord, stop me…

Image: Paul and Jill

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at