Which to choose, burial or cremation?
We should not allow cremation to drive cemeteries out of existence and to hide death from us
Flowers pictured where people store their relatives ashes after cremation in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
You might think that your responsibility to care for the environment ends with your death but, alas my friends, not so. Traditional burials have a negative impact on the environment but we must remember that burial and cemeteries fulfil a vitally important social role. Cremation is a popular alternative to burial but it also impacts negatively on the environment. “Green burial” is now advocated as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation.
Burial leaves a small but significant footprint on the natural environment. Consider the various steps – embalming the corpse, sturdy coffin (possibly lacquered), tombstone and manicured grave site. About 800,000 tons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid is buried annually in US graveyards. Ten acres of cemetery contain enough coffin wood to build 40 houses. Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen and the adverse effect of its eventual leaching into the ground has never been adequately assessed.
Although cremation is more eco-friendly than burial, cremations burn much natural gas (a temperature of to 750 to 800 degrees must be maintained for 45 to 90 minutes) releasing greenhouse gases and vaporising other chemicals that may be present in the body such as mercury (dental fillings) and dioxins and furans. Emission of vaporised toxic mercury into the air is worrying. It returns to earth where it can convert to highly toxic methylmercury and contaminate various foods. Ingestion of methylmercury is especially hazardous to women of childbearing age because mercury damages the developing nervous system of the foetus and the young child. However it must be acknowledged that the total amount of mercury emitted annually from crematoria is very small.
Several steps can be taken to mitigate the effect of standard burial on the environment. You can choose not to have your body embalmed and you can be buried in a biodegradable casket or burial shroud that quickly breaks down into simple chemicals, easily absorbed into the natural environment. You can mitigate the effects of cremation by choosing a casket made from non-toxic materials and contributing to a fund to offset the carbon emitted to the atmosphere when your corpse is burned.
Cremation has become popular in Ireland. It is cheaper than traditional burial – no need to purchase a burial plot. If cremation continues to climb in popularity it could eventually eliminate burial altogether. This would be a most unfortunate development because, as described recently by Toni Saad (The New Bioethics, Vol. 23, 2017), burials and graveyards are a very valuable repository of social and collective memory.
Cremation not only leaves a small ecological footprint, it also leaves a small social and psychological footprint. When a corpse is cremated and the ashes scattered, no physical focus of the deceased remains to be visited by those who love them. Even when the ashes of the deceased are retained by relatives they are usually placed in niches in a “wall of remembrance” along with the urns of ashes of many others. The physical focus/impact of cremation remains is much less than the traditional grave/headstone.
As Saad points out, the tombstones of the dead stand among us as they themselves once did but if cemeteries vanish we will forget the dead and forget to consider their wishes and intentions. We will forget that the community belongs to them as it does to us and to those who are yet to come. We will come to regard ourselves as the only ones who matter.
Traditionally burial was practised by the three Abrahamic religions and cremation was practised by eastern religions. Christians believe God created life as embodied life. The person is not simply a soul but a soul-body entity. That means the body is to be respected and the corpse is not a worthless container vacated by the essence of life. It is part of the person we once loved. The modern acceptance that the mind alone is the seat of identity explains the general acceptance of cremation.
I understand and respect why many people choose cremation but I agree with Saad that we should not allow cremation to drive cemeteries out of existence and to hide death from us. We should also consider more eco-friendly burial. This gives a whole new meaning to the popular quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it”.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC