Environmental Impact of Conventional Burial
Green burial is traditional burial. Prior to the 19th Century most U.S. funerals involved burial of an unembalmed body in a simple pine box.
Conventional burial has largely supplanted traditional burial. Conventional burial is carbon-intensive, resource-intensive, and produces significant waste.
Embalming involves replacing bodily fluids with 3-6 gallons of formalin. It is not required by law. It does not prevent the spread of disease. It does not generally preserve a body for long. In most countries outside the U.S., embalming is not routinely practiced.
About 2 million caskets are made in the U.S. each year, and around 75% of these are metal. Casket manufacturers are on the EPA’s list of top 50 hazardous material waste producers, primarily as a result of the toxic finishes they apply to their metal caskets. Each year, wood caskets require about 45 million board-feet of mostly hardwood lumber (primarily oak, maple, and cherry).
Vaults are required by many cemeteries to keep the ground level as the casket deteriorates. A typical vault is made of about 1.6 tons of concrete. Manufacturing and transporting vaults is carbon-intensive.
Conventional cemeteries generally require large amounts of water, pesticides, and weed killers.
On a typical 10-acre conventional cemetery there is enough casket wood to build 40+ houses, 900+ tons of casket steel, 20,000 tons of vault concrete, and enough formalin to fill a small pool.
Cremation is only slightly less carbon-intensive than conventional burial, as it utilizes fossil fuels. Depending on the facility, cremation may also emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCI), NMVOCS, other heavy metals, and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).