Letter to the Editor

Dying to be Green

During the mini-Yearly Meeting in January, Katherine Purnell raised the issue of how to dispose of corpses so as to minimise damage to the environment.  I explored this topic in a letter published in New Scientist.

 Graham Lawton who writes for New Scientist, says that cremation is extremely bad for the environment.  “An 80 kg body contains approximately 14.4 kg carbon which is all converted to carbon dioxide when combusted.  Crematoriums also use natural gas to burn the body and coffin… a single cremation produces 240 kg CO2, about the same as burning 100 litres of petrol.

“Cremations also produce toxic pollutants, principally mercury from dental fillings.  Filtration can prevent this venting to the atmosphere, but not all crematoriums have them.” (He is writing about the UK; I don’t know the situation in NSW or elsewhere in Australia).

 “Traditional burials are less damaging but don’t get a clean bill of environmental health either.  If the body is embalmed the formaldehyde leaches into the soil as the body decomposes.  Coffins usually have metal fittings that also pollute…Making coffins and headstones consumes considerable amounts of energy.”  (NS 2022-10-08). 

 Lawton was able to arrange a woodland burial for his wife but found it extremely expensive. 

 My letter (published 2021-10-23 p54 and again 2022-10-29) says: “On the subject of green funerals, my husband co-edited the book Biochar for Environmental Management and says one good option is to pyrolyse a body to turn it into charcoal.  That is what I want to happen to my remains.  I hope that, after my funeral and when my biocharred body has cooled down, my friends will take some charcoal home to use in their garden.  This will help store carbon away from the atmosphere and build soil health.”  He has done research for the NSW Dept. of Primary Industry on pyrolyzing dead pigs and found it worked well environmentally.

 Unfortunately, I don’t know of any funeral directors anywhere who provide the option of pyrolyzing corpses.  Also various state Environmental Protection Authorities may not be sympathetic.  I would be delighted if someone pursued this option – a lot of work, and well worthwhile.  Not for me at the present time.

 Helen Gould, New South Wales Regional Meeting

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1 Comment

  1. Julie Walpole (TRM)

    I appreciated Helen Gould’s response on Environmentally Friendly funeral practices. I located the conversation about this in ‘New Scientist’ and read the whole thread. I note that there’s another thread where Helen’s letter is repeated but haven’t checked that one out as yet.

    We are reaching an age where we are able to contemplate our own funeral plans. (to paraphrase Advices & Queries #32)

    I understand that there is a Natural Burial site in Northern Tasmania, and that Tasmanian undertakers seldom embalm remains.

    I wonder whether there would be interest in a Share & Tell about this topic at YM 24. I would participate.


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