According to the alternative death care magazine, Natural Transitions, the number of cremations in the United States is growing. In 1999, one out of four people chose cremation; that number grew to 37 percent in 2009 and is expected to reach 59 percent by 2023.1
What is cremation?
A typical cremation in the United States involves placing the body (usually within a cardboard or simple wood casket,) into a cremation chamber, also called a retort. The cremation chamber is heated to between 1,600 and 1,800 degrees for approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours, the amount of time it takes for the body to be completely reduced to bone fragments. The cremated remains, or “cremains” for short, are searched through by hand for any metal such as screws, nails, surgical pins or titanium limbs/joints with a magnet, then crushed into fine particles (the “ashes”) and are given back to the family, usually in a plastic bag or cardboard box.
In many countries, cremation is usually done in a building called a crematorium, but other countries choose different methods, such as open-air cremation in India and in Nepal.
Is cremation an eco-friendly option?
The Green Burial Council states, on its website, that “Cremation uses far fewer resources than almost any other disposition option but it certainly has an environmental impact.”
The principal impacts of cremation come from the burning of fossil fuels (either natural gas or propane) and the generation and release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Newer crematoriums require much less fuel that older ones. According to Natural Transitions magazine, cremation produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide as driving a mid-sized car approximately 500 miles.2 Mercury emissions are also a problem when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated. In the UK alone, it is estimated that crematories contribute almost 16% of annual mercury emissions.
For comparison, a recent study by the largest cemetery in Southern Australia found that a conventional burial generates about 10 percent more carbon dioxide than cremation, if all the carbon dioxide produced on the day of the burial AND that required for landscape maintenance, are taken into account. However, a burial at a green or natural burial site produces LESS carbon than a cremation because of fewer resources required for the day of the burial and for maintenance.
To make the cremation option greener, it is possible for crematories to recycle metallic medical parts, and for the crematory or family to offset the amount of carbon produced by making a contribution to a carbon fund.
Scattering of ashes or cremains
One of the most common myths about cremation is that scattering cremated ashes is a public health hazard. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) website, once a human body has been cremated, it is “inert fragments of bone – mostly calcium, which is then pulverized into smaller pieces” and is no longer considered a health risk. Moreover, the cremated ashes are usually not something federal or state officials are concerned with. However, there are exceptions. Some local laws prohibit scattering on public lands, so it is best to research this, and fo course, practice discretion.
Public Lands. According to the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the act of scattering ashes or cremains is considered legal on public lands, providing it is not done by a commercial entity and provided it is not done on Indian burial grounds. More information can be found on the BLM’s website.
Local laws vary greatly. No state or federal laws exist about spreading ashes in parks, public gardens, etc., so it is best to check with the town officials if you want to scatter ashes in these areas. According to an article on eHow.com, titled “Is it Legal to Scatter Ashes From Cremation?”, “spreading cremated ashes on uninhabited public land such as rural woods is generally allowed, but you should also check with town officials.”
Private Lands. According to the website of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), “In all states you may keep the ashes at home if you like, or scatter them on your own property. You may scatter them on someone else’s property with the permission of the landowner.”
Beaches and Waterways. The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) contacted the EPA regarding scattering from beaches and other shorelines. An official from the EPA stated that anyone in the US can dispose of remains (or ashes) at sea, as long as they take them three miles off shore and report the burial (or scattering) within a month to the closest EPA office. The EPA official went on to say that “I don’t care about cremated remains,” he said. “We’re trying to deal with real polluters.” Burials or scatterings that take place within three miles of shore fall under the Clean Water Act, rather than the EPA rules, which is enforced at the State, not the Federal level. The EPA official added that he had never heard of state officials paying attention to scattering cremains on the seashore.
You can read more about the legalities of scattering ashes here: