The Malta Independent 4 October 2022, Tuesday
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The environmental toll of cremating the dead

Mark Said Sunday, 14 August 2022, 06:58 Last update: about 3 months ago

In May 2019 the government of Malta passed a new law allowing for cremation in Malta. It is envisaged that until 2023-2024 anyone wishing to be cremated will still need to be sent overseas for the cremation to be done abroad. However, thereafter, we can be sure that there will be many Maltese and other expatriates residing in Malta who will opt for cremation. That option is bound to increase, once the Church in Malta has taken a position to the effect that while it earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed, it does not prohibit cremation unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.

Over the past six years, cremations have surpassed burials as the most popular end-of-life option in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. At the same time, companies have been springing up touting creative things you can do with a loved one’s ashes, such as pressing them into a vinyl record, using them to create a marine reef or having them compressed into diamonds.

Our law lays down a few specific prohibitions in the manner ashes are disposed of, such as an open space designated for the practice and also lays down standards for crematoria and clear conditions for operators to obtain a license from the Superintendence for Public Health, which is obliged to inspect and ensure compliance with the regulations. This notwithstanding, as with many other innovations, cremation, too, raises a few environmental concerns.

Cremation, along with these creative ways to honour the dead, is often marketed as a more environmentally-friendly option than traditional embalmment and casket burial. Concern for the environment, in addition to economic considerations, may be driving some of the increase in popularity. But while it is true that cremation is less harmful than pumping a body full of formaldehyde and burying it on top of concrete, there are still environmental effects to consider. Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, enough that some environmentalists are trying to rethink the process.

Cremation has been mistakenly thought to be a relatively eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial. A growing body of research, however, has found that while cremation may not be as environmentally damaging as full-service burial, standard cremations in most crematoria require the burning of natural gas and therefore the release of greenhouse gases, as well as the vaporisation of other chemicals that may be present in the cremated body, such as mercury used in amalgam dental fillings and dioxins and furans. The average US cremation, for instance, takes up about the same amount of energy and has the same emissions as about two tanks of fuel in an average car. Now, that is something.

The big environmental concerns with this type of cremation are the amount of energy it requires and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions it produces. Our regulations must ensure that our future operating crematoria have scrubbing or filtering systems, such as after-chambers that burn and neutralize pollutants like mercury emissions from dental fillings. Most filtration systems are focused on reducing metals and particulate matter and nitrous oxide. However, these filters do not neutralize the CO2 generated by cremating a body, including the gas generated as a by-product of heating that body up to 648.89 degrees Celsius or more. Estimates show that one cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given this figure, one will have to work out how cremations in Malta will account for the number of emissions each year.


Back to the earth

For those who do not want to use up so much fuel or release so much carbon dioxide when they die, alkaline hydrolysis may be a more appealing option. Sometimes known as water cremation or aquamation, this way of dissolving a body in water is now legal in at least 18 states throughout the USA. Alkaline hydrolysis has about a 10th of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation. While the process does take a similar amount of time, it does not have to heat that much, and it is the water that is doing most of the work. In addition, the process releases zero emissions from the body itself. As with cremation, there are some remains left over after alkaline hydrolysis that families can keep in an urn or scatter in a special location. And the process creates a lot of sludgy organic liquid that has some very practical uses. Some facilities capture the liquid, which is taken away and is used on some farmland. It is an excellent fertilizer and if it somehow finds its way into the sewer system it will actually help with the quality of the wastewater.

With time, there might be many more alternatives to cremation. Abroad, it is today lawful to resort to a type of corpse composting called natural organic reduction or recomposition. Started in 2020, this process converts bodies into useful soil that friends and family can either use or donate to deserving areas. And across the US, it is legal to opt for a so-called natural burial, in which the body is allowed to decompose in the ground without added chemicals, concrete or synthetic materials.

Ultimately, people have to take into account many factors when making funerary preparations, such as how much a certain option costs, whether it aligns with religious and cultural practices and whether it is available in a given area. But with more end-of-life options becoming widely available, it will be getting a bit easier to go from ashes to ashes while still being green. Change is always difficult in such a conservative market, but we need to look after our country and the planet even once we die since we keep on destroying it while we live. Cremation might remain a burning issue for some time.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate


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