Green cremations are a new aspect of a larger trend that has been developing for several decades. In America, cremation is now the most common alternative to the traditional funeral. In some regions of the country, cremation is chosen for as many as 80% of funerals.
Traditional cremation is the reduction of the body to bone fragments through the application of intense heat. The fragments are then finely processed so that they can be placed in an urn for final disposition. A greener cremation takes additional steps to make the process more eco-friendly.
Eco-friendly cremations (also known as eco-cremations and natural cremations) require no harmful chemicals like those used in the embalming process. Cremation with scattering is even less wasteful: no casket or space in the ground is required.
Cremation uses far fewer resources than almost any other disposition option but it does have an environmental impact. Cremation requires the burning of fossil fuels, and some older cremation facilities can use significantly more energy compared to newer ones. Mercury is also emitted when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated, but the development of effective filtration devices and the decline in use of dental amalgam fillings will eventually mitigate this problem.
There are other elements to a green cremation, beginning with the use of eco-friendly caskets that do not release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere during the cremation process. Cremated remains may be placed in urns made from materials that break down naturally in the earth or water, such as Himalayan rock salt or sustainably-produced handmade paper.
A new alternative to cremation is alkaline hydrolysis, also known as bio-cremation or water resolution. The body is placed in a special chamber where it is subjected to water, heat, pressure and potassium hydroxide (lye). After a few hours the body is reduced to a white “ash” (bone mineral remains) and up to 30% more ashes are retained as compared to traditional cremation. The remains can then be buried or scattered. This process uses much less energy, produces much less carbon dioxide, and does not emit harmful emissions such as mercury. As bio-cremation becomes more widely known and accepted, its cost will be comparable to traditional cremation. It is currently legal and available in seven U.S. states, parts of Canada, and is being petitioned in the UK.