In the last 20 years the landscape of the funeral industry has completely changed. A rise in creating new sustainable environmental practices has been a large contributing factor in shifting the funeral industry away from traditional practices to more environmentally conscious ones. More specifically, cremation and green burials have been gaining popularity over traditional burial funerals because of how detrimental burial funerals are to our environment. While this ‘Green’ movement plays an important role in convincing Americans to rethink their disposition method, money is also a powerful motivating factor.
Environmental Benefits of Cremation
Compared to a burial funeral, cremations are much less harmful to the environment overall. According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, burial funerals in the United States use 30 million tons of hardwood, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete for burial vaults and caskets. The sheer amount of materials used is staggering.
The amount of wood needed to create caskets is equivalent to 4 million square acres of forest, which contains enough trees to sequester 65 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The amount of wood used in casket making could build 97,000 homes every single year.
Land Used For Burials
The amount of land allocated to burying people is quite large if you look at it within a global context. For example, every year 55.3 million people die worldwide according to World Health Organization. If all 55.3 million people chose to be buried, and everyone gets a standard 7 ft by 3 ft grave plot, this means that 1,161,300,000 square feet, or 41.66 square miles of habitable/arable land is now devoted to graveyards annually.
The burial process is a large emitter of CO2 for many ‘behind the scenes’ reasons:
- cutting down trees
- transporting the wood
- transporting the casket
- cement manufacturing
- lawn care maintenance for cemetery grounds
These are just a few of the many factors which negatively impact the environment. None of these factors are transparent to the average person unless you specifically investigate the problem. It is also almost impossible to put a definitive number on emissions directly related to the funeral industry, but there are estimates which put the number around 178 tons of CO2 released annually because of funerals. This obvious burden on our planets resources is nothing to take lightly. Fortunately with the rise in popularity of alternative disposition methods, we are seeing the needle move in the right direction with regard to funeral industry related emissions.
The main ingredients in embalming fluid are formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, phenol, humectants, dyes, anti-edemic chemicals, and disinfectants. When these chemicals are buried in the ground they don’t just disappear. They gradually work their way into the soil and underground waterways which constitute America’s water table.
We leak 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid into our waterways and soil annually according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Not only is embalming fluid toxic, but the chemicals used to process and add a finished polish to the wood are also harmful to the environment.
Green Burials on the Rise
Returning to the simplicity of our not too distant ancestors, green burials are a simple and natural way to return to the earth. The Green Burial Council is an organization that regulates this disposition method, which includes putting the body in a grave with only a burial shroud. Green Burials are popular among environmentalist because they do not require embalming, caskets, or cremation urns. This rising popularity to return to a more natural funeral process is a clear indication that some people want to have funerals on their own terms, in a more private setting.
Cost of Burial Funeral Compared to Cremation
Cost has been the deciding factor in steering people away from burial funerals. The National Funeral Directors calculated the average cost of a burial funeral to be $7,300 and the average cost of a cremation funeral to be $3,100 in 2018. Since 2010 the average cost of a funeral in the United States has risen 4.1% every single year. From December 1986 to September 2017, funeral expenses rose 227.1%, while prices for funeral items like caskets and cremation urns rose 123.4%. With the high price of burial funerals, we are going to continue seeing a rise in cremation rates, as a way for Americans to do some damage control on funeral expenses.
The National Funeral Directors Association’s 2017 Cremation and Burial Report found that 50.2 percent of Americans chose cremation in 2016, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, while 43.5 percent of Americans opted for burial, down from 45.4 percent in 2015. NFDA expects the trend shifting from burial toward cremation to continue over the next 20 years, with the projected rate of cremation reaching 78.9 percent of deaths by 2035.
If you are interested in learning more about saving money on funeral expenses, I recommend you read, “How To Save Hundreds of Dollars on Funeral Expenses” for more information.
Why People Still Choose Burial Funerals
The reason why many people are willing to spend $4000 more for a burial funeral normally stems from feeling more connected to the traditional aspect of burial funerals. A desire to keep the tradition alive within the family also holds importance to people. Many families have generations of people within the family buried in the same graveyard, so it is perceived as a way of preserving their legacy and paying adherence to family traditions and customs. It is difficult trying to balance the costs of funeral expenses while adhering to family traditions with a burial funeral. This adherence to family traditions also extends to religious restrictions on funerals. For example, both Judaism and Islam forbid cremation. It will be interesting seeing how Religion and family customs effect funeral trends in the coming years.
Updated: February 24, 2018