Traditional burial materials use a great deal of raw materials. Approximately 30 million board feet (9.1 million meters) of wood are cut down every year to make caskets [source: Scientific American]. Much of this wood is high quality, such as mahogany and other tropical hardwoods. In North America, enough steel is used in caskets and vaults each year to make a bridge the size of the Golden Gate Bridge. The concrete used to construct burial vaults is enough to build a 535-mile (861-kilometer) highway. Add in the energy used to transport the vaults and caskets, and the environmental impact of traditional burial materials is huge. What's more, materials such as wood coffins take years to decompose in the soil. The chemicals used in embalming can seep into communities' soil and eventually into their groundwater.
Cremations have a lesser impact on the environment than traditional burials, it's true. But the impact is still considerable. It takes a lot of energy to reach the required temperatures of more than 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) to cremate a body. Meanwhile, as the corpse and casket burn, the process releases toxins, including hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids, dioxin, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide [source: Koerth-Baker and Green Burials]. One positive for cremations is that the heat they generate can be captured to produce usable energy. Sweden's city of Helsingborg has tapped crematoriums to supply 10 percent of the energy required to heat its homes [source: Koerth-Baker].
Many funeral homes now offer eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burials and to cremation. This may include biodegradable burial materials to replace the coppers, woods and other materials that decompose more slowly or are nonrenewable. Cardboard and recycled paper are some of the choices. And states don't require embalming, at least not if the funeral takes place within a certain period of time [source: One Green Planet]. Some natural burials even include planting of a native tree over the burial site in place of a headstone. The interest in green burials has meant more companies have begun offering eco-friendly services. That means more choice for eco-conscious bereaved consumers. But it also means that as with any funeral planning, those faced with many decisions at the toughest of times need to carefully check out the funeral service to weigh options and costs.
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