is embalming bad for the environment

Is Embalming Bad for the Environment? A Look At The Environmental Impact of Death

Embalming involves the use of harsh chemicals that can pollute soil and water.

This common funeral practice may be more detrimental to the planet than we realize.

Keep reading to learn more about embalming’s impact.

Is Embalming Bad for the Environment?

Is Embalming Bad for the Environment?

Yes, embalming is bad for the environment.

The toxic embalming chemicals that get pumped into bodies are later released into soil and water as the body decomposes underground.

Formaldehyde, phenol, and other solvents contaminate the surrounding soil and have detrimental impacts on water quality when they leach into aquifers or watersheds.

The CDC has confirmed that embalming fluid alters soil microbiology and raises the levels of hazardous materials in and around cemeteries.

While cremation also has environmental impacts, conventional burial with embalming is a significant source of soil and water pollution.

There are more eco-friendly options available, like green burials without embalming fluid.

Overall, the common practice of embalming with harsh chemicals is harmful to the planet.

Key Points

  • Embalming fluid contains over 800,000 gallons of toxic formaldehyde, phenol, and methanol that get buried annually.
  • These chemicals drain from caskets and the body, polluting soil and threatening water quality.
  • The CDC has confirmed embalming chemicals alter soil microbiology and increase toxicity in cemeteries.
  • Green burials without embalming fluid are a more sustainable option.

What Is Embalming and Why Is It Used?

Embalming is the process of temporarily preserving a deceased person using chemicals.

The embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents to slow down decomposition.

After draining the body’s blood and fluids, the embalmer injects the embalming solution into the arterial system.

This gruesome process prepares the body for public viewing at memorial services.

It also allows time for distant family members to travel and pay their respects.

The use of embalming became popular during the Civil War so fallen soldiers could be sent home.

Today, it is still a common practice despite environmental concerns.

What Chemicals Are Used in Embalming Fluid?

Formaldehyde is the primary active ingredient in embalming fluid.

This colorless, strong-smelling chemical is a known human carcinogen.

When exposed to formaldehyde, people may experience irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.

Other toxic chemicals found in embalming fluid include:

  • Methanol, which can damage the nervous system and cause blindness.
  • Ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, are both flammable compounds.
  • Phenol, which is particularly damaging to the environment. Even small amounts can be toxic to aquatic life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), embalming fluid also contains poisonous or destructive substances like ethylene glycol, glutaraldehyde, and phenol.

Why Is Embalming Fluid Toxic?

These chemicals are highly toxic and give off dangerous, flammable fumes.

Formaldehyde can cause cancer, methanol can poison the nervous system, and phenol wreaks havoc on the environment.

When embalming fluid leaks into the soil, it releases formaldehyde, phenol, and solvents that contaminate water and soil.

One study by the CDC revealed altered microbiological components of soil in cemeteries.

Heavy metals and other toxic organic chemicals were also found at higher levels, indicating pollution caused by embalming fluid.

Is Cremation More Eco-Friendly Than Burial?

Many people view cremation as a greener alternative to conventional burial.

Cremation reduces the body to about 5 lbs of ash stored in an urn.

However, the process of cremation has its environmental impacts.

The intense heat of 1800-2000°F during cremation requires a lot of fuel and releases air pollutants.

Burning a single body emits over 540 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Toxic mercury emissions are also a concern, especially when crematorium filters aren’t properly maintained.

Dental fillings containing mercury get vaporized and released during cremation.

Considering over 50% of people choose cremation today, this practice is far from emissions-free.

While cremation uses fewer resources than burial, it still pollutes the air with greenhouse gases and mercury vapor.

What’s the Environmental Impact of Burials?

From the casket and headstone materials to the upkeep of cemeteries, burials incur an environmental toll.

The traditional funeral process uses mined metals, concrete vaults, and exotic wood caskets.

These materials are energy-intensive to produce.

Embalming the body pumps over 800,000 gallons of toxic, non-biodegradable fluid into the ground every year.

The CDC has confirmed that embalming chemicals alter the microbial life in the soil and raise toxin levels.

On top of that, most cemeteries use toxic pesticides and fertilizers to maintain pristine lawns.

This chemical runoff enters watersheds and disrupts local ecosystems.

Conventional burials may seem natural, but every step of the process harms the environment.

Do Coffins and Caskets Leach Chemicals?

Since embalmed bodies are placed in coffins made of metal, concrete, or treated wood, toxic chemicals also leach from these materials.

Water pooling at the bottom of burial containers causes faster decomposition of the body.

As flesh, fluids, and embalming chemicals break down, they drain from the casket into the soil.

One study in the Microchemical Journal found cadmium, cobalt, lead, and nickel leaching from burial containers into cemetery grounds.

These toxic metals can spread into groundwater supplies.

Chemicals like formaldehyde can also escape from the decomposing cadaver and coffin.

With cemeteries running out of space, the potential for contamination increases.

What is the most environmentally friendly way to be buried?

The most eco-friendly burial method is a natural or green burial.

This approach avoids the use of toxic embalming chemicals and non-biodegradable caskets constructed with metal, varnished wood, or concrete.

With natural burial, the body is simply placed directly in the soil inside a biodegradable shroud or coffin made of wicker, cardboard, or unfinished wood.

The body can then decompose naturally and return nutrients to the earth.

Other environmentally sustainable burial options include alkaline hydrolysis, promession (freeze-drying the body and converting it into a nutrient-rich compost), and organic composting.

Conservation burial involves interring the body in a protected natural area to nourish surrounding vegetation and plant life.

These methods prevent the buildup of unnatural preservation chemicals and materials that resist decomposing when buried in traditional cemeteries.

Natural burial enables our remains to regenerate rather than pollute when laid to rest.

Is embalming fluid bad for the soil?

Yes, the toxic embalming chemicals that compose most conventional embalming fluid can be very harmful to soil quality when they leach underground.

Formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and phenol make up the standard embalming solution.

As the embalmed corpse decomposes, these chemicals drain out of the body and casket.

They then pollute the soil, altering its microbiology and chemical composition.

According to studies by the CDC, soils in cemeteries contain elevated levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, cobalt, and nickel as well as high mineral and salt content.

These metals and toxic compounds originate from embalming fluids and burial containers.

Phenol is particularly damaging even in small quantities.

It can disrupt soil nutrient cycles and contaminate groundwater supplies.

Formaldehyde also degrades very slowly underground, prolonging its negative impacts.

With so much embalming fluid saturating soils in cemeteries across the country, it is almost certain that the surrounding water and soil quality is compromised.

Using toxic embalming chemicals to preserve bodies before burial is simply not sustainable.

Why are traditional funerals bad for the environment?

Every step of the conventional funeral process, from embalming to burial, has negative environmental repercussions.

Here’s a summary of why traditional funerals are eco-unfriendly:

  • Toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies contaminates soil and water.
  • Non-biodegradable caskets, vaults, and headstones require a lot of mined materials to produce.
  • Pesticides and fertilizers used to maintain cemeteries cause chemical runoff.
  • Cremation facilities release mercury and other emissions into the air.
  • Exotic wood, metal, and concrete caskets resist decomposing when buried.
  • Preparing the body involves energy-intensive air travel for distant family members.
  • Cemeteries use up available land and contribute to urban sprawl.
  • Chemical-laden embalmed bodies cannot nourish plant life or ecosystems.

With greater awareness, eco-conscious regulations, and incentives for green burials, the funeral industry could adopt much more sustainable practices.

But in their current traditional form, funerals and conventional burials are incredibly resource-intensive and environmentally damaging.

How does cremation affect the environment?

Here are some of the main ways that the process of cremation impacts the environment:

  • Burning a body in a crematorium emits over 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per corpse cremated. This is a significant contributor to air pollution.
  • Crematoriums operate at extremely high temperatures of 1800-2000°F. Achieving such intense heat requires the burning of a lot of natural gas, a fossil fuel that emits greenhouse gases when combusted.
  • Toxic mercury vapor is released into the atmosphere if the crematorium does not have proper filtration systems in place. Dental amalgam fillings containing mercury vaporize when cremated.
  • While cremated human remains take up less space than traditional burials, the ash does not decompose or nourish the soil, as in a natural burial.
  • Cremation still relies heavily on non-renewable natural gas for fuel. There is also energy expended in processing the remains after cremation.
  • Ash scattering that is not properly controlled can result in the remains entering and polluting nearby lakes, rivers, or streams.

With cremation rates projected to keep rising worldwide, addressing its substantial emissions and potential mercury pollution is crucial for protecting environmental health.

Though it uses fewer materials than burial, cremation notably contributes to issues like air pollution, climate change, and toxic emissions when not properly regulated.

In Summary: Is Embalming Bad for the Environment?

From toxic embalming chemicals to the carbon emissions of crematoriums, conventional body disposal methods are incredibly damaging.

As environmental awareness spreads, we need more eco-friendly options that protect water quality and reduce pollution.

Shifting away from invasive embalming and resource-intensive funerals is an important step toward sustainability.

Finding renewable, non-toxic ways to care for our dead benefits both the planet and public health.

The future of the funeral industry must be green.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of chemicals are used in embalming?

Formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and various solvents make up the toxic blend of most conventional embalming fluids. These substances slow decomposition so bodies can be publicly displayed before burial. However, the chemicals pose health and environmental hazards.

Why are embalming chemicals dangerous?

Compounds like formaldehyde and phenol are highly poisonous. Methanol can cause blindness, while formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. When embalming fluid leaks into the soil, it releases these toxic chemicals, threatening water supplies and aquatic life. Even small amounts of phenol or formaldehyde can harm the environment.

How much embalming fluid is buried every year?

According to the CDC, over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are buried annually just in the United States. With more than half the population choosing embalming at funeral homes, this amount will likely keep rising. Leaking chemicals and contamination problems will only worsen as more fluid gets pumped into cemeteries across the country.

Do coffins and caskets also leach chemicals?

Yes, the materials coffins are constructed from, like treated wood and metal, leach their toxic compounds. On top of that, bodily fluids and embalming chemicals drain from caskets into the soil as bodies decompose. One study found heavy metals like cadmium and lead contamination near burial sites and caskets.

What are some greener ways to bury the dead?

Natural or green burials avoid the use of embalming fluid and non-biodegradable caskets. Other eco-friendly options include alkaline hydrolysis, composting, conservation burial, and biodegradable urns or coffins. The green funeral movement aims to develop sustainable practices that protect water quality and prevent pollution.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about the environment and our natural world. Check out our website for more content about living sustainably, reducing waste, and protecting the planet we call home. Together, we can implement solutions that honor the deceased while also honoring the living ecosystems we depend on.

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