April 22, 2019

The Hazards of Cremation & some Greener Alternatives.


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“Hi, this is Ross. Have you planned for the end?”

“Umm, do you mean for my burial?”

“Yes, you qualify.”

I have no words.

“You qualify for a life insurance policy to cover your funeral needs.”

“Umm, I’m currently online looking for an eco-friendly, certified vegan mattress that I plan to use above ground, not under.”

We laugh.

This conversation took place the other day. It got a bit more interesting. Ross told me he’d never heard of a vegan mattress—but he’d recently gotten a mattress-in-a-box, and he was really pleased with it. I explained that vegan mattresses use organic cotton instead of wool, and then proceeded to tell him about my search and the various eco-friendly companies I’d looked into.

He gently led me back to his original question, reminding me that I qualified. I had no response—I was considering a mattress with a 25-year warranty, not a $10,000 policy to cover my funeral expenses. I gently let him know I would be paying $1,000 for an eco-friendly decomposition of my earthly body. We ended on a pleasant note.

But the conversation led me to consider eco-friendly end of life choices too. I’d decided on cremation with my ashes scattered. Land or sea? River, creek, stream, or field? The woods?

But, I’ve since read that cremation is hazardous to the environment, the workers at the crematorium, and the surrounding community.

Mercury dental fillings are released into the air, although there can be special filters in place to contain them. Where do they go after the process? Implantable medical devices have been known to cause serious issues. And, radioactive implanted oncology treatments are of concern during the cremation process.

Upon further research about cremation hazards, I learned that most of the hazards involve the workers in the crematorium. Exploding metal implants must be found by the medical practitioner using a hand-held device to detect them, and are removed prior to the cremation. Filters can be installed in crematoriums to handle the vaporization of mercury from dental amalgams. Knowledge of the deceased having either had a recent nuclear medicine study, or, having an implanted radioactive device can be handled by knowing the half-life of the radionuclide and delaying the cremation.

But, what about conventional burials in the United States? Why are they not green?

According to the Green Burial Organization:

“The more pressing medical issue related to embalming is the risk to embalmers and funeral directors from inhaling the vapors of embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde, benzene, ethanol, ethylene glycol (an ingredient in antifreeze) and other toxic chemicals, causing: 13% higher death rate for embalmers (CDC), 8 times higher risk of contracting leukemia (11.24.09 Journal of National Cancer Institute), 3 times higher risk of contracting ALS and other auto-immune and neurological diseases (7.13.15 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry).”

The Green Burial Council also notes that in the U.S. annually, approximately 77,000 trees are lost to create coffins, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid containing the carcinogen formaldehyde are used. In addition, metal caskets can leak heavy metals such as copper, iron, and zinc into acidic soils. Sealants, plastics, and other products used to make the caskets can be leached into soil and water. Dyes and harmful materials in the casket’s lining are also potential pollutants.

Next, a plan B was needed. Should I get placed, fetal position, into a compostable pod and planted with a tree?

Or, a green burial with a simple clean wooden casket, or none, wrapped in an eco-friendly blanket and buried in a shallow grave? I am still leaning toward the tree idea. An option I considered: a safe cremation combined with a mix of good, organic soil added to my ashes, then burial in a bamboo urn, either with a tree, or under a mature tree.

And apparently I can pick the tree!

I would like to be a birch, which is native to Finland, with chaga mushrooms growing from its bark as it starts to age. I love chaga and consume it daily in my coffee. How appropriate!

However, I live in south Florida and birch trees need cold climates: Finland, Russia, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It’s not too eco-friendly to transport my pod to Finland or Ohio. In Finland, would I choose Helsinki, Turku, Seinajoki, or Vaasa? If I chose Ohio, it would definitely be in Warren, planted by Lake Erie. Or, perhaps the current residents of Kenilworth Avenue would be okay with my tree and me in their backyard…

Back to the present:

I’ve chosen an eco-friendly mattress, certified vegan with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) stamp of approval, made with 100 percent Dunlop latex from unharmed rubber trees. No toxic chemicals, no volatile organic compounds or VOCs. The materials used are recycled, reusable, and will break down with less impact on the landfill. And it comes with a 25-year warranty.

What are our 21st century mattress choices? Memory foam, latex, inner spring, air, water, and hybrids. With a box spring? On a platform or bunkie board and metal frame? Filled with flame retardants, high VOCs, harmful chemicals, or eco-friendly? Size of mattress? Add a pillow topper? How thick? Yikes!

Then there is the issue of disposal. Hence the dilemma I’d faced: keep the nine-year-old mattress or opt for a 25-year warranty, eco-friendly mattress that is too pretty to cover with a mattress pad protector and sheets.

I checked my driver’s license and added 25 to my current age. Hmm—I’d be in a pod or bamboo urn before that warranty expires.

And I searched Florida native trees and found quite a few. For now, my choice is the Red Maple, formally known as the acer rubrum. A fast growing, 40 to 90 footer that lives to 150 years old.

Look for me in a local park someday and give me a hug. I hug back.


My call to action for all of us is simple:

Let us all do our part to help our precious planet. We only have plan A—there is no plan B.

If you are preplanning your funeral, start researching all the choices available. I realize cultural, religious, and other considerations may be a part of the choice, and it’s possible to respect them and still care for the earth. Start communicating with others, read, research, and be open to ideas.

And, if this topic is not one you want to handle now, or in the near future, consider your next mattress choice to start.

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