Dying to Be Green

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Halloween makes ghosts and the afterlife a scary, but fun, topic for many people. Outside of this holiday, however, death is one of the hardest things to talk about in life. But a growing movement is afoot for people to confront the unknown and give back to the Earth when they pass away with an environmentally friendly funeral.

energyNOW! chief correspondent Tyler Suiters looked into how “green” burials and cremations allow people to make sure their death conserves energy and protects the planet. You can watch the full segment below:

This year, almost a million Americans will be cremated after they pass away. In three hours, a human body is converted to ashes by 1,700-degree natural flames. The environmental implications of cremation are probably the last thing grieving families think of, but it’s an energy-intense process, and releases a lot of carbon dioxide. The Anderson-McQueen funeral home in Florida, for example, handles about 1,700 cremations annually, using enough natural gas to power about 200 homes for a year. “Our monthly gas bill, just to give you an idea, is about $6,000 a month,” said funeral director John McQueen.

So to reduce energy use and emissions, Anderson-McQueen invested in the first biocremation machine in the entire world. It’s a new method of cremation with no flame and reduced emissions. “We still get the body to ash, but we reduce it chemically, using a process called alkaline hydrolysis,” said Sandy Sullivan of biocremation machine manufacturer Resomation Ltd. In biocremation, the body is immersed in a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide, and then heated to 350 degrees, speeding up the natural chemical reactions in decomposition.

The entire process uses just 15 percent of the energy and generates just 25 percent of the emissions of a flame cremation, according to Resomation. By their calculations, traditional cremation emits 400 pounds more CO2 than biocremation, so if one million people choose biocremation it would be like taking 36,000 cars off the road for a year.

Biocremation may reduce the environmental impact of cremation itself, but what about the ashes left over? One company is answering that question by mixing remains into artificial reefs, creating new habitat for marine life. Cremated remains are stirred by loved ones into a concrete mix, placed into a reef ball, and dropped into the ocean. “We’ll get growth on these within six weeks, measurable growth within two months, and meaningful shellfish population out here within a year,” said George Frankel, CEO of Eternal Reefs. More than 700,000 reef balls carrying cremated remains are now off the coast of almost 70 countries.

But the greenest funeral of all may involve nothing more than the ground. That’s the premise at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, spread over 78 acres in central Florida. At Prairie Creek, and other green cemeteries, the rules are simple — no embalmed bodies and no caskets. The goal is for people to give back to the environment by returning their nutrients to nature, literally ashes to ashes and dust to dust. “We’re not robbing the Earth of the natural cycle of life,” said Freddie Johnson, executive director at Prairie Creek. “Mother Nature does a perfect job of taking care of the recycling of life.”

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