The environmental impact of activities after life: life cycle assessment of funerals

Abstract

Purpose

Although the funeral market is propagating new ‘green’ alternatives and exploring innovative techniques like resomation, very little is known about the environmental impact of funerals. This research aimed to develop a benchmark of funerals, by quantifying the environmental impacts of the most common funeral techniques, i.e. burial and cremation, by identifying where the main impacts originate from and by comparing these impacts to impacts of other activities during a person’s life.

Methods

The environmental impacts of funerals were analysed by means of a life cycle assessment (LCA), based on Dutch company information, literature and expert judgements. The results were analysed per impact category but also on an aggregated level by means of shadow prices. Two sensitivity analyses were performed: one examined the high impact of cotton in funeral coffins; the other checked the results by means of another weighting method.

Results and discussion

The results showed no significant difference between the two funeral techniques in five impact categories. Burial has the lowest impact in more than half of the categories, but its impact is many times higher in the two most differing categories than for cremation. The total shadow price of burial is about 30 % higher than the shadow price of cremation, but the main cause for this difference is a highly debated category, namely land use. If the results would be considered without the shadow prices of land impact categories, burial would score 25 % lower than cremation. These results are representing average practise and may deviate on certain aspects for other countries, but as a starting point for further studies, this benchmark is well applicable.

Conclusions and recommendations

This study delivered an environmental benchmark of funerals and insights in the impacts of the individual processes, which can be used in further assessment of ’green’ funeral options. The benchmark results show that the environmental impact of funerals is largely determined by secondary processes and that the total impact can be quite small in comparison to other human activities. Besides these environmental insights, it is important to take into account social, cultural, climatic, local, economical and ethical arguments before changing policies or giving recommendations.

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Acknowledgments

This study was partly commissioned by the Dutch funeral company Yarden. Numerous persons from companies in the funeral sector provided input for this research: John Heskes, Eric Krohne and Sabine Perotti (Yarden); Ruud Verberne (Orthometals); Bert Daling (Groentotaal de Boer); Cor Smulders (Genius Loci); Steven Wagner (Unigra); Nico Willemse (Facultatieve Technologies); Ron Endlich (De Gedenkgroep); Elmar Sommer (SVT); Wim van Midwoud (Landelijke Organisatie Begraafplaatsen); Ruud Vink (Honour Piëteitstechniek); William Schelkers (Funeral Products) and John Bassant (Aqua Omega) and employees of IFZW, Hesselmans International and Landelijke Vereniging Crematoria.

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Correspondence to Elisabeth Keijzer.

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Responsible editor: Adriana Del Borghi

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Keijzer, E. The environmental impact of activities after life: life cycle assessment of funerals. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22, 715–730 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1183-9

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Keywords

  • Burial
  • Cremation
  • Environmental impacts
  • Funerals
  • LCA