Many people operate under the assumption that cremation is better. The reasons they usually cite don’t seem to be so much about spiritual reasons, unless they practice certain Eastern religions, but rather typically include:
- It is natural, and better for the environment
- It is less expensive
- We are running out of land
- Decomposition is bad
I have nothing against cremation, and in fact, for a long time I thought it would be what I would choose for my self. I no longer believe that will likely be the case, however, I’ve not finalized my decision yet (here’s hoping I still have plenty of time to figure that out). My reason for addressing this today is simple: If you are simply choosing Cremation based on those points of reason, it is perhaps important to better examine them, because, well, you may be surprised at what you learn.
If, however, you have spiritual or even poetic reasons for preferring cremation, then by all means, go for it! I just want to ensure you are fully informed, and there is a lot of misleading information out there these days. Again, I’ve nothing against Cremation. I actually prefer it to embalming and traditional burial at this juncture. However, as with all things, I believe you should have all the information before making decisions.
So, let’s take a look at those presuppositions listed above. The first thing to keep in mind is that, as with anything in life, these statements are all relative. I will explore these briefly, one at a time:
It is natural, and better for the environment. Well, yes and no. Relative to what? Is it better for the environment than a body that is filled with formaldehyde, put inside a sealed box, that is sunk into another concrete box called a ”liner,” and buried in the ground? Potentially yes. However, cremation uses a lot of fossil fuels, and releases all sorts of toxins, including mercury, into the environment. Also, ashes that result from cremation are very different than the organic ”dust” that results from natural decomposition, you know the whole “from dust to dust” thing. When a body is cremated, all of the organic matter is destroyed, all that remains is ash, nothing natural or organic. What IS natural and better for the environment is what they call Natural Burial. No embalming (it is rarely a legal requirement to embalm, though people assume it is; also it is not medically safer, though those who profit from it would like to insist it is). Either wrapping the body in cloth, or a biodegradable coffin. This allows the body to decompose naturally. Wikipedia presents these environmental taxes from the ”traditional” funeral practices of today:
Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
- 30 million board feet (70,000 m3) of hardwood caskets
- 90,272 tons of steel caskets
- 14,000 tons of steel vaults
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults
- 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m3) of embalming fluid, which usually includes formaldehyde.
When formaldehyde is used for embalming, it breaks down, and the chemicals released into the ground after burial and ensuing decomposition are inert. The problems with the use of formaldehyde and its constituent components in natural burial are the exposure of mortuary workers to it and the destruction of the decomposer microbes necessary for breakdown of the body in the soil
It is also worth noting that Jewish and Islamic practices do not allow for anything but what amounts to the near equivalent of a Natural Burial.
CREMATION IS LESS EXPENSIVE
Again, this is relative. Cremation is usually not more expensive than a home viewing and Natural Burial, for instance. Cremation in a traditional funeral home can be less expensive than a traditional funeral with embalming, however, if you use a simple pine casket and skip the embalming, that is debatable. Refrigeration preserves the body equally as well prior to funeral, just not for as long. However, typically people do not wait extremely long to hold the funeral, so more often than not, this is not an issue. Home viewings (where allowable by law) typically use dry ice for preservation.
Relativity is the key here, though – and home viewing isn’t for everyone. There are other options, and some of the least expensive ones involve Direct Burial or Direct Cremation, where you skip the funeral home all together. The body either goes straight to the Crematorium or to the Cemetery. However, many people find that this interrupts grieving, and that viewing the body, at least, helps their grief process along. You may be able to have a short viewing at the Crematorium prior to cremation, and you may be able to request to view the body at the hospital or in the home before direct burial. That said, if home viewing and/or natural burial are not options where you are, or if you are uncomfortable with them, direct cremation is far less expensive – more often than not, though not always – than funeral home cremation. Funeral home cremation is less expensive than traditional funeral, though it could come close if you skip the embalming, use a simple pine casket, and so forth. So, as you can see, it is all relative, and is not in the least simply a matter of “Cremation is less expensive.” Technically, home viewing with natural burial in your yard or church cemetery, where allowable, is typically the least expensive way to go – unless you are considering donating your body to ”Science.” I will write about that in another post sometime soon, because you aren’t technically donating it to science – that is like saying you are donating your antique furniture to history. It is a bit more specific than that – and it isn’t always what you would think 🙂 But more on that another time.
WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF LAND
Ah, now things get tricky. See, this one is relative as well. Existing cemeteries, especially in big cities, are indeed running out of land. This is further exacerbated by the very fact that we use large coffins, put them inside larger liners, and things decompose far more slowly (don’t forget the embalmed body, too!). However, even if it weren’t for the coffins, liners, and so on, the reality is this: There is land, it just isn’t where we want it. Look at a large city such as NYC. Real estate is prime property and worth a lot of money. It also has an extremely dense population. Where to bury the dead becomes even more problematic if you look the future, which will inevitably lead to an increased death rate as the Baby Boomers begin to pass on. However, technically there is more than enough land – it just isn’t in areas close to our homes, or where we would want to mourn.
Too, we aren’t comfortable with the idea of re-using areas where people were buried before. However, with Natural Burial, bodies decompose more quickly, and within X years, you could use space again – though at this time that isn’t an issue if we are ok burying our dead outside of big cities, for instance. So yes, there is a strong argument over land use. However, there are also many solutions to that, if we are willing to think outside the box.
DECOMPOSITION IS JUST GROSS
Once again, folks: It is all relative!
Since the Civil War there has been an increasing movement in our culture to prevent decomposition (I so want to joke here that it is just an extension of our trend in life to try to defy age via plastic surgery, botox injections, and so forth, but …. I’m holding back. Oh, wait, somehow the idea still slipped in there, oh my!). Embalming was initially begun as a way of transporting the bodies of soldiers across long distances, without the complications that accompany quick decay. Add to this the boxes – and soon the metal boxes….and then the ones that seal air-tight….and then putting them inside liners…and well, you can see we are trying to avoid decay.
We are certainly not the first culture to try to preserve a body, viewing decomposition as something disgusting and to be avoided. Cremation, in turn, just feels clean and simple. Until you learn a bit more about it. About how many hours it takes. How the body kind of rocks and rolls around, sizzle sizzle, crackle, pop, the brain kind of bubbling, until everything organic is gone. Yet…the bones still remain. They have to next be put in a Cremulator, basically a machine that grinds up the bones for about 20 minutes or so. HOWEVER, since metal can damage the machine, the attendants usually first rake through the bones looking for metal bits that can damage it. Finally, after grinding the bones for 20 minutes or so, we have ashes that can be poured into an urn.
My point here is NOT that Cremation is bad – I really want you to hear that. I am simply saying that if you think of it as simple and lovely or even poetic when compared to natural decomposition, well, just know that it is actually a very loud, somewhat violent, and most definitely artificial process. I will hand it to you: Natural decomposition is NOT pretty. However, it is in its own way rather poetic, and is part of the life cycle that every living thing is a part of.
Again, I’m not here to knock Cremation. For a long time I thought it would be my path of choice (I still prefer it over traditional embalming plus double boxing). I just want you to make your choices based on real information. These aren’t arguments for or against anything. I just want to bring up points for you to consider. You may want to further chase down some of these ideas – you may find even more information, that sways you one direction or another. My goal is to get you thinking, really questioning, rather than being sold on something for someone else’s benefit. You deserve to choose from a position where you are fully informed, if that matters to you. If it doesn’t – well, then you probably wouldn’t be reading this 🙂
Til next post, then…