Being energy efficient, after you’re dead

Cremation is popular these days for those who have kicked the bucket. In Canada, only 3 per cent of the population got cremated 50 years ago, while today that number has ballooned to more than 55 per cent. But here’s a shocker for the conservation-minded: The amount of natural gas and electricity used to cremate one body is the equivalent of driving a car from coast to coast. When your body goes up in flames, it also emits a lot of nasty stuff: greenhouse gases, smog-causing gases, particulates, and mercury vapour if you’ve got a few of those old tooth fillings.

Given this post-humus environmental footprint — and given our concern about climate change — innovation in this area is on the rise. In Denmark and Sweden, some municipalities are taking the waste heat from their local crematoriums and using it as part of their district heating systems. In North America, there’s a new technology called Resomation — generically, biocremation — that avoids incineration by chemically breaking down the body. A Toronto-based company called Transition Science Inc. has licensed the technology and recently signed up its first customer, cemetery and crematorium operator Park Lawn Trust, which plans to have its first Resomation system up and running in Toronto next spring. I’ve got an article on this company and the technology in today’s Toronto Star. You can read the article for a detailed description of how it works. It’s kind of yucky — basically the body is loaded into a metal chamber that’s filled with an alkali-based solution that, under heat and pressure, turns the non-skeleton portion of the body into a soapy soup that’s simply flushed down the drain (apparently it’s benign and gets treated in our wastewater treatment system just like what we flush down the toilet). The process uses a fraction of the energy required for cremation.

Sure, sounds gross, but since we’re always talking about the need for cradle-to-grave energy analyses, it makes sense that we leave the world in the most energy-efficient way possible. The interesting thing about biocremation is that plastic and metal devices left in the body — knee and hip replacements, pacemakers, stents, etc. — are retrieved in perfect condition and can be recycled. Alternatively, if you’ve got land to spare, you could always have a good old-fashioned burial.

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