Disposal of the Dead after Death-Environment Impact & Carbon Cost

     Burning the bodies of the dead was an ancient rite and practice in India. It was observed among Buddhists, Hindus and Jains from well before the start of the Common Era, and was later adopted by Sikhs. Burning the dead historically helped demarcate these religious communities from Muslims and Christians, for whom burial was the norm, and from India’s Parsi community who exposed their dead on Towers of Silence.   Burning  bodies after death, originating at a time when India was still heavily forested, cremation may also have been environmentally more appropriate and sustainable than, for instance, the mummification practised in the dry desert air of ancient Egypt.

Burning Issues: Cremation and Incineration

    In India, one estimate reveals that funeral pyres consume 6 crore trees annually and play a huge role in deforesting the country. Air pollution and deforestation are not the only environmental threats of cremation. They also generate large quantities of ash – around 50 lakh tonnes each year – which is later thrown into rivers, adding to their waters’ toxicity.  The prolonged burning of fossil fuels for cremation results in around 80 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to one estimate. It creates different hazardous gases, including dental mercury, which is vaporised and released into the environment leading to health hazards in the surrounding area. Many of these toxins can bio-accumulate in humans, including mercury – often from dental amalgams, but also from general bioaccumulation in the body. Cremation results in various other toxic emissions including persistent pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals. An IIT Kanpur study in 2016 found that open-air cremations contribute 4% of Delhi’s carbon monoxide emissions. There are concerns for crematorium workers as well, who may be exposed to nuclear medicine treatments (chemotherapeutics/radiation), orthopaedic (implants) and pacemaker explosions, and nanoparticles.

. In order to tackle the environmental problems stemming from these sites, the Indian government and environmental groups have over the years tried to promote the use of electric crematoriums as an alternative way of cremation. Electric crematoriums largely unsuccessful, are expensive to run, and crucially, traditional rituals are made impossible.

   Carbon Cost estimation -When people are cremated after death, the burning releases carbon into the air. Alkaline hydrolysis, in which the body is dissolved, has about a seventh of the carbon footprint of cremation, and the resulting fluid can be used as fertiliser. A Dutch study of the disposal of bodies found that the lowest amount of money that it would theoretically cost to compensate in terms of the carbon footprint per body was €63·66 for traditional burial, €48·47 for cremation, and €2·59 for alkaline hydrolysis. Composting or natural burial are alternatives.

New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has questioned the centuries-old tradition practised by Hindus to cremate dead bodies at the river banks, saying the method of burning wood leads to air pollution and also effects natural water resources.

Keeping in mind the growing level of pollution, the NGT said that there was a need to adopt environment-friendly methods like electric crematoriums and use of CNG and change the ‘mindset of the people’.

The NGT bench headed by Justice UD Salvi also directed the Union Environment Ministry and the Delhi government to initiate programmes to provide alternative modes of cremation of human remains, saying the traditional emitted hazardous pollutants in the environment.

  “It is also the responsibility of the government to facilitate the making of the mindset of the citizens as well as to provide environment-friendly alternatives for cremation to its citizenry,” the bench further said.

   The green panel said the traditional means of cremation caused adverse impact on environment and dispersal of ashes in the river led to water pollution.

   If we are to survive the climate crisis then almost everything will have to change, including health care, end-of-life care, and how we dispose of the dead.

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