19 April 2007

Environmentally friendly death

Agençe France-Presse
Cremation is contributing to global warming, argues an Australian scientist who yesterday called for an end to the age-old tradition.
Environmentally friendly death

The average Australian male generates 50 kg of carbon dioxide when cremated - not including the greenhouse gases that are generated from the fuel or wooden casket. Credit: iStockphoto

SYDNEY: Cremation is contributing to global warming, argues an Australian scientist who yesterday called for an end to the age-old tradition.

Roger Short of the University of Melbourne, said people could instead choose to help the environment after death by being buried in a cardboard box under a tree.

The decomposing body would provide a tree with nutrients, rather than create large quantities of carbon dioxide while burning. The tree would in turn convert carbon dioxide into “life-giving oxygen” for decades. “Think earth to earth,” he said, “but not ashes to ashes or dust to dust”.

“What a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide,” said Short. “Why waste all that carbon dioxide on your death?”

The cremation of the average male in Australia – during which the body is heated to 850°C for 90 minutes – produces more than 50 kg of carbon dioxide. And that doesn’t include the carbon cost of fuel, or the cost of the emissions released during the production and burning of the wooden casket.

A single tree over a hundred-year period absorbs over a tonne of carbon dioxide, said Short “so imagine the difference it could make if everyone was buried and had a tree planted in their memory”.

“Photosynthesis in trees is the single most efficient way of sequestering carbon dioxide – not only that, but they do what no other method of carbon minimisation can do, and that is to produce oxygen”, he said.

He presented his idea of environmentally friendly death at the World Conference of Science Journalists held in Melbourne this week.

Short noted that the contribution of cremation to harmful greenhouse gases is relatively small, and said he did not wish to prevent people from choosing how their body was disposed of according to their religion.

But to bury the hatchet with environmentalists, he suggested it would not be a bad idea to bequeath one’s body as food for a forest. “You can actually do, after your death, an enormous amount of good for the planet,” he said. “The more forests you plant, the better.”

Short, a reproductive biologist, came up with the concept of lemon juice as a contraceptive and means of preventing HIV in women. It is currently being tested in Nigeria.

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