If laid out head to toe, every person buried last year in the United States would form a line stretching from Los Angeles to New York City. Since Britain’s low-impact "green burial" methods (see "Dust to Dust," Currents, November/December 1998) have yet to catch on in the U.S., most of these bodies are embalmed with formaldehyde, placed in caskets made of toxic heavy metals, and buried in cemeteries kept pristine with herbicides and pesticides. While our burial practices may intuitively seem environmentally unsound, the science behind the subject is shaky since nobody has made an extensive study of cemetery pollution in the U.S.
Just how safe is the chemically intensive process of embalming?
Thanks to the stubborn ways of the funeral industry, Canada and the U.S. are the only two nations that regularly practice the ancient art of embalming. The process coagulates the body’s proteins, raising major pollution concerns among eco-burial advocates. But the toxic evidence is ambiguous. John Konofes, director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, has found that embalming fluids have contaminated groundwater near Civil War cemeteries. But these fluids were based on arsenic, which has been out of use since the early 1900s. Formalin, a 37 percent solution of formaldehyde in water, became the new standard.
But Formalin isn’t exactly safe. In the early 1980s, the National Cancer Institute reported that anatomists and embalmers were at a significantly higher risk for leukemia and brain cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency listed formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen in 1987. Despite that ruling, each year the funeral industry buries 350 thousand gallons of formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is at least safer than arsenic, which Richard Laursen, a chemistry professor at Boston University, says doesn’t break down in the environment. He adds that formaldehyde will evaporate out of embalming fluid and poses little threat to water supplies. "I would say there isn’t any [formaldehyde in cemetery land]," says Laursen.
Embalming is by no means the public health necessity the funeral industry implies. The National Funeral Directors Association website offers this self-serving tidbit: "As human remains begin to decompose almost immediately after death… untreated remains pose a public health concern."
But "diseases die when we die," says Marion Grau, former director of Canada’s green burial-oriented Memorial Society. "People say, "Oh my God, we’re going to have AIDS in groundwater," but that doesn’t happen."