The Impact of Cemeteries on the Environment

A cemetery in Halifax, N.S.

As someone who works with families who care for their dead, I respect their wishes when they decide between burial or cremation. However it is clear to me that humans need to give more thought about best practices for the care of our dead with respect to impacts on the environment.

In the 1998 World Health Organization’s (WHO) document THE IMPACT OF CEMETERIES ON THE ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC HEALTH (see link below) the report discusses the impact on ground water from coffins, and of course human remains, including pathogens.

What seems to be missing from this report is the impact of pharmaceutical drugs, not only psychotropics, and birth control, (estrogen), but the Cancer treating drugs that are all heavily used within our society today.

There is a growing concern about these drugs getting into our water supply (CBC: http://tinyurl.com/jvlevnf). We do not currently have the technology in place to filter out these drugs from our drinking water. Studies have shown for instance, the impact of estrogen on fish. (National Geographic: http://tinyurl.com/27qj84)

The parameters for testing drinking or groundwater does not include tests for pharmaceuticals. There are no regulations in place to require such testing. Of course if we don’t test for it, it won’t be found.

In my opinion, not enough is known about the impact of buried bodies heavily contaminated with these drugs on our drinking water supply. Groundwater flow is not an exact science as I’ve learned from my eleven year involvement with protecting the drinking water supply in an Alberta town heavily impacted by the oil and gas industry. The testing programs need to be updated to include new and novel chemicals that are being introduced each year. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) guidelines are seriously behind the times. It should also be noted that they are “guidelines,” not “standards”.

As for cremation, it too has an impact on the environment. With the number of Baby Boomers that will be dying in the not too distant future, how we dispose of our dead with consideration for the environment and the impact on the ones who remain, is a discussion that we should be having.

I feel encouraged that there is some movement in this direction, for example inoculating shrouds with mycelium spores (mushrooms), (Huffington Post: http://tinyurl.com/zs393ac) and composting bodies, (Urban Death Project http://tinyurl.com/lhunbv9). The innovators of these methods would do well to include studies on the impacts to groundwater, and not just to be conforming to existing regulations.

Below is a list of suggested topics for future research included in the WHO report. The report suggests further study on the following:

“1. What are the safe distances between aquifers and cemeteries in various geological and hydrogeological situations?

2. What is the fate of materials used in coffins and burial clothes? Propose suitable materials which minimize their potential effects on groundwaters.

3. Why and how do most of the microorganisms, produced during the putrification process, not appear in the groundwaters beneath cemeteries?

4. Have there been any recorded disease outbreaks or epidemics caused by microorganisms seeping from cemeteries? What is the epidemiological evidence for population groups living near cemeteries?

5. What should be the desirable minimum thickness of the unsaturated zone beneath cemeteries?”(http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/108132/1/EUR_ICP_EHNA_01_04_01(A).pdf)

This list comes up short in my opinion.

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