How to be Environmentally Green Even in Death

A new approach to cremation lets people leave a smaller carbon footprint when they die.

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John McQueen may ask potential customers if they want "flame" or "flameless"—hardly the menu selections expected at a mortuary. But the world of consumer choice has come to the funeral industry. And the choice being offered is between a funeral process using traditional cremation in a high-temperature chamber and a new process that uses pressure-heated water and chemicals to achieve the same results.

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McQueen heads and owns the Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home, a group of funeral homes based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His father founded the business and McQueen recalls that when his dad died about 25 years ago, the company's funeral mix was about 75 percent earth burials and 25 percent cremations. Today, those percentages are reversed. That's well above the national average, but McQueen cites industry projections that cremation will overtake burial as the dominant form of funeral process before the end of this decade.

Within the shift toward cremation, he notes, there is already consumer interest in environmentally friendly funerals. So when Matthews Cremation, a Florida-based unit of Matthews International in Pittsburgh, came looking for a showcase client for a new chemical-based cremation process, McQueen liked the opportunity.

According to Steven Schaal, president of Matthews Cremation, its new "bio cremation" process releases 75 percent less carbon into the atmosphere than heat-based cremation and uses 90 percent less energy. "We see an interest in the carbon footprint we see in death," says Schaal. "So we are focusing on a more environmentally driven option with cremation through the introduction of a water-based approach versus a flame-based process."

In the Matthews system, after a body is placed in the chamber, a pneumatically sealed door is closed and heated water is injected under pressure into the chamber, along with a chemical—usually potassium hydroxide—that breaks down the body. The time and byproducts of the process are similar to heat-based cremation.

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Both processes leave behind bone and bone fragments, which are then pulverized into the "ash" that people are used to seeing. In flame-base cremations, the ash winds up being gray-black in color, McQueen explains. The flameless process produces a much finer ash that is nearly white and like beach sand.

That's particularly appropriate in McQueen's case because, he says, the largest "cemetery" on the west coast of Florida is the Gulf of Mexico. "The vast majority of our families typically scatter the ashes" of their loved ones, he says. "About 60 percent will do some form of water disposition."

And while the new system may be environmentally "greener," McQueen says, "families have a hard time understanding" that argument. Calling it flameless made sense, he notes, because it counters objections some people voice about heat-based cremation. "The one thing people said they didn't like about it was the fire."

The new process is more expensive, due mostly to the capital cost of Matthews' new system. At roughly $500,000, it's about four times more expensive than a flame-based system, Schaal says.

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McQueen says a very basic cremation package from his funeral home costs about $3,000. That does not include a special viewing or other ceremonial services but covers transfers of the body, preparation and processing though the cremation process, provision of the ashes in a cremation urn, and the company's administrative expenses.

If someone orders this package, he explains, they may select flameless cremation at no additional cost. If they were ordering only the cremation process itself, McQueen says, the standalone charge would be $550 for high-heat cremation and $650 for the flameless process.

Matthews is in the process of selling biocremation units in other states, Schaal notes. At present, only eight states have laws permitting cremation by means other than high-temperature disposal: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Oregon. Schaal says efforts are underway in a dozen other states to amend cremation standards.

And while the market for the new process is in its infancy, Schaal admits, the company is confident that growing numbers of baby boomers will demand green funeral services and solutions. "We're starting to begin to address the baby boomers, who are starting to take a greater degree of control in how they define their end-of-life experience," he says. "What we're doing is positioning ourselves to be where the consumer wants to go."