It is no secret that deforestation has widespread consequences. By now, we know that it is one of the leading causes of habitat destruction, and therefore biodiversity loss. Furthermore, by chopping down trees, we also remove one of the most important carbon sinks that we have in the world, which leads to an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Recent research even suggests that pandemics like the one we’re living through become more likely the more trees we chop down. Given the effects of deforestation, it’s important that we are able to have conversations on what we can do differently to prevent it. It turns out that there is not only a lot we can do in our lives, but also in our deaths.

A significant amount of deforestation occurs for burials

Though the vast majority of us – sustainability oriented or not – are not thinking about our end of life plans yet, some may want to consider the environmental toll of the death care traditions so ingrained in Western society. By taking a look at the raw timber content of the average American cemetery, we gain an insight into the true impact of the death care industry.

Timber is a key building block in most structures, including houses. Although you may be wondering what a household may have to do with the global death care industry, it is simply that there is no readily available data on the treees cut down to make caskets. Not only this, but it gives us a reference point. The average American home – at about 2,500 square feet in size – takes around 15,750 board feet of timber to construct; this comes from a requirement of 6.3 board feet per square foot. How much wood 15,750 board feet actually is depends on the density, weight and height of the tree in question. A pine tree – a commonly used tree which, at full maturity, might stand at about 80’ tall – would yield about 754 board feet. Therefore, if we divide the total square feet of the average house by the board feet supplied per tree, we arrive at about 21 fully grown pine trees worth of wood required to build the average American home.

According to the Berkley Planning Journal, 30 million board feet of wood are used every year for American burials. By using the pine tree as our example again, at 754 board feet per tree, this means that burials use 39,788 trees every year; for a sense of comparison, this is equivalent to 1,895 American homes.

Traditions are also important in discussing death

Caskets are not the only reason trees are cut down to make way for our burials. At a conservative estimate, there are 140,000 acres of cemetery land in the United States, under which there are millions of trees, fashioned into steel-bound, lacquered caskets buried out of sight. Cemeteries themselves were often once woodland that needed to be cleared of trees and sprayed with pesticides to become the spaces they are today. When we add those extra acres of cleared space to the necessary materials to make a coffin, we can see the scope of this problem.

It is important to note that many people select traditional burial very intentionally, often for religious or family reasons. Many more, however, choose it more passively – or, without knowledge of available alternative options. However, that is changing. Although the vast majority of people in the West still choose to be buried, trends are moving in a more sustainable direction. Creative startups such as Recompose – who have developed a human composting suit that helps people return directly to nature after death – and reLive* – a decentralized death care brand that transforms carbon-neutrally cremated remains into memorial trees – are two examples of companies starting to make greener options available. Traditional cremation, which is the more environmentally friendly mainstream death care approach, is also set to outpace burial as the most common choice worldwide by 2050. 

Death denial prevents us from talking about death

One reason this topic is not often addressed in sustainability conversations may have to do with our collective ‘death denial’ – as a culture, we shy away from discussing end of life plans, though death is the universal fate of all life. As members of the sustainability community, it is important to highlight that there are decisions we can make to reduce our impact even in death, particularly if religion isn’t an important part of our lives. In looking at alternatives, we can start to build a death care industry which puts nature and the natural world at the forefront. It is our responsibility to help drive these conversations forward when we feel comfortable to do so, so that in the future, as many of us as possible can leave a meaningful and sustainable legacy behind.

*Lucy, the writer of this post, is the founder of reLive.

3 thoughts on “Deforestation and the Death Care Industry in the West

  • May 11, 2020 at 3:22 PM
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    In these difficult and sad times it is a particularly poignant article. At 80, I have become more comfortable with death I love the idea of growing into a tree. Maybe my family will gather in its shade and the air will be better for it.
    Good luck with your project may I sign up?

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  • May 11, 2020 at 9:06 AM
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    Very interesting and thought provoking. This is a sustainable choice opportunity that would have never crossed my mind. Thank you for writing it 🙂

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    • May 11, 2020 at 2:07 PM
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      Very interesting and under explored opportunity to make environmentally sound choices here. Great article.

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