Cemeteries & Crematoria

Cemeteries and Crematorium - Environmental Impact and Green Agenda

Are burial sites killing us?

At the time of writing The CDS Group have delivered over four hundred cemetery feasibility studies, ninety cemetery planning applications and approximately fifty project deliveries in the past fifteen years.  The company continues to grow in the crematorium sector with four successful crematorium planning applications approved, three in construction and six further crematorium projects at various stages of planning.

The CDS founder Justin Smith background was in agricultural research and was involved in developing the UK’s first independent near market research company (Arable Research Centres) that became the UK’s largest private agricultural research business.  Justin has always used this research model in all the companies he has founded.

This research-based philosophy is still the bedrock of The CDS Group. The CDS team are constantly reviewing and testing new ways of improving designs and developments in cemeteries and crematoria and within this, the Green Agenda is central to all The CDS Groups ideals.

All our designs for cemeteries and crematorium look at minimising energy consumption by driving down energy demand through passive building design and operation techniques.  We look at challenging existing practices by adopting a design approach that has been developed holistically by our design team to minimise the carbon footprint of our developments.

Through our design approach The CDS Group will enthusiastically promote new ideas and technologies that we see as having a positive environmental benefit to the market sector and the environment as a whole.  But we will also actively challenge approaches and actions within the bereavement industry that may potentially harm the environment.

Our target areas for change are the three “G’s;

·        Granite importation

·        Ground water protection from toxic compounds of embalming

·        Gas cremation and its carbon footprint

Imported Granite

The use of imported granite for CDS has four principle issues that as far as we can tell from our research are far from resolved due to lack of transparency and regulation and the bereavement industries lack of proper stops and checks. These issues are:

·        Embedded carbon in imported stone is much greater than UK          quarried stone.

·        Health and safety practices in quarries and processing plants

·        Environmental protection in quarries

·        Use of child and bonded labour in quarries and stone processing          plants in India(and possibly China, still goes unchecked and despite          promises to UK suppliers continues)

The importation of granite for headstones is totally unnecessary and environmentally unacceptable.  There is no indigenous black granite in the UK, so why do we liberally exercise its use in and around our open spaces?   Each kilogram of imported granite contributes 0.4 kg to 0.5 kg of embedded carbon to the worlds already oversupply of atmospheric carbon. CDS have calculated that approximately 6,000 to 8,000 metric tonnes of carbon (30 to 40 million car kilometres) is released through imported granite memorials annually, this is totally unacceptable when we have so many alternative materials that could be used in the UK for memorialisation.  

At a time when we are looking to reduce carbon, increase local skills and employment we should be investing in the UK for materials and labour for future memorials.  The local authorities should also challenge their suppliers on full traceability of the material from source to supply.  The UK quarry industry is highly regulated for health and safety, planning, environmental protection and sustainability.  Imported granite has very little traceability and very few regulatory controls.  But this should be a great opportunity for the UK industry to make innovative changes to the market when the UK economy,industry and employment is in desperate need of a boost.

In 2018 the top importers of Granite were China ($574M), United Kingdom ($181M), Italy($137M), Germany ($59M), and Chinese Taipei ($54.9M). Traceability and modern slavery and child labour protection is a significant issue; as a significant amount of imported headstones in the UK are imported from India even if the stone originated in China. It is usually impossible to track back the supply chain for a headstone imported from India as any records are likely to only go as far back as the processing plant.  Paperwork is usually sparce.  

Suppliers will understandably argue that the cost of using a local supply of granite is the restrictive factor; an imported three foot black granite lawn memorial with inscription and fixing will cost between £1000-£1200, whereas a Cornish or Welsh granite three foot lawn memorial with inscription and fixing will cost between £1800-£2200.  This is a significant cost difference which is due in part to  

·        lower cost of labour in India and china.

·        little health & safety in Indian quarries and processing plants

·        few if any environmental protection costs in India and China

·        the UK having lost the market can no longer compete on economies          of scale.

If demand for UK granite headstones were to increase, we would also start to benefit from economies of scale which would probably reduce the cost of the UK stone to perhaps £1500. But more importantly we can be sure it would increase labour, skills and reduce carbon pollution.

Black Granite

But arguably why use granite at all, why not local limestones or sandstones or alternative recycled materials, such as glass, or even the use of wood from sustainable plantations?  

Even representatives organisations of the memorial monument industry such as NAMM and BRAMM show no reference to environmental protection, ethical policy or traceability on their mission statements or policies, it is disappointing that in all of their publications and guidance notes, the environment, ethical sourcing and traceability is never considered or mentioned.

There appears as yet to be no direction from the bereavement industry representative bodies or from local authorities in enforcing their own policies on the carbon crisis, modern slavery and child labour in the importation and use of granite memorialisation; as such it remains largely unregulated at all levels.

Bereavement services should be giving more than a second thought when they next order a Chinese or Indian sourced granite memorial, they should request detailed documentation; traceability must be a fundamental requirement. Traceability means suppliers must be able to demonstrate they can establish the origin of all their raw materials and show documentation of holdover points, transport routes,supplier names and batch codes.

But more importantly the end user must now be giving thought to the environmental impact of their choice.

Groundwater protection and the effects from embalming

Embalming has been part of the preparation, presentation,and preservation of human cadavers since the discovery of preserved Egyptian mummies dating back to 4,000 BC.

Until the early 1900’s, arsenic was a mainstay of early embalming solutions, but as the embalmers rapidly became the embalmed due to its highly toxic nature, an alternative product was sort.  This came in the form of formaldehyde, a product still the mainstay of embalming even today.

Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body’s toxic cocktail of chemicals will invariably leach into the environment, potentially contaminating surrounding soil and groundwater. Cemeteries retain or discharge the chemical traces of their embalmed dead and the treatment of their coffins not just in the short time frames of body decomposition, but long after the cemeteries closure.

Embalming Fluid

Many products in the public domain must undergo toxicological testing.  One measure of this testing is the LD50 where LD is the lethal Dose, and the 50 is the dose required measured in g/kg to kill 50% of the members of a tested population after a specified test duration.

To put this in context the LD50 of water is 90 g/kg. This equates to 6.3 kg of water that will potentially be sufficient to kill an average 70 kg human: assuming its drunk in a sitting!

Embalming fluid is often made up of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde and methanol.

The LD50 of the products respectively are:

Formaldehyde    LD50    0.6g/kg    (48 gms)

Glutaraldehyde  LD50    0.13 g/kg  (9gms)

Methanol           LD50    0.8 g/kg   (56 gms)

( ) figure dose to potentially kill half the members of a tested population (70 kg human)

Not only is it toxic directly, but formaldehyde is a class 1 carcinogen, affects the genetic composition of animals and is highly toxic to aquatic wildlife if it enters the aquatic system.

So now we have put the toxicity of the chemicals used in embalming into context what does this mean?

Formaldehyde and Methanol are the primary constituents of embalming products with up to 50% w/v of formaldehyde as an active ingredient and with embalming in the UK being unregulated, the industry does not know what levels of product is going into the ground and into groundwater and potentially surface water.

According to a BBC survey it is estimated that approximately 50%  to 55% of cadavers are embalmed in the UK,the quantities and type of product used for each embalmed cadaver may vary depending on the embalming process with between 10 and 12 litres per cadaver.

It is difficult to produce an accurate assay, as there will be a number of variables including concentrations of active ingredients and typical volume of use, but if we take a median range of say 11 litres per cadaver using a 37% by volume concentration of formaldehyde solution, following dilution with water for the product to be administered, we would be looking at typically a 3% w/v or approx. 330gms ai per cadaver.  This translates as up to 198 kg of formaldehyde per acre (50% of 1200 interments x0.33kg), sufficient in its rawest form to be fatally toxic to 36,000 people.

Clearly this is simplistic modelling, as formaldehyde breaks down first into formic acid (which is itself hazardous) and then into carbon dioxide. It is unclear how long formaldehyde remains in the soil before it degrades or what persistency it has before it enters the water table.

On sites with hydraulic connection to groundwater CDS Group have shown significantly elevated levels of formaldehyde in the bore hole monitoring points downstream from the target cemetery.

Whatever the arguments for the use of embalming, the simple fact is in many cases we are putting unnecessary Class 1 carcinogenic toxins and genetic modifiers into groundwater at a concentration and rate that is totally unregulated, and of course that means we have no idea if the numbers may actually be higher than those presented.

Chipboard coffin

Not only is formaldehyde used in the preservation of the cadaver it is also a constituent part of the construction of chipboard so it will also be found in coffins, again adding to the levels of formaldehyde found in soil and groundwater.

As with imported granite, the industry representatives and local authorities are not implementing their own policies for environmental protection when it comes to managing contamination.

Cremation - Gas vs Electric

Electric cremators carry out the same principal process as gas cremation, however switching the source of energy used, electric cremators are preferably run off green energy tariffs. The electric cremator cuts out the gas consumption from the process and therefore the pollution is significantly decreased.

The remaining carbon emissions with electric cremation are from the body and the coffin which are calculated to be approximately 20kg of carbon dioxide, dependant on the choice of coffin and size of the body. Therefore, the carbon emissions of an electric cremator versus a gas cremator are decreased by over 90% when on a green energy tariff. The level of NOx resulting from the cremator are more than halved, to less than 200g per process.


There are significant environmental impacts which can be demonstrated from switching from gas cremators. The CDS Group undertook a study on the cremation service of Greater London to assess the impact on converting gas to electric cremators.

Annual gas cremations in Greater London are estimated to be equivalent to travelling over 130,000,000 miles, if electric cremators were installed it would be the equivalent of 38,000,000 miles, this is a total reduction of 70%.

Electric cremation installed in all London crematoriums would be the equivalent of taking 25,000 cars off the road everyday, from travelling from the Greater London Boundary to the centre. The acreage of tree seedlings required to offset annual cremation emissions would be reduced by 135,000 acres if all cremators were switched to electric.

The electric cremator also has the capacity to add Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology (known in the industry as DeNOx®) if the crematorium would like to decrease the NOx emissions further.

The SCR technology is used to reduce the harmful pollutants (NOx) from the process by using urea, the technology is being implemented into gas cremators across the UK.

This switch away from gas has already been seen in other industries; by 2025 all gas boilers will be banned in new builds in a bid to tackle emissions.

A survey carried out by The CDS Group, demonstrated that 75% of those in favour of electric cremation would travel further to a crematorium with an electric cremator as opposed to a crematorium with a gas cremator.

There is further analysis required to accurately quantify carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the two cremation methods. Due to the litigious and competitive nature of the cremation industry, the disclosure of information amongst the industry remains difficult to utilise raw emission data that can be referenced to a particular manufacturer or a crematorium establishment.

The data averages used in this analysis to quantify emissions are consistent with emission data viewed from both gas cremators and electric cremators in the UK and in Europe.

In summary, if the UK as a whole are serious about emissions reduction, the switch away from natural gas as a fuel for combustion in the bereavement industry needs to be considered, electric cremation would help provide this alternative.

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