The Straits Times: Saving the earth even while leaving it behind

In today’s Saturday Special ReportThe Straits Times looked at Bukit Brown, cemeteries, and different funeral arrangements. This article lists some eco alternatives.

Saving the earth even while leaving it behind

ON AVERAGE, 47 people die in Singapore every day, and they are either cremated or buried. Cremations are the more popular way to go now – about 80 per cent were cremated last year.

One key factor is the high cost of burial and the limited burial plots.

Since 1981, undertaker Roland Tay has been conducting about 20 to 40 funerals a month, of which about 90 per cent are cremations. And of these monthly cremations, he estimates that about 10 families choose to have the ashes of the dead scattered at sea.

The National Environment Agency says it permits this at one spot only, about 2.8km south of Pulau Semakau.

The boat journey there takes about 15 minutes and the process costs between $60 and $100, according to undertakers.

In contrast, niches to store ashes tend to cost upwards of $500 at the government-managed columbaria.

Scattering ashes at sea is a traditional practice for Hindus as they believe that it is spiritually beneficial to the departed. The ashes are usually immersed in the sea three or four days after cremation.

Mr Roy Selvarajah, manager of Hindu Casket, estimates that 90 per cent of Hindus here choose cremation.

He also sees about 20 to 30 families a year who choose to sprinkle their loved ones’ ashes in Singapore, and then travel to India’s Ganges river, considered the embodiment of all sacred waters in Hindu mythology, to perform funeral rituals. Some choose to sprinkle some of their ashes there as well.

These days, the old traditions are largely gone. In the past, it was more common for people to take the cremated ashes back home. But Mr Tay sees only one or two families a year who do that nowadays, as niches are widely available now.

The popularity of niches here has led Malaysian firm NV Multi to choose Singapore for Asia’s largest columbarium. By year end, about 10,000 niches will be ready at its Old Choa Chu Kang Road facility. Already, 5,000 have been sold.

A niche at Nirvana starts from $2,988, and includes a high-tech departure ceremony with Buddhist chanting and a laser light show meant to depict the journey of the departed, a computerised identification system and magnetic entry cards.

Since cremation is more widely chosen now, one innovative Singaporean has tried to make them more environmentally friendly by creating ‘Eco-ffins’.

The lightweight coffins created by Dr Ng Khee Yang, director of the Centre of Applications in Environmental Technology at Singapore Polytechnic, are made of cardboard, plywood and compressed wood dust so they burn more quickly than regular coffins, and use less fuel.

Since 2008, he has sold more than 400 such coffins to funeral homes. He has also created a new ‘paper coffin’ made of carton box material which takes only a fifth of the time of eco-coffins to burn.

Earlier this year, he tried to donate 100 paper coffins to Japan to help it cope with the shortage of coffins after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but was not able to because roads were closed. He is now working on making the paper coffins more stylish and appealing.

In the United States, Georgia-based company Eternal Reefs has also created an environmentally conscious alternative. Cremated remains are stored within a concrete ball which is dropped into the ocean and serves as artificial reef material. The ball is placed in areas where reefs need restoration, attracting fish and marine creatures to turn the remains into part of the undersea habitat.

These methods of storing ashes still require the body to be cremated first.

Some new techniques of disposing of the remains of the dead are emerging and make claims to be more environmentally friendly.

One still-controversial process, resomation, dissolves the body tissue in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide. The resultant liquid is sterile, contains no DNA, and is said to pose no environmental risk when it enters the municipal water system. Bone fragments are crushed into ash. Metals like mercury, and artificial joints and implants, are recovered.

Although the alkaline hydrolysis process has been used in the past to dispose of cadavers and farm animals, a company, Resomation, is offering alkaline hydrolysis for the first time to the public.

The process took the Glasgow-based company four years of research, testing and development to get right. One machine was installed in a US funeral home in St Petersburg in Florida in August.

The makers claim the machine is more environmentally friendly as the amount of greenhouse gas it produces is a third less than that of cremation, and uses a seventh of the energy. But it is not yet legal in Britain. It is legal only in a few American states as it bears very little resemblance to cremation.

Another option in the pipeline is technology called promession, designed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak. The corpse is immersed in liquid nitrogen, making it very brittle. The machine then shakes the body apart and the liquid is evaporated away in a vacuum.

Mercury fillings and implants are separated and the powdered remains go into a shallow grave. The shallowness ensures that oxygen and water can mix with remains, turning them into compost.

But local environmentalists are cautious about these alternatives.

Mr Eugene Tay, who runs a consultancy promoting environmental awareness, notes that resomation possibly emits less carbon, but adds: ‘The company claims that the solution after resomation can be discharged into the sewer, but I’m not sure if this would be possible here. They would have to convince (national water agency) PUB that the solution meets discharge standards.’

Ms Olivia Choong, founder of the Singapore arm of environmental group Green Drinks, thinks the options are good for the market. Although she prefers to be buried and left to nature’s care, she says: ‘I’m donating my organs and whatever’s left of it, I would be happy to go in the most low-carbon way.’

Image taken from j u s t i n . z

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  • About Green Drinks Singapore

    Founded in November 2007, Green Drinks Singapore is one of more than 800 cities with a Green Drinks presence.

  • We are a non-profit environmental movement that connects academia, green businesses, activists, community and government, for knowledge sharing and collaboration opportunities. We do this by organising informal talks every last Thursday of the month, over drinks! Once in a while, we hold discussions, documentary screenings and workshops to further engage the public and participants.
  • Started in 1989 in London, the Green Drinks movement is a self-organising network that is meant to be simple and unstructured. The global site can be found at www.greendrinks.org.
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