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Consider greener ways to dispose of the dead

In land-scarce Singapore, there is a looming problem over what to do with the dead as pressure on burial space intensifies (Feed my remains to trees, stop moving me around when I'm dead; Aug 6).

Burial is only for 15 years, and even keeping the ashes in a columbarium is not to be thought of as permanent.

When the Housing Board needs to build more homes, an airport needs expanding or a flyover is necessary to ease congestion, space for the dead becomes a luxury which we can ill afford.

However, traditional cremation results in greenhouse gases and mercury emissions.

Wooden coffins are made from oak, pine or veneered chipboard which is bonded with a formaldehyde resin. All of these will end up being burned and entering the atmosphere.

A cremator is said to use about 285kwh of gas and 15kwh of electricity on average per cremation. This is the same domestic energy demands of a single person for a month.

Woodland burials are also becoming an increasingly popular option, as is the use of fully biodegradable coffins.

The National Environment Agency should consider other ways of disposing of the dead without causing harm to our environment.

One option is resomation. This is a chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis and entails dissolving the corpse in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide.

Woodland burials are also becoming an increasingly popular option, as is the use of fully biodegradable coffins.

These burial sites are usually marked by the planting of a tree or wild flowers. Any coffin used must be made from a fully biodegradable material such as cardboard, wicker or cloth.

In Sweden, the authorities have allowed the freeze-drying of the dead into compostable remains using liquid nitrogen.Meanwhile, in India, solar-powered crematoria have been proposed to help save the millions of tonnes of wood burned each year cremating the dead.

Heng Cho Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'Consider greener ways to dispose of the dead'. Print Edition | Subscribe