Cremation as an alternative to burial was introduced in Europe in the late 19th century. The first crematorium opened in England in 1876. In Sweden, a primitive crematorium was first used in the town of Hagalund in 1887 and was followed by the Norra Krematoriet facility in 1909. At the time, cremation was very innovative and a solution to serious sanitation problems.
But from a biological point of view, and in consideration of the environment as well, cremation was not, and still is not, a particularly good alternative.
In a cremation the casket containing the deceased is put into a furnace at a temperature of close to 800 degrees Celsius. The heat causes the casket to ignite, after which an oil burner takes over. Combustion takes about an hour. Then the remaining ash and skeletal parts are raked out of the furnace and ground by a mill into a powder which is then placed in an urn.
Each cremation takes about 20 litres of fuel oil and half a kilogram of activated carbon for cleaning the flue gases. In spite of this, a large quantity of flue gases, also containing mercury, are released into the air. The Swedish National Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one third of the total mercury emissions in Sweden come from the country’s 73 crematoria. And this still happens despite extensive measures to reduce emissions.
Burial of the ash can take place in an urn or casket grave at the place of one’s choice provided that the County Authorities have granted a permit, or in a memorial grove where the ash is buried or spread directly on the ground. But already upon the first rainfall after burial the ash is on its way from the site. It runs with the rainwater and continues to waterways until it ends up in the sea where it worsens eutrophication and oxygen depletion.
Of Sweden’s 73 crematoria, 23 are updated with new cleaning technology. The remaining 50 are currently operating on an exemption from the National Environmental Protection Agency which is working to find ways of reducing the mercury emissions. 2004 is the final year for mercury emissions according to a convention that Sweden has agreed to, and much work remains. Among other problems, it is difficult to even trace where the mercury goes in the crematoria. Consequently, the National Environmental Protection Agency can not give detailed directives as to how the cleaning facilities are to be designed to achieve the environmental goals set.