Black smog from the incineration chimney drifting up the sky, the less concentrated molecule blending with other atmospheric particles – a scenery ordinary to every Thai person going about in the city of Bangkok. Especially if living in proximity of popular cremation venues such as the city centre. To this culture, chimneys do not represent a fatherly character bearing gifts but rather deaths.
The Buddhist temple has a role in a follower's life from life to death, if not more – it is a way of life. Temples are seen as main facilities embedded within the heart of most Thai communities. This means that religious activities are very accessible within a walking distance, cremation included.
Cremation is the ritual surrounding death and its aftermath that Thai Buddhism believes would deliberate the spirit from a vessel to “Suk-khati” or nirvana, as part of the reincarnation journey. According to the teachings, the physical body holds little significance to the Buddhist faith and is therefore cremated. Only merit that the death could bring to the afterlife. And as such, would it be disrespectful to the merit system to leave a trail of pollution behind.
Death and Density
The demands of density are more visible for burials due to a lack of urban space that vertical approach meaning that cremation makes good sense. But the layout of the Bangkok metropolitan is a mess in disguise of urban morphology. The city today adopted an existing layout of a hundred years back by adding highways and density without much zoning. And once we know it, the residential and industrial zone can be in proximity with urban planner permission.
The National Environmental Performance Assessment Report (EPA) is the country’s first attempt to generate a clear picture to determine emissions activities. However, this policy is often lacking efficiency, due to conflicts with the other local policies such as land-use, and hazardous waste management. Mass and repetitive incineration like cremation have not been regarded, despite being a source of air pollution and emitting equivalent to a small factory. That makes this rite the fourth emitter in Bangkok. A consequence of this is that the service is often carried out in residential areas and schools.
Average cremation uses 285 kWh gas to burn a single body – releasing 600 pounds of CO2 roughly equivalent to the energy usage of a single person in a domestic setting over a whole month. In this article, the expert further explains that the Thai crematorium is an ancient model that cannot filter toxins or Dioxins / Furans (nor CO2) from an incomplete burn at 200-650 degrees Celsius, while getting rid of the toxin needs greater energy over 850 degrees Celsius. Included in the fume is a harmful substance such as coffin formaldehyde and mercury that can contaminate underground water systems.
In Los Angeles County amid the COVID-19, local air quality regulators have lifted cremation limits. In Bangkok, famous temples could be serving roughly a hundred services during business as usual and even more so during the pandemic.
Since we can scientifically prove health and environmental issues connected to body incineration, Buddhism as a science-based religion, perhaps can emerge in a more environmentally conscious way to deal with the aftermath of a death.
A Way of Life
In principle, the king and Buddhism are institutions signifying more than a spiritual but laid the foundation for the Thai nation (93.5% of the population are Buddhists). Monarchy law using religion as a tool for propagandising people's way of life. In the worst case, any change to a religious custom without the consent of constitutional bodies can be interpreted as illegal by law or be seen as abnormal. While awareness and attempts for more sustainable and just choices have gained traction against the old way, many beliefs such as cremation are rooted deep in the culture. This is to say that shifting away from some conventional norms can be too complex than it should considering the current political climate in the country.
Greener Ways to Go
IEA (2020) describes readiness gaps as an obstruction in Thailand's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions pledges (INDCs) as to having the right tools kit for the transition.
A radical change away from cremation is against belief. In this article, a death educator notes that the full effects of cremation globally remain unknown because of a scarcity of research. But for sure negatively impacts the environment and the climate crisis we’re in.
Many opportunities have been explored, by innovative technologies, science, and city planning based on ecological considerations. In aquamation, a body’s natural decomposition process is accelerated with the help of water, heat, pressure, and potassium hydroxide. The processed liquid is an excellent fertiliser for farmland, community gardens, or other urban green spaces. And even help improve the quality of municipal sewer water.
Green burial avoids the polluting chemicals of embalming or the incineration emissions in which bodies are transformed into the soil through facilities in urban areas.
Another option that still involves combustion is to set up the energy harvest system to collect heat from cremation to be used domestically or feedback to the national grid.
Transitioning to such technology and creative options could be a leap for Thailand. The policies still hold back many potential innovations. There was a mention of the electric incinerator. But the shortage of subsidies from the government and public donations. Making the new model unaffordable for most temples and more difficult for them to make a meaningful sustainable choice. Awareness and understanding is the first step that the governing body should embrace to make any significant change.