Funeral Directors are Environmentally Good Citizens

An update on NFDA's environmental accomplishments

by Carol Lynn Green


In the past several years, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has taken a leadership role in safety, health and environmental issues affecting the funeral service profession. We want NFDA members to know what NFDA recently has accomplished in this area and the expertise that NFDA has developed. We hope this information will enhance your efforts and will help you further your commitment to continued compliance in this important area.

There are three environmental areas in which NFDA has been active, each involving wastewater discharges from the embalming process: 1) discharges to publicly owned treatment works; 2) discharges to septic systems; and 3) the biologic impact of the wastewater discharge.

Discharges to Publicly Owned Treatment Works: Most funeral directors discharge wastewater from the embalming process to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) in their communities. 1 In 1995, NFDA completed the Funeral Home Wastestream Audit Report (the Audit), which analyzed the volume and chemical composition of embalming wastewater and the impact of the discharge on POTWs. The purpose of the Audit is to fill a void in information about the origin, nature, quantity and fate of funeral home wastewater.

Generally, embalming wastewater contains the residue of preservative chemicals–primarily formaldehyde, phenol, and methanol–used in embalming, and water, blood and bodily fluids. A typical embalming produces an average of 120 gallons of wastewater, as compared to a total average of 632 gallons of wastewater from embalming and from other water-producing activities in the home, such as sinks, toilets, laundry, and showers. The Audit determined that there was little impact on local wastewater treatment systems resulting from the discharge of wastewater from funeral homes because funeral home wastewater primarily contains low levels of biodegradable preservative chemicals, but ordinarily would not be expected to contain persistent toxic chemicals. The Audit also concluded that the low concentrations of preservative chemicals found in funeral home wastewater permitted the efficient biological treatment of funeral home wastewater discharged to treatment systems. In fact, embalming wastewater is not unlike sanitary flows.

Also included in the Audit are NFDA's Work Practices: recommendations for the use and disposal of preservative solutions when embalming in performed. These work practices are designed to help NFDA members meet the high standards of the funeral service profession.

Since its completion, the Audit has been widely circulated and has become a valuable tool. NFDA has provided it to scores of regulators, both federal and state, and of course, to funeral directors. The Audit has helped allay concerns about what is in funeral home wastewater and its impact on POTWs. It has also been used by many funeral directors in examining their wastewater systems and ensuring compliance with the environmental laws. The data about funeral home wastewater in the audit has provided a foundation for the study of septic discharges and the biologic impact of wastewater discharges.

Funeral directors that discharge to POTWs are required to apply for and have either permits or contracts with their local municipalities in order to be allowed to discharge their wastewater to POTWs. Some permits and contracts set numerical limits. Some include monitoring requirements, obligating funeral directors to periodically sample their wastewater and provide the analyses to their regulators. In addition, municipalities are required to obtain information from their industrial dischargers, including funeral homes, so they know the quality and quantity of wastewater received, and to ensure that the POTW is capable of treating the wastewater.

Using the Audit, NFDA has assisted many funeral directors nationwide respond to requests for information from local regulators and demonstrate that funeral home wastewater is appropriate for discharge to the POTW. NFDA also has responded to the questions of many members regarding permitting, compliance and best-management practices for handling funeral home discharges to POTWs.

Discharges to Septic Systems: Some funeral homes, primarily those located in rural communities, employ an on-site septic system for wastewater treatment and disposal. NFDA has retained experts to assist in confirming the propriety of on-site septic systems for funeral home wastewater and then help educate EPA and state regulators. NFDA's experts 2 have concluded that well-designed septic systems, when properly operated and properly maintained, including regular septic-tank cleanout, are capable of handling funeral home wastewater.

NFDA's position may soon be put to the test as EPA has issued a proposed rule imposing limitations upon septic system dischargers, including meeting specific health-based limits before the wastewater enters the septic tank. 3 Under EPA's proposal, those dischargers unable to meet EPA's final requirements will have to cease discharging the non-sanitary wastewater into the septic system. NFDA has taken the position that funeral homes should be outside EPA's proposed rule because funeral homes are low risk. 4 Funeral homes are small businesses that produce small volumes of readily biodegradable wastewater and should be treated differently than other septic system dischargers, such as motor-vehicle waste-disposal wells, large-capacity cesspools, and other industrial-waste disposal wells. EPA has no data that indicates funeral home septic systems cause groundwater contamination.

On March 18, 1998, NFDA submitted a report by its experts documenting these conclusions. Throughout the spring of 1998, NFDA participated in an EPA small-business forum intended to elicit the concerns of small businesses that would be subject to EPA rules prior to the rule's proposal. In September 1998, NFDA submitted its written comments on EPA's proposed rule, objecting to the rule as it applied to funeral homes. In December 1998, NFDA At-Large Representative Dwayne R. Spence was named by EPA to serve on the agency's National Drinking Water Advisory Council, one of a handful of industry representatives providing their views on EPA-proposed regulations and other drinking water issues under consideration by EPA. NFDA and its consultants have served as “staff” to Spence in the council's meetings held in Denver in January 1999 and in Washington, D.C., in March 1999.

NFDA has used its septic-system expertise to seek to influence the views of others, including state regulators. Over the summer of 1998, NFDA worked with the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, an organization established and funded by EPA, that distributes information about small-community wastewater systems, to ensure that conclusions in a Small Flows article about funeral home septic systems were based on sound science and consistent with NFDA findings.

NFDA also is working with the states of Michigan and Oklahoma, as they establish new policies regulating discharges to septic systems, to ensure that their policies reflect the data NFDA has and the conclusions NFDA has drawn.

In late 1998, the State of Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) relied on NFDA's Audit and other data, including its sampling of five Alabama funeral homes. ADEM issued a report concluding that septic systems can treat the residual amounts of preservative solutions and can provide effective removal of bacteria and viruses that may be found in embalming wastewater. ADEM plans to investigate further a concentration of volatile organics found in one groundwater monitoring well at one of the five funeral homes sampled. However, there is no indication of the source of the solvent, whether it might have come from historic rather than current practices, or whether it was a component of a household rather than an embalming product. NFDA expects to monitor closely ADEM's activities. NFDA also has provided guidance, both technical and legal, to a number of funeral directors around the United States seeking to install new septic systems.

The Biologic Impact of Wastewater Discharges: Legislation proposed in New Jersey several years ago seeks to ban the discharge of embalming wastewater to POTWs, requiring instead that it be boxed, stored, hauled away and incinerated. Although the legislation is quite controversial, not environmentally sound and has never been voted out of Senate committee, it continues to survive.

One of the issues that the legislation has spawned is the potential impact on sewer workers of bloodborne pathogens and viruses, particularly HIV, which may potentially be found in embalming wastewater. Work done by the New Jersey Funeral Directors Association, Inc. (NJFDA) 5 in conjunction with NFDA has laid this issue to rest. Concerns of wastewater workers appear to be unfounded because: 1) infectious HIV does not appear to survive in wastewater for more than a few minutes; 2) dilution immediately would lower the HIV below a dosage likely to infect; and 3) there are no reported cases of bloodborne disease from occupational exposure to sewage.

Despite NFDA's accomplishments, there is work yet to be done. Funeral directors still find themselves subject to enforcement actions. In January 1999, a North Georgia funeral director discharging to a septic system pled guilty and in March of 1999 was sentenced for a felony violation of the federal Clean Water Act. We think there were problems with the federal government's prosecution in this case. There was no environmental harm and no proof that the sewage from the septic system was likely to reach U.S. waters, a critical element of the government's case. The funeral director was not a bad actor. Nevertheless, the funeral director probably relied too heavily on his county health department inspector for advice and waited too long to correct a problem later discovered by a zealous government agent.

NFDA has taken a leadership role and developed expertise in the environmental area. The responsibility now rests with NFDA members to ensure compliance with the environmental laws and to demonstrate their commitment to good environmental citizenry. NFDA will keep you informed of developments in this important area. You can expect soon to see concise summaries of the critical data responding to the issues in the environmental area. Be sure to check NFDA's web site at for developments. If you need help, contacting John Fitch, NFDA's government relations director, in Washington, D.C. at 202-547-0441 or your state executive director is a good place to start.

Carol Lynn Green, Esq. is the founder of Green Environmental Strategies, which designs innovative environmental strategies for businesses and trade associations, using the environmental laws as tools. For the past seven years, Green has represented NFDA on environmental issues. She also works closely with Jill M. Zucker, Esq., Counsel, Bryan Cave LLP, on environmental issues.


1 Some funeral directors discharge their wastewater directly to the Nation's waterways. Under the Clean Water Act, such direct dischargers are required to apply for and to have a permit , issued either by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or a state environmental agency. The permit will set conditions on the concentration of various pollutants that may be discharged and ordinarily will impose requirements for monitoring.

2 NFDA has retained Roberts/Schornick & Associates, Inc. (RSA), a full-service environmental consulting firm headquartered in Norman, Oklahoma for this project. A particular capability of RSA is the evaluation, design and development of specifications for wastewater treatment for funeral homes.

3 Some states and county health departments already have requirements for both installation and operation permits for septic system dischargers.

4 EPA plans to issue its final rule in July 1999. Compliance with the terms of the final rule likely could be required as early as 60 days after the rule is issued.

5 Wilson Beebe, Executive Director of the NJFDA, with a team of experts, has lead this project.


This article appears in the May 1999 issue of The Director.

Reprinted with the permission of the National Funeral Directors Association, The Director, NFDA Services, Inc., May 2008.