Green and Eco Friendly Funerals

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The Ecological Impact of Funerals

Many of us are conscious of the ecological and environmental impact of our lifestyle choices and try to make changes, both big and small, to reduce our ecological ‘footprint’. Similarly, there are ways to reduce the environmental impact of deathcare decisions and funerals too. 

Over the course of an average lifetime, deathcare choices may be a tiny percentage of an individual’s overall ‘environmental toll’, but worldwide around 56 million people die each year, so even small changes can add up to make a big difference.

So how can we lay bodies to rest in a way that helps the living and the planet, whilst still respecting the needs, beliefs and cultural traditions of the person who has died and those mourning them?

Natural, Woodland or Green Burial Sites

There are now over 270 green, woodland and natural burial sites throughout the United Kingdom. They are usually on privately owned land, often in beautiful meadows or woodland settings, or where the land is naturalised through the planting of memorial trees.

What is a Natural Burial?

With a natural burial, the body is returned to the land in as natural and uninhibited a way as possible.

The body should be free from non-biodegradable materials and harmful chemicals, and all materials used for the coffin or shroud must be environmentally friendly and readily biodegradable too (for example, made of cardboard, willow, wool felt or cotton).

Returning to Visit the Place of Burial

A woodland setting or meadow can be a beautiful place to hold a funeral service and to lay a loved one to rest. It can also be a tranquil space to visit, to sit, remember and feel close to them. Not all natural burial grounds mark the exact spot of each burial, however they all keep a register of individual locations. Some allow memorialisation with a tree, stone or plaque, but this varies from place to place so remember to check if this is important to you.

How Does This Help the Environment?

Manicured memorial parks may rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and require a great deal of water and maintenance to keep them green and tidy, whereas natural burial sites encourage ecological biodiversity, and the burial plots blend into the natural surroundings.

Green burial sites insist that most materials below and above ground are readily biodegradable, so no metal, concrete, fiberglass, plastics or hardwoods are allowed. Also, embalming fluids that contain hazardous chemicals which can infiltrate the soil and groundwater are not permitted either.

However, it is important to remember that location is important. If you and other mourners have to travel further to find a ground, this may be cancel out some of its benefits.

If you would like to read more, please see our Blog Natural Burial – Your Questions Answered.

The Impact of Cremation

Most people in the UK are cremated. This might be for religious reasons, due to personal preference, or because burial space in traditional locations is limited. However, traditional flame-based cremation uses a lot of energy, so has a high carbon footprint. It also releases harmful particulates into the air. These problems are being addressed with more effective filters and with new ways of powering cremators, and also through developing different forms of cremation.

Here are some of the options available now and that are currently being developed:

  • Electric cremators – these are already available in the UK and have a lower carbon footprint than those powered by other forms of fuel.
  • ‘Water Cremation’ – alkaline hydrolysis (also known by its trade name, Resomation) is already available in some countries and will soon be offered in the UK too. Initial research suggests it has a lower ‘lifecycle’ carbon footprint than conventional burial and cremation.
  • Hydrogen-powered crematoria – these are being developed and tested at the moment and will be trialled at Worthing Crematorium in 2024.

It is important to remember that location is important. If you and other mourners have to travel further to find a more ecologically sound option, this may be cancel out its benefits.

Greener Ways of Scattering or Burying Ashes

At many natural burial sites, ashes can be buried or scattered too. Each ground has its own guidelines and regulations around this and they will be happy to discuss it with you.

If you are burying the ashes elsewhere, choose a biodegradable urn or container (or, if appropriate, no container at all). You might like to plant a tree or shrub to mark the spot.

It is important to note, however, that cremated remains have a high PH and high levels of sodium, so make sure that you only use a small amount, or mix them with a suitable product to ensure that the surrounding soil and plant life can still thrive.

There are some lovely pods and containers available that help you to do this more easily.

Similarly, when scattering ashes, make sure that you do this responsibly to minimise any negative impact on the environment. To find out more, please see our information on finding a final resting place for the ashes.

Other New Technologies

So what else may be available in the not too distant future?

Natural Organic Reduction (Human Composting)

Already available in the USA, natural Organic Reduction, also known as ‘human composting’ (or by the trade name of one of the companies offering this service, Recompose) harnesses and enhances natural processes of decomposition to speed up the breakdown of the body.

Greener Modes of Funeral Transport

There are a number of greener transport options available for both mourners and for transporting the coffin.

Hybrid and Electric Hearses and Vehicles

The first zero-emission, fully-electric hearses are now available. There is also a good selection of hybrid vehicles, providing a greener alternative to conventional transport.

Bicycle Hearses and Battery-assisted Electric Bicycle Hearses

Man-powered and electrically assisted bicycle hearses are available in some parts of the UK. They are an unusual, and ecologically sound, way to transport your loved one over a short distance.

Live-streaming Funerals to Reduce Travel Miles

If it is possible to do so, holding a funeral locally can cut down on travel miles, and live-streaming means that those further afield can attend remotely. Many people will want to attend the service in person, but if they can’t, perhaps due to health reasons or distance, live-streaming allow them to participate and feel part of the day.

Carpooling and Public Transport

Encourage guests to share rides or, if possible, use public transport. If there are large numbers of people to move between venues, it might be worth considering hiring a minibus or coach.

When you are choosing a location, consider the transport options available and your travel miles if you will be returning regularly to visit the location.

Greener Memorials and Ways to Commemorate

Headstones and Memorial Plaques

If you wish to have a permanent memorial there are a number of things to consider, including any restrictions or requirements at your chosen location.

If you can, choose local stone for headstones and plaques, rather than stone imported from overseas. This will have a lower transportation footprint. Or, if it is possible and appropriate, plant a tree or shrub in place of, or as well as, a headstone.

Flowers, Trees and Plants as Tributes and Memorials

In many cultures it is traditional to lay flowers as a funeral tribute, or to send them with a message of condolence. Having some sort of living memorials also appeals to many people. But how can you ensure these gestures are ecologically sound too?

  • Floral tributes – source locally grown flowers and plants rather than those imported from overseas or grown in energy-intensive hothouses. Many florists now avoid using floral foam, wire and plastic wrapping to ensure that the whole bouquet is compostable and biodegradable.
  • Pick your own – if you or your friends and family have a garden, then branches, seedheads, ornamental grasses and cut flowers can all be used to make a beautiful display.
  • Something different – alternatively, adorn the coffin with much loved personal possessions, for example sport kit and equipment, gardening paraphernalia, items from a favourite hobby.
  • Memorial trees – planting a memorial tree or shrub is a lovely way to remember someone special. If you are doing this alongside burying the ashes, please see ‘Greener Ways of Scattering or Burying the Ashes’ above.
  • Green legacies – if you want to leave a more far-reaching positive environmental legacy, there are also organisations that will re-wild, or plant trees here in the UK or elsewhere in the world in memory of the person.

Choose Eco-friendly Materials or Recycle

Biodegradable Coffins, Urns and Shrouds

There is now a lovely range of biodegradable coffins, urns and shrouds available, made from materials such as cardboard, willow, wool felt, cotton and bamboo. The ecological impact of these materials varies depending on where they are grown and how they have been processed (for example, whether the materials have been imported from overseas and whether they have been bleached), so some are more environmentally sound than others.

If it is a ‘green’ burial, you will need to check with your chosen location to see whether there are any restrictions around materials they accept.

If you wish to use a more traditional hardwood coffin, it is possible to rent this and then buy a carboard coffin insert. This is removed before burial or cremation and the hardwood coffin can be used many times. If the coffin is not being reused, avoid metal or plastic handles, and other metal components such as hinges.

Remember, it is not obligatory to have a solid covering for the body (or, in fact, any covering at all), a simple shroud made from linen, cotton or wool felt can be used in place of a coffin.

Avoid Embalming

Embalming is a way of preserving the body. It may be considered if there is to be a viewing, if the body requires transportation or if it has been donated for medical or scientific research.

Traditionally, a cocktail of chemicals are used, including Formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic compound which is potentially carcinogenic and is highly toxic to humans and animals.

There are alternatives to this:

  • Eco- or green-embalming is now available with Formaldehyde-free, biodegradable fluids, usually made from essential oils
  • To slow decomposition, the body can be kept cool in a refrigerated unit or cold room
  • To allow for a viewing, a cold bed or blanket can keep the body cool for a short time
  • Direct cremation or burial soon after death removes the need to preserve the body

A ‘Greener’ Future

By understanding the environmental implications of traditional funerals, we can make informed decisions when arranging end-of-life services. Knowing about, and understanding, what the options are can give people the confidence to choose them.

The demand for eco-friendly funerals is growing and new ways of approaching deathcare are emerging all the time. Many of the new practices and alternatives are still evolving and more research is needed to assess to what extent they reduce the environmental impact of deathcare and funerals. However, if we try to make sure we are as well-informed as possible and try to make positive choices, however small, it will make a difference.

For more information on green developments, read our blog Green in Life, Green in Death.

How whiteballoon Can Help

whiteballoon’s beautiful Inspiration pages show examples of biodegradable coffins and urns, greener forms of transportnatural burial grounds and examples of flowers and plants. Or go to our Provider section to find businesses and suppliers who provide these products and services.

Use our free Planning Tools to make it easier to gather and share information. Save images, ideas and information about Providers to your own personalised Ideas Folder.

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