*WARNING – This post tackles the subject of death and covers some subjects some may find morbid or graphic.*
Did you know that even in death, you are bad for the environment?! And, it costs SO MUCH! It just never ends, not even in death can you have the sweet relief you crave.
Death is a very performative experience. It’s human nature that we want to be remembered, we want to hang around for as long as we can. This is reflected int he way we handle death. Funerals are hosted to say goodbye to loved ones, bodies are pickled to stay fresh so that distant relatives can attend the send-off, and then most people are buried in a rented space under a stone slab so that we can continue to keep them in our lives. But, unfortunately, the way we approach death and how we are disposed of after death is unsustainable. With more and more people living today than ever before, there are also more and more people dying than ever before. We simply do not have the space or resources to allow for everyone to have an extravagant passing.
You may think that I am too young (freshly 22) to think about death – but you never know when it will come for ya, and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. I have given it quite a lot of thought (just in case). I have it all planned – I want to be buried in a forest under a big tree so that people can come and be like “oh yeah, that’s Jess, the tree”. I love forests, so the idea of being a tree forever is quite exciting to me! However, I am constantly torn between my desperate need for attention and my wanting to do the most for the environment. On the one hand I would want to be remembered and have a really over-the-top grave/tomb/mausoleum. On the other, I want a low-impact and possibly carbon negative death. So, maybe a massive tree serves both of those purposes?
In this post I will cover the most popular ways to be buried and their eco-alternatives. I am basing this post around a traditional burial in the UK, and not traditional burials elsewhere. I understand many cultures have different approaches to death and they way they handle their dead, so I will only tackle things that I am culturally disposed to.
Traditional Burial: £4,257 (inc. simple funeral)
A traditional burial often includes a church service, after which the body and the mourning party are taken to the graveyard where the body is placed in a 6ft deep hole in the ground. The grave site is marked, usually, by a tombstone but more ostentatious people opt for a full-on tomb or mausoleum. There is usually some kind of reception for the mourners afterwards with food and drinks.
I love graveyards. I love just wandering round them and just being on my own – they’re so peaceful! I really enjoy looking at the old graves – the ones well over a 100 years old are my favourites. To be buried in a graveyard, you must lease a plot – you can lease between 50-99 years at any one time. After this lease has expired, if there are no family members willing to renew the lease, the plot can be reused. Graveyards all over the place are reaching the upper limits of capacity as more people are dying and requiring burial. In Greece, for example, due to a recent land shortage – plots are only leased for 3 years, after which the body is exhumed and stored so someone else can be buried in the plot.
Bodies are embalmed before burial, as often the person has died a week or two prior to burial and the need to prevent decay. This involves the body being drained of organ fluid and blood – it is then injected with a chemical called formalin to preserve the body. Formaldehyde is a recognised carcinogen, and can cause cancer if prolonged for an extended period of time. In the US, 3.6 million litres formalin is used and ends up in the soil each year. It is uncertain of the impact that these chemicals have on wildlife, as no studies have adequately looked into it yet. Even if we don’t know if they are harming the environment, we probably shouldn’t be putting more chemicals into it. These chemicals drastically slow the decomposition of the body and can leach out of the soil and eventually enter the water course – they will biodegrade over time but that’s still slightly unsettling. Skipping the embalming and body preparation saves a lot of money as well – but you probably shouldn’t have an open-casket and should bury the body quickly.
In the US, enough metal is used in caskets, grave liners, and vaults every year to be able to rebuild the Golden Gate bridge! And enough concrete is used to be able to build a 1000km long two-lane motorway – that’s enough road to go from London to Edinburgh, and back again! Casket maufacturers are high on the list of sectors that produce large amounts of dangerous chemical waste. Most (affordable) caskets are made of MDF or chipboard bonded with formaldehyde resin with synthetic veneers and plastic handles. These do not decompose well (if at all) and are usually imported from abroad!
Bodies are buried very deep in the ground (6ft). This is much deeper than the top layer of soil, which is where everything happens. Most of the life in soil can be found in the top layer of soil. Bodies being buried deep originated in London during the plague in an attempt to prevent the disease spreading. Now, restrictions vary from place to place but, bodies are often buried deep so that other burials can occur over the top of them. So, bodies are filled with formalin, buried deep below the active layer of soil, and in a box that is unlikely to decompose well – very little of our bodies is being given back to nature. And, the stuff that reaches the soil is likely too far below the accessible layer of soil that it can’t be used.
You don’t have to opt for a full-on ‘green’ funeral to reduce the environmental impact of your death. There are some simple switches that you can make! Many of these options will also save you money.
- Skip the big flower arrangements.
Elaborate flower arrangements have become an integral part of post-death services. They are beautiful displays of gorgeous flowers mounted onto shaped pieces of water-soaked foam. But these mass-produced flowers come with a massive social and environmental price tag. The year-round supply of flowers are imported from large floriculture farms in South and Central America or areas of Africa. Regulations for what chemicals are permissible is much more lax in countries in these regions (more than 30 chemicals are used on one crop of flowers) – these chemicals can have an incredibly detrimental impact on the environment, especially if they make their way into waterways. The farms routinely exploit child labour and do not pay workers a living wage. The workers are continually exposed to dangerous chemicals – leaving them subject to many health issues, including miscarriages, cancer, and birth defects.
- Don’t get embalmed.
At very low concentrations in air, formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in eyes etc., coughing, wheezing, nausea, and skin irritation. This is a chemical that is injected into dead things but is also found in cigarette smoke! There were efforts to ban formalin (formaldehyde) in 2016 under the Biocidal Products Directive, as a result of the chemical’s potent and harmful qualities. But due to the chemical’s unique usefulness the ban was not implemented and the rules were tightened. This effort to ban formaldehyde says to me that maybe we should try to use less of it, because it seems to be super not-great. So, please, unless absolutely necessary, don’t get embalmed.
- Choose a paupers coffin.
Choose a coffin that has minimal environmental impacts. One with no trimmings – it’s only going to into the ground anyway. One that will allow nature in, and let you decompose naturally! These types of coffins are often much cheaper than conventional ones, as well as being environmentally better. One of the most environmentally-friendly (and cheapest) coffins, is a paupers coffin – it can be made out of cardboard! They are surprisingly strong and cost only £140.
- Pick the right graveyard.
Picking a graveyard that takes the environment into consideration could be one way of greening your funeral. Some graveyards offer chemical-free sections, so you can be placed with others that who also didn’t get embalmed. A lot of graveyards are very heavily managed, with a lot of inputs like fertilisers to keep them looking lush but this isn’t great for wildlife. A cemetery that is a bit more wild and puts nature a little higher on the list of priorities would be a good way to have a more eco-friendly burial. I will talk more about eco-burials below. In lieu of these, pick a cemetery close to home, so the amount of transportation needed is reduced.
Most graves are marked with a headstone – this displays information about the person buried there. These are a cornerstone of traditional burials (sorry). But the stone used to produce these beautiful memorials has often travelled a long way to get to the graves. Much of it is imported from countries such as India or China. The stone is extracted there using opencast mining techniques, which is incredibly destructive to the environment and often leads to pollution of waterways. Not to mention the emissions generated importing the stone. Perhaps opt for a much smaller gravestone, or even better, choose one made from natural materials! The natural ones may not last as long but, hopefully, your loved ones will have more to remember you by than a piece of stone!
- Carbon offset
The carbon footprint of your chosen method of send-off can be calculated and you can opt to offset that carbon by purchasing carbon credits. This can be done through your funeral service or you can make these purchases yourself (make sure you do so through a reputable provider) This can be applied to all areas of your life, not just your funeral, as everything has an impact! The money given over to the carbon credit scheme is used to plant forests, fund energy conservation projects, and support greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts.
- No funeral procession
I have never seen a funeral procession in real life. I believe they are something of an extravagance saved for the rich and important. But, if you fall into that category, consider forgoing your procession as it generates unnecessary carbon emissions!
In my opinion, this form traditional burial is very detached from nature, while simultaneously trying to be a part of it. In death, we want to be close to nature because it is associated with peace – so we shouldn’t we try not to distance ourselves from it with the choices we make?
Cremation: £1,600/£3,311 (no funeral/simple funeral)
More and more people are opting to be cremated when they die, I suppose it has something to do with the fact it’s nice and clean – there’s no bugs nibbling away at ya in the ground. You can choose to keep you loved one on your mantelpiece, which I personally think is a bit morbid – akin to having a stuffed animal on your wall. But it does save space! Some other people choose to have their ashes buried, much like with a body burial, but this time the body is burned first. Land is easily one of the most valuable resources we have, so it makes sense that we should try to conserve as much of it as we can for those who are still living. Burying ashes rather than complete people saves a lot of space (a cremation burial plot is 1/3 the size of a normal plot) while still having that feeling of burying a loved one.
Energy-Use & Emissions:
For a person to be cremated, the furnace needs to be operated at 760-1150°C for 75 minutes. The energy required for one cremation is equivalent to the amount of energy that a person uses in one whole month. One cremation generates 65.75kg of CO2eq, which sounds a lot but is about the same amount generated by the production of 2 kg of beef. Cremation is also responsible for the generation of 16% of the UK’s mercury emissions (from burning old-school dental fillings). This can cause acid rain and eventually end up in our food via the soil and water. Currently, the levels of mercury emissions are relatively low but as more people (the baby-boomers etc) who have these types of fillings start dying, these levels will increase. This may mean that crematoriums will need to retrofit expensive devices to clean emissions (which will increase cremation costs) or burn bodies at an even higher heat to reduce mercury emissions (which will also increase CO2 emissions).
Most of the ways to reduce the impact of your death, via cremation, would be much the same as traditional burial.
- Get your ashes spread rather than buried
Instead of putting your ashes in a vase or burying them, consider having them spread. You could have your remains spread over a waterfall, on a mountain, in your garden, out at sea, anywhere really – you get to be reunited with the Earth in a place that is special to you! This saves valuable land space and reduces any environmental impacts from the production of ashes storage vessels.
Obviously, a body takes up the same amount of space no matter where they are buried. But eco-burials take place in sites that are designed to have more than one purpose – to conserve nature and be the final resting place of some people. There are currently around 200 green burial sites across the UK! There are less elsewhere, but are rapidly increasing in popularity. However, not all green burial sites are created equal, some are just traditional burial sites that are trying a bit harder (more trees) and some are sites that are preserving natural habitats with strict rules about what can be buried. The kind of eco-burial I would want would be in a woodland such as this one or this one.
The most common type of eco-coffin are those made from willow but you can also find ones made from bamboo, banana, rattan etc. Willow is an extremely sustainable material as it is harvested using a method called pollarding. The trees are not chopped down during harvested but rather the branches are harvested in their infancy, close to the base – these then regrow and can be reharvested over and over again. The more the tree is cut back the more shoots are cut back the more shoots it produces. These trees provide a valuable and dynamic habitat for wildlife.
Some people are choosing to completely forgo a coffin and be buried in a pod. You are placed in a egg-shaped, bio-degradable shell (in the foetal position, which is apt as you are essentially being reborn) – the shell contains a tree sapling which will you will become a part of as you decompose! You can also choose to skip a container altogether and just be covered in an all-natural sheet (shroud) for your big reunion with mother Earth! All eco-burials are conducted at a shallow depth so the organisms in the soil can make proper use of the body – as the upper layers of soil is where most of the life occurs.
If you’ve watched Blue Planet II, you will know that food in the ocean is scarce. And what better way to give back to nature, than becoming a meal for all the hungry things in the sea! Unfortunately, in the UK, they only allow 50 non-navy sea burials each year – so you have to get in there quick, if that is the way you want to go!
As you’d imagine, there are a lot of regulations that come with sea burials – you can’t just go tossing a body any place. There are only 3 locations across the UK from which you are allowed to be buried at sea. There are also regulations for what you are allowed to be buried in – the coffin must be made of solid softwood with steel reinforcing the joints, as well as the top and bottom of the coffin. The coffin must be drilled with holes, and be weighted down with concrete, iron, or steel. All this is to ensure the coffin survives the impact with the water, arrives to the sea bed swiftly, and to prevent the body being washed ashore or caught by fishing gear. The coffin must also be devoid of plastic, copper, lead, or zinc to prevent unnecessary pollution of the oceans. The body, for a sea burial, is not allowed to be embalmed and must be dressed in biodegradable materials.
In my opinion, that seems like an awful lot of metal to be just chucking in the sea. But, unfortunately, humans are everywhere so there is no ocean that we could drop a shrouded body into the sea and not have it come back to bite someone else in the ass. Regulations do vary from place to place across the world, and how sea burials are carried out vary as well. Sea burials are one of the more eco-friendly options of burial, with the only notable environmental impacts coming from casket production and transport of the body and mourning party.
Resomation (Water Cremation): £500+
Resomation is an alternative process to cremation, through which the deceased is liquefied. The body is placed in a porous basket or other container. This is then put in a machine where a heated alkaline solution submerges the body. This dissolves all of the soft tissues. The dissolved fluid can then be released into the waste water system along with everything else that goes down the drain. The bones, and any metal components, are what is left – these are then ground up to be returned to the family of the deceased. It may seem incredibly strange but the liquid that is washed away has nothing of the person left in it – it is simply a mix of chemicals which are returning to the natural system. The ashes contain only the bones, which is what comprises the ashes in a conventional cremation. The outcome is the same but produces 1/3 fewer greenhouse gases, uses 1/7 of the energy, and prevents mercury emissions!
Freeze-drying (also called promession or cryomation) is functionally the same as cremation – you come out as a powder but it uses liquid nitrogen, to freeze you (at -196C), and vibrations to achieve it, rather than fire. There are no direct emissions from this method. Also, any metal components (dental fillings, hip replacements, prosthetics) can be reclaimed and recycled.
Using cryomation, all of the body is returned to the family (minus the water) – unlike cremation where only what is left is returned (2.5%). Also, the process of cryomation removes any chemicals (including embalming ones) from the remains, leaving them safe for an eco-burial. Unfortunately, this method is yet to be approved for the UK but has been used in Sweden! Many people have objected to this idea, saying ‘undignified’ and ‘grotesque’, but I think that it’s miles better than being SET ON FIRE! Anyway, hopefully you’ll be dead before you have to experience either option.
The more people have to travel to and from an in between venues, the larger the environmental impact will be. This can be said for any event, not just funerals. One way to minimise the amount of transportation needed is to try to have to only have people you really care about at your funeral. If you don’t like them, make sure they don’t come – especially if they’re coming far. It’s also a great excuse if you’re invited to something you don’t want to go to (funeral or not) – ‘sorry, I can’t make it, it’s better for the environment if I don’t come’.
This mini, five-minute documentary from Vox sums up this post quite nicely. So, if you have the time, check it out.
Death is a hard time for most people, but we could make it a lot easier on our Earth Mother. We take so much from the Earth, that we should try to give as much of ourselves back when we die. Obviously, death is a very personal thing and I would never dream of telling you how to go about it, but I hope that has given you some food for thought. These points don’t just apply to humans, but also to our furry family members – we should make sure they have an eco send-off as well! Now, off you pop to update your will before someone pickles you!
If you have anything to add, please leave it in the comments!