Modern funerals are not necessarily very sustainable but there are still eco friendly funeral options in the UK. Historically funerals would have been simple affairs - people lived locally so it was easy to pay their respects, shrouds were used instead of coffins and bodies were buried within days of death.
In the 20th century, funerals became a more lavish affair. People had migrated away from their family villages and therefore travelling a distance became necessary, even more so since international travel. The deceased were therefore no longer buried within hours or days of death, as people wanted to travel back for the funeral, so bodies needed preserving with embalming chemicals. Loved-ones bodies were placed in expensive wooden coffins as more pomp and ceremony grew around funeral services and headstones and stone vaults were used as elaborate markers for people to pay their respects. Cremations became more popular as the 20th century progressed - as land became more populated - there was less space in burial grounds, so cremation was seen as a space saving alternative.
Now it is time to think about how we can make funerals greener again. How can funerals be more eco-friendly? How can we make the whole process more sustainable? As a Funeral Celebrant based in West Malling in Kent, I would suggest that even if we take on a few of these principles mentioned below, we are on our way to making funerals more green.
1. Keep services small and minimise travel
2020 has seen an enforced reduction in the number of people attending funerals - international travel has become more restricted. As a result we have seen the industry pushing forward with technology in the funeral industry. Webcasting of funerals is now available in most UK crematoria. This means - with the use of the internet, a link and a password, people can watch the ceremony live from around the world thus reducing national and international travel. At burials, funeral videographers are now employable or smartphone apps can be used to create live streams or videos that can be shared with those who were unable to attend.
Reducing the miles inevitably reduces our carbon footprint.
2. Don’t embalm
Bodies can be cremated without being embalmed, in fact the embalming process is only carried out to bring comfort to families who wish to spend time with their loved one before a funeral, regardless of the type of committal they choose. The exception to this is if a person has died overseas and therefore needs repatriating to their home country - be that the UK from abroad or a foreign country from the UK - then it is necessary.
The embalming fluids are chemicals used to preserve bodies - they contain a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol and other solvents. Embalming is prohibited for green funerals at natural burial grounds, to prevent embalming fluid leaching into the soil.
So if you skip the embalming process, there are a lot less nasty chemicals being used which has to be a greener alternative.
3. Use a biodegradable shroud or coffin
A shroud is a long piece of cloth, usually natural material such as cotton, linen or bamboo, which is wrapped around a body after it has been prepared for burial. The shrouded body is usually placed directly in the grave without a casket. This simple method uses a minimum of materials while still honouring the dignity of the deceased during burial. The shrouded body can also be placed in a biodegradable casket or carrier.
Caskets made from bamboo, banana leaf, cane, cardboard, pandanus, seagrass, willow and wool are entirely biodegradable. They contain no screws or fittings that aren’t natural. They are very strong and the handles are woven into the structure. They are therefore entirely suitable for natural burials as they will be quick to degrade.
Biodegradable coffins are sustainable - they are made from renewable resources; some wooden coffins are also sustainable - made from environmentally sustainable paulownia wood or pine from responsibly managed forests with biodegradable handles and beeswax polish, so even if you do have a cremation - consider using greener products than traditional oak or elm with brass or plastic fittings.
If we think about improved sustainability in all areas of our life - we are protecting our future.
4. Avoid cremation if possible - find a natural burial site
Whilst it’s true that cremation is less harmful than pumping a body full of formaldehyde and burying it under concrete, there are still environmental effects to consider. Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year - enough that some environmentalists are trying to rethink the process.
One option we have in Kent is a green cemetery or natural burial site. A natural burial is an eco-friendly way of laying a body to rest in the ground, without a traditional coffin or headstone. It's the greener way of allowing a body to decompose naturally, with less impact on the environment. Natural burials usually take place in a woodland area, and are also known as woodland burials or green burials. There are a growing number of natural burial sites in and around Kent, take a look at Eden Valley Woodland Burial Ground, Riverview and Bluebell Cemetery are a few of the more local sites in North Kent.
A woodland burial is a good option if you would prefer being laid to rest in a more natural way.
5. Plant a tree instead of a traditional headstone
A woodland burial involves a body, or cremated ashes, being laid into the ground using biodegradable coffins or caskets. Woodland burial services are very flexible, as they don't need to follow religious traditions or protocol. You can choose to have a ceremony around the burial, or choose not to have one at all. Most woodland burial sites will be able to accommodate your wishes, so long as they're within the site guidelines and keep the area protected. Some woodland burial sites have a small building where ceremonies can be held and some can also arrange religious woodland burials, if required.
By planting a native tree instead of stone or concrete headstones we are going some way to replanting natural woodland.
My name is Justine and I’m a Civil Celebrant in Kent. Message me at email@example.com or use my contact page for more details about my services and celebrations of love, marriage and life in the South East and further afield.