Conventional funerals and methods of disposing of human remains are environmentally harmful. How can we adopt an alternative approach to make this procedure more ecologically acceptable?
The Eco-Problems with Cremation
Crematoria currently release a large quantity of carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere. Legally they are required to burn at a temperature of 850°C, using up valuable fossil fuels; but lowering the temperature would result in still higher chemical emissions.
Mercury emissions arise from bodies’ mercury based dental fillings. Larger crematoria are installing mercury abatement equipment to limit this global pollutant but the cost of such high tech equipment is prohibitive for smaller operators.
The Eco-Problems with Burial
Grief stricken people tend not to ask many questions. They buy standard expensive coffins made from man-made plastics or exotic hardwoods incorporating polluting metals. Preservation is not eco-friendly either. Bodies are embalmed in formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic and corrosive. Embalming should be a choice, not a standard service, since dry ice or refrigeration is sufficient.
Cheap cardboard coffins are available to the public direct from wholesalers. Biodegradable coffins can also be made from sustainable resources such as willow, bamboo, and even banana leaf or water hyacinth; shrouds from jute or wool. Natural fibres and materials are greener and more attractive, and may be decorated with a more individual touch than a conventional veneered casket, with flowers, pictures or messages.
The only independent funeral advice service in the UK is The Natural Death Centre, which provides information on all types of funeral and advises and supports families with regard to environmentally friendly, family organised funerals. To encourage personal plans for one’s own funeral, it advises on the making of living wills. The Natural Death Handbook, 4th edition, by Josefine Speyer, published by Rider & Co. provides complete lists of the UK’s natural burial sites and eco-coffin suppliers, details of how to organise a funeral, with or without a funeral director, and what the legal position is regarding burial on private land.
The Association of Natural Burial Grounds (the ANBG) assists people in establishing sites for natural burial. There are over 200 around the UK run by local authorities, landowners such as farmers, charitable trusts and not for profit organisations. It provides guidance to burial ground operators.
The ANGB’s Code of Practice insists on the use of biodegradable coffins and the conservation of flora and fauna at natural burial grounds, which are peaceful havens of natural beauty. Trees, shrubs or local stone mark the graves. The code guarantees long-term financial security measures, the use of fully itemised price lists and a formal complaints procedure. Families must be allowed to organise funerals themselves, without the services of a funeral director, if they so wish.
“Promession”—from the Italian “promessione”, to swear to the truth—presents a more eco-friendly alternative to the conventional disposing of human remains. The procedure was approved by the Swedish Health Board in 2007 and may soon be available in the UK. The technique involves freezing the corpse in liquid nitrogen and then shattering it into powder by ultrasonic vibration. Pollutant metals are then removed and recycled and what remains is rapidly biodegradable—essentially it is compost—and can be buried in a biodegradeable coffin in a shallow grave.
By confronting the taboo surrounding death and thinking about how to dispose of our remains in an environmentally sustainable fashion, we are taking responsibility for the future of our planet. Not only are we preventing unnecessary pollution by adopting green funeral procedures, we are benefiting as caring individuals through the creation of more personal and life affirming funerals.