Environmentally Considerate Funerals
Updated: Apr 30
One way to be truly and finally eco-friendly is to die. However, the funeral process can be damaging to the environment. There are ways to have funerals that are kinder to the planet. Here are some suggestions:
Cremation, Field Burial or Nature Burial?
There are several options when considering a funeral which have different environmental impacts. Cremation is or is becoming the most popular choice in many countries but can release pollutants into the atmosphere, including mercury. Field burials take up a lot of space and require maintenance. Woodland burials are natural cemeteries which look like meadows or woods and are managed ecologically. In terms of carbon footprint, cremation uses the least carbon dioxide when compared to both a field and woodland burial. One very eco alternative is to have a burial at sea, using only sail power.
Also known as resomation or aquamation, this is an alternate process to cremation or burial using lye and heat. Using potassium hydroxide, pressure and a low heat the body is broken down into a liquid and ash. The liquid can be disposed of down the drain as it is a mix of amino acids, peptides, salts and sugars whilst the ash is returned to the relatives. It uses 75% less energy than cremation and less carbon dioxide and pollutants are released into the atmosphere.
Many countries are experiencing a shortage of space for burials, especially in crowded cities and on islands. As a result different methods are being used to solve the problem including reusing graves, creating multi-storey burial tunnels, virtual graves and banning burials. The most environmentally friendly option is to scatter the ashes instead of burying a body or an urn.
Another way to be eco-friendly is to ask mourners to travel to the venues by eco-friendly transport. This could be walking, cycling, public transport, sailing, electric vehicle, or car-sharing. Additionally, request any future visits to the final resting place considers the environmental impact of travelling there and uses a sustainable option.
Having a permanent memorial is a traditional marking of someone’s final resting place. However using headstones such as marble, slate, granite or limestone is not great for the environment. Quarrying and mining these raw materials is very energy hungry, creates a lot of waste, pollutes water and the air. Additionally there is the carbon footprint of the transportation from the quarry to the memorial site and the chemicals used in cleaning the stone. Consider another material such as wood or a material made from plant composite. Alternatively plant a tree, hang up a bird box, hedgehog home or a bat roosting box as a way to be involved in conservation after death.
Unfortunately the embalming process is not great for the environment either. It uses several chemicals which can leak into the ground and subsequently into waterways or released into the atmosphere during cremation. The best choice is not embalming at all, so that the air pollution is reduced and the body can decay naturally, restoring the soil instead.
Coffins are also another consideration for eco friendly internment. Every year millions of acres of wood is felled, plus tonnes of metal and concrete are utilised to make sarcophaguses and tombs. Modern synthetic caskets do not biodegrade very quickly in the ground and also release pollutants when they are burnt. Choosing a wooden coffin can also be bad, especially if it is virgin rainforest timber or MDF. Often the wood has been chemically treated, toxic glue, veneer and paints have been used and plastic or metal handles have been attached. Plus the carbon footprint of the transport from factory to the funeral directors can be high. Try opting for recycled cardboard, locally sourced wood such as willow or bamboo or even a shroud from recycled material.
The choice of urn can also be environmentally friendly. Steer away from glass, ceramics and metals and instead choose a better option. This could include unfired clay, bamboo, wicker and recycled paper which biodegrade.
Growing flowers involves the use of harmful pesticides which can leach into drinking water, destroy the ozone layer or pollute the atmosphere. The refrigerated transport and long flights to get flowers from tropical farms to markets or heating large greenhouses gives flowers a huge carbon footprint. A bouquet of five Kenyan or Dutch roses, five Dutch lilies and three Kenyan gypsophila is around 32kg of CO2e, which is quite significant. Additionally, cut flowers and floral tributes can use plastic, metal and non-recyclable materials, so it is advisable to avoid those. A better choice is to source locally grown flowers that are grown free from chemicals, using compostable materials or preferably a long lasting plant.
At the wake or memorial often refreshments are provided. Choosing a vegetarian or vegan menu would lower the carbon footprint of the food. Using paper plates, biodegradable cutlery and bamboo straws that are recycled and/or composted afterwards would also be preferable to plastic.
Lanterns and Balloons
Both these types of memorials are basically just littering. They can kill wildlife and make the countryside look ugly, hardly a fitting way to honour someone who has passed. There are several other ways to remember someone in a way that is harmonious with the environment. For example, hold a beeswax candle light observance or bubble blowing ceremony using non-toxic soap and recycled plastic, start a fundraiser for an environmental charity, write a message on seeded paper or arrange a nature walk.
Clearing the House
Going through someone’s possessions and emptying the house can be a difficult process. It is a good idea to go through the items and select those that should be kept for remembrance. You may also want to keep some high value items to be sold through an auction or antique dealer. Many other items can be put up for sale or offered for free on the internet. Additionally other items such as clothes and books can be donated to charity. Once most items have been sold or donated it’s worthwhile looking to see if the items could be recycled, reused or repurposed in some way. The last option would be to take the remaining items to landfill.
Death is not an easy event for relatives and friends but with some preparation and considerations the ceremonies and processes can be much more environmentally friendly.
I’m Annie, The Sustainable Life Coach - contact me for life coaching sessions focused on building environmentally friendly lifestyles.