The Environmental Cost Of Death!
In these times of the climate emergency, sustainability has become paramount. It is actually quite easy to think of a multitude of ways we can limit our own carbon footprint. Doing those everyday things that make our lives a little greener – recycling our waste or, taking a reusable cup instead of buying one each time we get a takeout coffee – these are all simple swaps we all can make. Flying and driving our gas guzzling cars less, eating less meat, or buying second-hand clothes and upcycling furniture are all worthy ways to reduce our impact on the planet.
Limiting our impact on the planet whilst we’re alive is one thing, but how much thought have you actually given to what happens after you die? It seems a little futile to spend a lifetime trying to reduce your carbon footprint, only to undo all the good you’ve done at the very end.
Of course, death is not something we Brits like to think about, or even less talk about. The truth is, we don’t talk about it when we’re here, so how would we expect our loved ones to talk about it after we are gone. That’s why I’ve done some of the leg work for you, to lay out a few options. I will assess the impact on the planet of the different ways of, well, disposing of your body.
How green is your Burial?
There are no two ways about it – burial takes up a lot of ground, something in the UK we don’t have much of. It is predicted that our cemeteries in the UK will all be full by 2023!
A straight-forward burial in a cemetery can often leave rather more in the ground than you may have bargained for. Everything from metal hips and knees, to silicon breast implants. You see, not everything will just decompose. To say nothing of the brass handles (which actually are usually plastic), screws and plastic liner in the coffin. Many of these things will take hundreds of years to decompose, some will probably remain for ever.
There is another harmful element to burial, that many may not even give a second thought to – embalming. Whilst embalming is not as popular in the UK as in the States it does have an environmental impact which can be long lasting.
Embalming fluid is made up of a number of chemicals to slow down the decomposition of the body. These chemicals, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol and other solvents, leach out into the ground for up to ten years after the burial and can be found to pollute and interfere with ground water courses. You get the picture, much of what burials leave behind will still be there in millennia from now! So how can we ensure we are not leaving a damaging legacy in the ground after we die?
What about green burials?
A true green burial is definitely a better option but you can be sure that it’s going to cost you a little bit for a truly green burial. With land at a premium and Natural Burial grounds few and far between this is not a cheap option. Although much better for the environment, natural burial comes at a much bigger financial cost.
To be honest it’s a bit of a minefield when trying to do the right thing by the planet when you go. Like many industries there are many unscrupulous businesses out there trying to jump on the green bandwagon. It’s worth having a few key questions ready for those, so called ‘Green Funeral Businesses’.
Not all green burials are the same as each other. Look out for green washing! Not only are there differences between the natural green burial sites, but funeral directors offering green options differ in their green credentials.
A truly green burial site will insist that all those ‘unnatural’ body parts – implants, hips, knees, pacemakers etc are not buried with the body. These will need to be surgically removed beforehand. This can be performed by your funeral director or a doctor if necessary, and will undoubtedly come with an extra cost. The natural burial ground should also insist that the body is obviously never embalmed! They must ensure that the lining in the coffin is biodegradable not plastic and that the material that the coffin is made of, is also able to decompose and is sustainably sourced.
If they are any good, they will not be shy about insisting that everything that goes into the ground will leave no trace after a number of years. So, if you do want a truly natural burial it’s worth doing your home work first and checking out the green credentials of the grounds and the funeral director.
Asking for confirmation of these credentials is important in order to hold these businesses to account.
Finding an environmentally friendly coffin is getting easier and there are now a number of green coffin makers on the market. They range from cardboard coffins, to those made of bamboo, or reeds or even recycled wood. Again, a note of caution in terms of where the wood and bamboo are coming from. The air miles can be huge if not sourced locally! There are now a number of shroud makers creating beautiful and sometime bespoke shrouds to be buried in. As with most bespoke items these come with an added cost that may not suit everyone’s pocket.
It’s worth noting that the natural burial grounds should not offer you a head stone for your grave, as the point is to leave no trace. However, what they often offer is the opportunity to visit the site and just take a wander in their natural surroundings to remember those who have died and been buried there.
How green is your cremation?
Cremations do away with the need for space and may be seen as a less ‘fussy’ option to a traditional burial. However, the cremation process is not without its unsustainable issues. Cremations are often viewed as a cheaper alternative to burials and in the UK the vast majority of people are now using cremation as the go-to option for the end of their life, with a staggering 472,302 cremations in the UK in 2019.
The amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere during just one cremation, is the same as taking a flight form London to Rome. There are some crematoriums that have tried to reduce their impact on the environment by going electric rather than relying on fossil fuels but these have not really taken off and are few and far between.
Cremations often over look the material used for the coffins as people are aware that this is going up in smoke along with the body. But this should not be overlooked. It would still be better to sustainably source your coffin in sustainable or reclaimed material.
So, what’s the alternative? There are a couple – so read on …
What is Resomation and how green is it?
Resomation is basically a water cremation. I know it sounds a bit mad but that’s pretty much what it is, so here are the details.
Resomation is the process of dissolving bodies inside a pressurised canister containing water and potassium hydroxide solution. The solution is heated to a temperature of 160 degrees Celsius for four hours. During this time the body will ‘dissolve ’ leaving only soft grey bones. “Ew!” I hear you say, but stick with me on this! The bones are then dried and ground up, leaving a paper white powder which can be given to the family at the end of the process in much the same way as ashes, after a flame cremation.
So how do the green credentials stack up? Sandy Sullivan founder of Leeds Resomation states that “It [Resomation] has six times less carbon footprint and uses seven times less energy than traditional burial.” He goes on to say: “we’re reaching a climate catastrophe and yet we’re still burning bodies!”. The Resomation website claims that by substituting water cremation for flame cremation, funeral greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by approximately 35%. Whilst all of this looks to be a step in the right direction, it has not been without its teething problems here in the UK. Resomation has only just become available in the north of the country in March 2020, so you’ll have to factor in your transport footprint to get there if you’re coming from the south.
Across the pond things are a little further forward. Resomation has been available in 19 of the 50 United States since the 1990’s. The technique was initially developed to deal with disposing of cattle after a ten year long epidemic of foot and mouth disease (that is another issue altogether – but don’t get me started on that one!).
With Yorkshire Water now agreeing that the water discharge after resomation is safe to go down the drain they are up and running with an alternative to cremation. It might feel a bit strange to think of someone’s remains being flushing into our water courses but Yorkshire water have extensively explored and researched the situation and feel confident of the efficacy of this move.
To be honest with all the other things which end up in our sewers I feel this is the least of our worries! Of course, it is something new and people don’t like change, but if you are really serious about your final carbon footprint this could just be a green option worth considering.
How green is human composting?
One other option – though currently not available in the UK! (come on UK pull your finger out!) is human composting! I kid you not, this is the brain child of Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, an American company, which was granted permission to begin human composting just a few years ago. They use a process called Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) to gently transform human remains into soil, this soil can be used to regenerate the earth.
They suggest that one metric ton of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere for every one person who uses this method of disposal as opposed to cremation. The whole process uses just an eighth of the energy needed compared to conventional burial and cremation. They suggest that this method, “strengthens the environment rather than depletes it”.
But hang on a minute, how does this differ from a green burial?
The biggest difference is that the body is not buried. In human composting the body is placed in a reusable ‘vessel’ and subjected to NOR. As I understand it, the body is rotated slowly in a thin bed of beneficial microbes which thrive under specific conditions. This unique environment enables the transformation of the body from solid matter into useful compost in just 30 days!
The units in which the bodies sit, certainly require a little space to begin with – the concept drawings look as if this could be facilitated in a warehouse type of building. Admittedly the USA has far more space than the UK. However, the process itself allows for the pods to be used multiple times unlike a grave in a burial site. This would then allow for any number of people to be placed in these facilities on a rolling system and the soil going back to the earth. The inorganic matter left at the end of the human composting (pacemakers, hip and knee joints etc) are sifted out and recycled where possible!
Natural green burials take substantially longer than human composting (although nowhere as long as a traditional burial). In natural burial, the body is placed in a shallower grave to facilitate quicker decomposition.
This concept could most definitely be the way forward, providing both a low carbon footprint and offering nutrient-rich soil to replenish our earths much depleted supply.
If only we could get over ourselves and start to think differently about our own personal disposal. Maybe then we can begin to entertain ideas that we can do some good for the Earth, not only while we are alive but even after our death. Now that really would be some legacy to leave behind!
If you are thinking of planning your own or someone else’s green funeral please do get in touch to discuss your options further – there is no time like the present!
Please do let me know if you have heard of other options that I have not mentioned here.
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