Not Costing the Earth
It is probably fair to say that many of us don’t have a clue what needs to be done if someone dies. After all, there are professionals to sort it all out for us and we’re grateful for the advice and services on offer. In my own experience most Funeral Directors are wonderfully helpful and compassionate.
But are we paying too high a price for our separation from the processes of death and grieving? I don’t just mean financially, although it is true that funeral prices are high and rapidly increasing – I mean also that our modern way of death may literally be costing us the earth.
It is estimated that some 75% of funerals in the UK now involve embalming, which is usually totally unecessary and damaging to the environment, as it uses formaldehyde – a chemical which is both corrosive and carcinogenic.
In the USA, a traditional ten-acre cemetery holds enough embalming fluid to fill a small swimming pool, according to the Smithsonian magazine.* American coffins are often made of metal, sometimes lead-lined and lacquered too, all of which adds both to the cost financially and to the planet.
So should we all go for cremation? In the UK most modern crematoria are now able to remove some toxins before they enter the environment (for example mercury in tooth fillings). Other emissions – not all removed – include carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride and sulphur dioxoide. Even scattering the ashes gives nothing back to the earth, as they are sterile.
It is estimated that one cremation costs the planet the equivalent of a 500 mile car journey, and that’s before we add on the carbon impact of all the friends and family travelling to the funeral. Another environmental cost we don’t often consider is that of maintaining the rather formal landscaping found in most crematoria: the grass is kept mown and pesticides are used, harming wildlife like bees. Fertilisers are also employed and of course all these chemicals will enter groundwater.
Even flowers can add to the carbon burden; many fresh flowers are flown in from other countries today, and arranged using “oasis” or floral foam, much of which is made of plastic and is not biodegradable. Plastic wrappings are often added to the finished floral tribute.
So how do we plan for a more eco-friendly funeral? Here are some ideas you might like to consider:
- Specifically ask your funeral director not to embalm; it is almost always sufficient for the body to be refrigerated and not even that may be needed in the UK, where temperatures are seldom high enough to require any intervention.
- Think about the environmental impact of the coffin– most expensive, both in terms of money and environmental damage are traditional coffins made from non-sustainable wood or metal, particularly if imported. Consider a coffin made from chipboard or MDF, using veneers and handles made of plastic or, better still, cardboard or bamboo. Best of all, however, is something produced locally, from local materials, thus cutting out the carbon footprint of importing goods and materials. In Somerset, for example, local wicker is an excellent choice: it grows fast and is therefore renewed quickly , and of course there are few delivery miles. An eco coffin can reduce cremation emissions into the atmosphere by up to half, while burial in a natural or woodland burial site, where grass is mown infrequently, is the most environmentally-friendly option.
- Try to obtain flowers with recycled wrappings and if they are locally produced, so much the better. If possible, why not use garden flowers or those from an allotment? Alternatively, consider asking for donations to a charity instead of floral tributes.
- It’s worth giving some thought to the location of the funeral, as there is also an impact from everyone travelling – perhaps hold the funeral as close as possible to the largest number of mourners.