Sustainable funerals: Part 2 – with Ethical.net

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Posted May 5 2021 by Sarah Young of Ethical.net
Sustainable funeral: roses

Are you planning for a green funeral? Our friends at Ethical.net continue to explore sustainable funeral options, including green burials, coffins, burial sites, wakes and more.


Catch up on Part 1 here.

While some promising options do not involve burial, there are many benefits to a natural and sustainable burial; in spite of the range of options, more and more people are choosing this for themselves or their loved ones.

A sustainable, natural burial differs from a traditional burial in involving no embalming. The funeral industry estimates between 50% and 55% of cadavers in the UK undergo some form of embalming so they can be viewed by relatives. But the future of embalming is uncertain, especially since the EU added formaldehyde to their list of restricted carcinogens and mutagens.

Refusing embalming (which is already prohibited in the Jewish and Muslim faiths) eliminates concerns about pollutants and toxins from the process entering the environment.

A natural burial will also involve greater care over the type of coffin. (A number of natural, biodegradable coffins and shrouds are explored below.) Green burials will never use harmful or polluting materials in the shroud or coffin; everything placed in the ground will simply and harmlessly decompose.

Sustainable wood coffins

One option for a sustainable burial is simply to opt for a traditional wooden coffin – but one made from a more ethical choice of wood, from sustainably managed woodlands and forests.

Many traditional, high-end coffins are made from mahogany or other exotic hardwoods, contributing to deforestation and the destruction of precious rainforest trees. What’s more, such timber has to be shipped great distances.

Alternatively, eco-friendly wooden coffins use sustainable wood grown much closer to home. Just be sure, if choosing this option, that the source really was sustainable. You could also choose a coffin made from 100% reclaimed and upcycled solid wood.

Wicker coffins

Another option is a wicker willow coffin, which, like wooden coffins, are 100% natural and biodegradable. Willow grows quickly, and can be coppiced to ensure that it remains a truly renewable resource. Another advantage is that it can be readily grown and managed in the UK.

Bamboo coffins

A wide range of woven bamboo coffins are also available for green burials. A great eco-friendly material, bamboo never needs replanting, since it grows back rapidly after being cut – up to a metre a day, in some species. Strong and pliable, with a greater tensile strength than steel, it produces more oxygen than any other plant for its size to weight ratio. Planted in large groves, bamboo can also store four times the CO₂ as a similarly-sized stand of trees.

When choosing a bamboo coffin, however, it is important to consider where the bamboo was grown and where the product was made, and the carbon cost of bringing it to the UK (likely from China). Some bamboo products will be better than others when it comes to both their human and environmental ethics.

Other natural woven coffins

In addition to willow or bamboo coffins, you can now also find a wide range of other coffins made by weaving natural plant materials, including:

  • Banana leaf
  • Cane
  • Seagrass (water hyacinth)
  • Pandanus (wild pineapple)
  • Abaca

These will all simply rot away, leaving nothing to plague the environment or cause problems for future generations.

Cardboard coffins

Particularly if money is a concern, a simple, eco-friendly cardboard coffin could be the perfect solution. You can keep things very simple with a plain cardboard design (which could then be added to or decorated in a unique way); alternatively, opt for a pre-designed picture option or wood-grain effect.

As with the previous options, cardboard will simply rot away into the soil; ideal for a green burial. But when it comes to overall sustainability, remember that the cardboard is only as sustainable as its source, so ensure that the source was truly sustainable, and that it was sustainably produced and untreated.

Wool coffins

You can also choose a coffin made from natural wool (strengthened with a recycled cardboard liner) – another 100%-biodegradable option. Or how about the beautiful Bellacouche Leafcocoon alternative eco coffin, made from wool felt.

Alternatively, you could choose to forgo the coffin altogether; a shroud made from a natural, biodegradable fabric could be another great earth-conscious option for a green burial. Many people are surprised to hear this, but there is no legal requirement in the UK for a coffin or casket. The body should be covered, but how you do so is up to you. The benefit of using a shroud rather than a coffin is that you or your loved one will return even more quickly to the soil. This option, however, will depend on possible restrictions at the chosen burial site (or crematorium).

Choosing a burial site

When it comes to a green burial, the burial site is as crucial as the materials and methods chosen with regard to the body.

Burial at sea

Many people have an image of being buried at sea. This may be difficult in the UK: sea burial is permitted in a few areas, but a license is required, and only a few are granted each year.

Burial in a natural woodland or meadow

The number of green burial sites around the UK is increasing, as is their popularity with those wanting to be sustainable and natural in death.

Some of these green burial sites are managed by local authorities, some by individual private landowners, and some by large businesses. As such, they differ extremely in what they offer, how they are run, and their longer-term plans. If you are looking for a green burial ground, it is best to opt for one that is a member of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, which  adhere to various codes of practice to maintain suitability for natural, sustainable burial.

You may choose to be buried in an existing woodland, field sites where new woodland is being established, or other tranquil environments such as wildflower meadows. The sustainability of these sites hinges upon the most natural and ecologically sound approaches to ecosystem management.

It is important for a natural burial site to consider not only the short term but also long term sustainability. What will happen to the site when it is ‘full’? How will a site support itself financially and be maintained when funds from burials are no longer coming in? Arguably, a site that can support itself in another way once full is the best choice; for example, coppicing could provide an ongoing income from the land. Alternatively, agricultural sites may still be grazed or managed for various other yields. Diversification from agro-forestry into natural burial could be a good synergy.

Burial on private land

You might be surprised to learn that it is legal, in many cases, to be buried on private land in the UK. So if you have a large garden, or a substantial piece of woodland or other land, natural burial may be possible there. You or your loved one could potentially rest in peace under a tree, or in another favourite spot on your own property.

Certain regulations have to be followed, mostly relating to water sources, water courses, etc: bodies must be a certain distance away from springs, waterways, irrigation or drainage channels. They must also be at a certain depth below ground, and the location must be noted.

Whichever site is chosen for a natural burial, we need to move away from the idea that bodies be corralled in cemeteries, and take a more natural, holistic approach. When we die, our bodies should not ‘take up space’ and be permanently memorialised with non-living shrines. Instead, they can feed natural systems. People can be memorialised through the thriving natural systems they sustain and that grow from their physical remains. Personally, I take comfort from the idea that when I die, I can help create and sustain new life. In a natural, green burial, we should try to enable this return to nature as much as possible.

A sustainable wake

A sustainable funeral is not only about what is done with the body after death. If you want the entire funeral to be green, ethical, and sustainable, the wake or other celebrations need to be considered as well.

Sustainable funeral food

What food will be served at the wake? As with all the food we eat, the best and most ethical option is to choose food that is:

  • Grown locally
  • Seasonal
  • Organic and sustainably grown.

Also consider reducing or eliminating meat from the menu at a sustainable funeral. And if you do opt for meat or dairy dishes, these products should be sourced from farms with good practices in terms of animal welfare and ecological matters.

Of course, you should also try to follow the five ‘R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle. Do what you can to eliminate waste in all its forms, avoid plastic packaging where possible, and donate food waste to prevent it from being thrown away.

Sustainable funeral flowers

When it comes to flowers for the funeral, less is more; maybe ask guests to donate to a charity rather than bringing flowers. Even without a specific request, guests could still consider other, more eco-friendly alternatives to a flower arrangement: a living plant or tree, for example. But small acts of kindness like bringing a few meals to the bereaved’s house, or even just being there for a chat, can mean a lot more.

Those flowers you do choose for a sustainable funeral should be as eco-friendly as possible. This means:

  • Choosing cut flowers that are local and in season.
  • Opting for wildflowers rather than flowers that are hot-house grown.
  • Dried flowers and foliage for more choice if the funeral is taking place in winter.
  • All-natural arrangements without floral foam/Oasis or any other harmful/plastic components or packaging.

Sustainable transportation

It is inevitable, when someone dies, that people will have to travel to pay their last respects. Encourage guests, if you can, to use more eco-friendly methods of transportation to reach the funeral: for example, taking a train rather than a plane. Encourage car-sharing to cut this carbon footprint, including when travelling from funeral to wake: use as few cars as possible, rather than travelling individually.

Sustainable house clearances

A death in the family often means being tasked with clearing a home. Of course, the first stage will involve sorting these belongings and deciding what you and other family members would like to keep. After that, however, it is likely that there will be plenty of unwanted items. When sustainability is a key goal, make sure nothing is wasted or sent to landfill; instead, consider:

  • Donating unwanted items to a charity.
  • Selling secondhand items online.
  • Recycling, upcycling, or repurposing old items to give them a second life, or finding someone else who can do these things for you.

Once the home has been cleared, clean it using eco-friendly, natural cleaning products.

Sustainable wills

Finally, if contemplating your own death, an additional way to make it sustainable is through having a will drawn up. Consider leaving money or property to a charity that will help you continue to have an ethical impact after you are gone.

Main image by Rye Kim on Unsplash. Find the original article by Elizabeth Waddington here on the Ethical.net blog. Learn more in our introduction to a sustainable funeral.


Ethical.netAbout the author

Ethical.net is a collaborative platform for discovering and sharing ethical alternatives, whether purchasing from a social enterprise, thrift shopping, or learning how to fix your old phone instead of buying a new one. They aim to make ethical the new normal.