You probably haven’t considered a planet-friendly funeral until now...
Some people might be comforted by the fact that after death, they are no longer contributing to the pollution of the planet. But you're not off the hook just yet - the mode you choose to dispose of your remains can have a huge environmental impact!
Funerals and burial processes are different around the world, but not often planned with much consideration for the environment. A conventional Western burial and funeral typically involves a coffin, embalming the body, flowers, and a series of other add-ons. The body is first often filled with embalming fluid (a known carcinogen), put into a casket that is often made of tropical hardwood, and buried inside a concrete grave liner. This is all done to ensure the natural process of decomposition is avoided. Each year in the US, 20 million feet of hardwood board, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried in conventional cemeteries. It’s an uncomfortable fact.
Although embalming slows down the decomposition process, it doesn’t stop it completely. Following a conventional burial, bodies slowly decompose anaerobically, creating methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Further emissions are produced in the creation and transportation of embalming fluids, caskets and grave liners, and the frequent mowing of cemetery land. Last, but not least, now that the world is one urban playground, with half of the world’s population living in cities, using arable land as a permanent resting place is counterproductive for growing crops closer to urban centres. This increases the likelihood of having to ship food from afar.
What can we do about it? Well, like just about everything else, there’s a 'green' alternative. The specifics of planet-friendly burial vary widely, but they require far few resources for the care of the body, and skip those traditional steps that are harmful to the environment. In an added benefit, they can be more affordable!
What exactly is a planet-friendly burial?
Typically, in a natural or planet-friendly burial, the body is buried without embalming. Generally, people think that embalming the body is necessary when in fact, it’s more of a cosmetic procedure than a public health safeguard.
Jeff Jorgenson, who owns Elemental Cremation and Burial in Washington, said that the embalming process is the first element to let-go. Instead, he suggested asking for dry ice or Techni-ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent.
“Traditional funeral directors will frequently talk about how mom or dad won’t look very good” if the bodies aren’t embalmed, Mr. Jorgenson said. Instead, he has found that families are thankful that his company doesn’t perform embalming “because it feels like there is more room for closure.”
Any shroud or casket that is used must be biodegradable, non-toxic, and of sustainable material. Traditional standing headstones aren’t used; flat rocks, plants, or trees may serve as green markers. Some cemeteries will use GPS to provide a digital marker for loved ones to visit the spot where the deceased are buried.
Capture spoke to Will Brown, the founder of Return to Nature, a soon-to-launch planet-friendly burial service based in Edinburgh, Scotland that aims to be environmentally conscious and offer a meaningful legacy that makes saying goodbye to a loved one a memorable, soothing and sometimes even joyful experience.
So how on earth does one decide to enter the planet-friendly burial industry? Will recalls walking around the Scottish hills with a family member and talking about why the hills were so bare - primarily because of the deer hunting and grouse shooting that the land was being used for. This economic incentive keeps this land barren, and doesn’t actually benefit the environment. Will started thinking of ways there would be a way to have trees on the land, in order to restore a beautiful, diverse ecosystem of biodiversity. Following the passing of a loved one, he landed on the idea of combining a desire for more natural biodiversity, and saying a memorable goodbye to the deceased: planet-friendly burials.
At ‘Return to Nature’, people have the option to have a memorial grove; a 1 acre burial plot in the Scottish Uplands where the deceased’s cremated remains will be rewilded with native trees, shrubs, and flowers dedicated to the memory of the deceased. Around 500 native trees are planted on average per grove, with a digital marker that enables loved ones to find the plot whilst leaving the landscape completely natural.
There’s also the option of a short stay in one of their sustainably maintained eco-hunts, so that loved ones of the deceased can take part in the burial ceremony whilst helping people heal and grieve their loss in the sanctity of nature.
When it comes to the environmental benefits, Will estimates that by choosing a green burial with Return to Nature, 3.1 tons of carbon would be sequestered per year, that’s 5% of your lifetime's emissions removed each year.
What about cremation? Is that sustainable?
When it comes to cremating remains of loved-ones, cremation does have a harmful environmental output, although it has been marketed as more environmentally friendly than conventional burial. While it’s true that cremation is less damaging to the environment than filling a body full with embalming fluids and burying it on top of concrete, there are still other environmental impacts to consider...
Cremation requires fuel, and results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. There are creative alternatives however, such as ‘water cremation’, a way of dissolving the body in water, or ‘recomposition’, a process that converts bodies into useful soil that friends and family can either use or donate (only in Seattle!).
Over the past 5 years, cremation has surpassed conventional burial in the US, according to data provided by the National Funeral Directors Association.
Whilst dying certainly isn’t one of the things that any of us would associate with planet-friendly living, putting plans in place for a sustainable, nature-inspired end of life can make a beautiful difference, besides, as we all know.. ‘A society grows great when old (wo)men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit’
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