A fresh approach

words: Tim Power

As environmentalism becomes mainstream, growing numbers of people are looking to minimise their impact on the world by recycling plastic waste, eating locally sourced food and choosing low emission vehicles, so it’s natural that some of them would extend this ethos when deciding on the most environmentally sound way to deal with their mortal remains.

Although the traditional wooden coffin continues to be the choice of the majority of families for their loved ones, there is a growing demand for coffins made of other bio-degradable and sustainable materials, either to help them create more colourful and flamboyant celebrations of life or as a way of staying true to the green beliefs of the departed.

The funeral profession has responded to this small but growing demand with a wide range of coffin designs using materials such as bamboo, woven willow, recycled cardboard, cord from dried banana plants, water hyacinth and even wool. But many manufacturers are also going green themselves, not only sourcing ethical raw materials but adopting environmentally responsible practices to work more efficiently and attract green conscious customers.

Colourful Coffins, based in Oxford, imports a range of eco-friendly coffins to complement its range of wooden coffins and caskets.

Managing Director Mary Tomes said: “Right from the very beginning, when we started the company 14 years ago, we have always been very mindful about the environment and what materials we use. For example, our wooden coffins are made with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accredited material from sustainable forests and we use eco-friendly inks.

“While the majority of our customers want our colourful coffins with glitter and sparkles, we also cater for people who want to minimise their impact on the environment. At the moment, the eco-friendly products account for around 40% of our business but it has grown consistently over the last 10 years.”

A popular product for green funerals is the range of rattan ‘wicker-type’ coffins that are imported from Indonesia. They are made from sustainable sourced rattan and all handcrafted with no metal or plastic components, so are completely biodegradable. Importing does accumulate carbon miles, but the trade also supports traditional crafts and jobs in local communities.

She added: “We also have a selection of cardboard coffins made from 100% recycle material which we believe are the strongest on the market. It’s made in a honeycombed structure which makes it very strong and will hold up to 30 stone – which is two baby elephants!”

When they first started business they planted a tree for every coffin sold but they quickly filled up the original woodland site. Today they offset the carbon footprint when one of their coffins is cremated through a partnership with Climate Care, an environmental and social impact company.

Mary said: “We offset the equivalent of 350 tonnes last year. I think this a great thing to do as the funds Climate Care receive from companies offsetting their carbon are used for a wide range of environmental work in developing countries around the world, such as promoting fuel-efficient cooking stoves for local communities, which cuts down on the wood they burn and emissions they make.”

It’s not just in the Far East where traditional skills are being preserved through a demand for eco-friendly funeral products. In Bridgwater, Somerset Willow Coffins is one of the few British-based companies to manufacture hand-woven products from locally grown willow.

The company started in 1959, manufacturing traditional willow basket products and diversified into willow coffins 20 years ago when they got an enquiry from a local funeral director.

Somerset Willow’s skilled craftspeople

Anthony Hill is the fourth generation to work in the family business and said that their willow coffin trade really took off after they got feedback from funeral directors.

He explained: “At first we produced a simple rectangular box but when we started to get feedback from funeral directors about making it like a typical tapered coffin shape the orders started to snowball and it has become a substantial part of our business today.”

The company employees 26 craftspeople who make a range of products from the willow it grows on the family farm. It takes three years for the willow to reach maturity to use for weaving and after harvesting the stems of the willow, known as ‘withies’, are sorted for quality and length. They are then soaked or boiled, depending on the finish required, before being stripped of their bark and dried.

When they are ready for use they are soaked for two hours to become pliable then weaved around a thick plywood base to produce the sides of the coffin, and then a separate woven lid is produced.

Anthony said: “It takes one of our skilled craftsmen approximately two days to carefully weave one of our coffins. All caskets are then hand-finished with loop and toggle closures, which are made completely from natural materials.

“It’s a totally natural product that is handmade by craftspeople to very high standards. It’s produced from natural sustainable raw materials and preserves traditional skills that in some places have been lost forever; we believe it ticks all the environmental boxes that people want for a green funeral.”

Another traditional coffin maker is Bradnam Joinery, a family firm based near Cambridge that has been in business for more than 100 years. It is now one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of a wide selection of handcrafted products for the funeral profession from traditional oak, elm and composite wood coffins, caskets and urns to fittings, linings and gowns.

Graham Ashcroft is Production Director and said the traditional wooden coffin is as environmentally friendly as many other new materials coming on the market. He explained: “All our timber and wood products are FSC certified, which means they come from forests that are sustainably managed, and, as we can offer rope or wooden handles rather than metal or plastic fittings, this means that the whole coffin is biodegradable.

“We can offer coffins with a simple sanded, raw finish without varnish and paint so that no chemicals are involved in the manufacture to make it suitable for eco-funerals.”

In order to provide a wide range of choice, Bradnam Joinery also offers a selection of imported ‘alternative’ coffins which are made from seagrass, wicker, willow and banana leaf, as well as cardboard, but they only account for less than 10 per cent of the company’s business. Graham said: “There’s a small market in alternative eco-coffins but around 85% of our business is still in traditional wood coffins, either oak or elm, or wood composites.”

Tesla’s funeral limousine

Aaron & Jonathon Bewley Funeral Directorsin West Wiltshire has been doing its bit to protect the environment by becoming the first funeral director in the UK to use two Tesla electric vehicles to help transport families to the funeral service in near silent comfort with zero emissions.

The funeral limousines, priced at a total of £160,000, can accommodate up to six people and the electric ‘Falcon-Wing’ upward-lifting doors help with ease of access, especially for elderly people.

The two cars have a range of 259 and 340 miles respectively and can be charged in 2.5 and four hours, which equates to £12.50 (based on the average price per kilowatt of 0.12p).

Aaron Bewley said: “As an ethically-run, family business we are committed to reducing our carbon footprint, something our clients are increasingly concerned about. We believe we are the first funeral directors in the UK to offer the Model X, replacing our traditional gas guzzling limousines.

“We have plans to go all-electric and with zero emissions, the Teslas are the most environmentally friendly way for families to accompany their loved one on their final journey.

“Not only are we doing our bit for the environment, in view of recent media coverage of funeral expenses, our constant efforts to manage funeral costs and our pledge to funeral poverty, the fuel savings will be passed on to our clients making them more economical than our old traditional vehicles as well.

“The next step for us is to move the entire fleet to Teslas. In fact, we have just put down a deposit on a new Model S which Brahms will be converting into a hearse.”

Click here for part one of our features on environmentally friendly funerals.

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