Going green is growing

Black might be the traditional somber hue associated with funerals, but today, a growing number of people are opting to put a bit more colour into their final send off by ‘going green’.

Green or eco-friendly funerals are becoming increasingly popular as people’s personal concern for the environment is also reflected in the way they want their death to be celebrated.

Whether it’s an ‘eco-warrior’ who has strong views about sustainability, or a family that wishes for a loved one to rest in a beautiful woodland setting, it’s the role of the funeral director to make sure the relatives understand the choices available and some of the differences compared to a traditional funeral.

Whatever term people use – green, eco-friendly, natural – it’s all about considering the environment as a stakeholder – and understanding the impact of a funeral and all its associated services upon it.

A traditional funeral will have a fairly large carbon footprint, particularly if cremation is chosen, although modern crematoria are becoming much more thermally efficient. The main carbon inputs for a funeral involve the construction of the wooden coffin and its metal adornments that take time to decay, the use of toxic chemicals in the embalming process, the fossil fuel required for transportation of the body and the energy used in the continual upkeep of the graveyard. Even imported flowers come with carbon air miles baggage.

Green burials reject cremation and traditional graveyards for burial in natural settings and promote the use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials from sustainable sources.

Gary Foreman, Managing Director of Green Willow Funerals in Cardiff, undertakes a growing number of eco-friendly funerals using a number of private burial sites around the country.

He said: “Some of our clients either have strong views about sustainability of the environment or believe in the concept of a green burial as the most natural way for them to be laid to rest and contribute to the cycle of life.

“We ensure that, in helping them with their request, we will consider the impact of the funeral upon the environment – aiming to ensure that its influence and impact is friendly and positive rather than ignorant, negligent and harmful.”

Gary works with the owners of the natural burial grounds around the country and arranges for families to visit the settings and select an appropriate site. The practical details, such as date and time of the burial, are agreed with the site owners and the family. On the day of the funeral, the coffin is taken to the site, usually either in a traditional hearse or an unmarked estate car and the family and mourners come together, sometimes for a ceremony, religious or otherwise, or to spend a time of remembrance more informally, ahead of the burial.

After the mourners depart, the grave is filled in and soon there is little evidence of any disturbance of the landscape whatsoever. Animals return to pasture or the grass is left to grow.

Obviously, a green funeral does leave a bit of a carbon footprint, as transport is required to and from the gravesite by both the funeral director and the mourners. However, in the future, this could be mitigated by electrically powered hearse, as Brahms Electric Vehicles launched the UK’s first fully electric hearse, based on the Nissan Leaf car, in 2012.

Another downside of a green funeral for the family is that privately owned burial sites do not generally allow graves to be marked by headstones or any other markers – relatives have to rely on GPS co-ordinates on their next visit.

Gary said it’s important to explain the full details to the family. “It’s our duty to present options to clients without undue pressure; to ensure families are aware of the implications of a green funeral in terms of the positive impact upon the environment, yet to also present facts such as the rarity of permission for permanent markers,” he said.

In some cases, the body of the deceased may not be able to be viewed prior to the funeral because it will not be preserved by embalming.

“Once they understand the options, then it’s our role to work alongside families to make the funeral as worthy an occasion as possible,” added Gary.

Cost can be another surprise as many people think that a natural funeral will be cheaper than a traditional one. Privately owned burial grounds are more expensive as they do not benefit from the subsidies available to local authority owned cemeteries, and coffins made of biodegradable materials cost more than traditional chipboard caskets.

Suffolk-based Bradnam Joinery has been making traditional coffins since 1908, but over recent years has diversified to meet the small but growing demand for eco-coffins.

It provides a range of cardboard coffins that can be customised using images or designs from clients, as well as bamboo, seagrass and willow coffins imported from Indonesia.

Managing Director Bob Spittle says he expects demand for eco-coffins to increase from its current 3%, possibly up to 10% over the coming years.

Bob said: “There’s definitely a growing demand and certainly much more choice in the types of coffins available to meet people’s need for more environmentally friendly funerals.

“However, although we have coffins in materials that are more biodegradable than traditional solid wood coffins, they are not necessarily cheaper. Even the cheapest cardboard coffins are almost twice the price of our economy chipboard coffins.

“I’m not sure about the carbon footprint of importing a bamboo coffin from the Far East on a container ship, but I think the perception of using natural materials, that will degrade quickly, helps mourners to satisfy their wish for an environmentally friendly funeral – and it also provides valuable employment in the Far East where these types of raw materials are plentiful.”

The growth in green options gives Gary and his team at Green Willow great satisfaction in being able to help people customise their funeral services.

He said: “Since joining the company a little over a year ago, one of the events that has had the greatest impact upon me was working alongside two daughters to fulfil their mother’s very clear and particular wishes for a natural burial.

“There was a simple cardboard coffin which mourners decorated at the natural burial site with messages and poems. The mother’s favourite songs were played at the graveside, using an iPhone and Bluetooth speaker, and a wee dram was available to warm up the mourners as they shared their memories in a very relaxed atmosphere.

“The family helped lower the coffin into the shallow grave, as everyone joined in a final song of remembrance. Even the manager of the burial ground commented on the simplicity and dignity of the occasion.”

Green Willow Funerals is a member of the Association of Green Funeral Directors, whose aim is to raise awareness of the options available to provide families with greater choice.

Gary said: “Although the traditional funeral is still more common, we like to make people aware of green options. However, it’s more about awareness raising than a hard sell.

“Natural burials can be more expensive than the traditional funeral and at Green Willow, we are conscious that covering costs for a loved one’s funeral can be challenging for some – which is also a reason we promote funeral plans.

“In spite of our aims to act with due consideration to the environment, we also have social considerations and so remain mindful of the wishes and the resources available to our clients. We are more about presenting options than creating any discomfort for those who don’t choose a green funeral.”

Green Funerals:By Numbers


270 – The number of green and woodland burial sites in the UK.

56.5 million  The approximate number of people who die each year around the globe.

50 million – Trees that are cut down in India each year for funeral pyres. This releases eight million tons of CO2.

Up to 16% – Mercury emissions in the UK come from crematoria because of the fillings in teeth. This percentage is expected to increase to 25% by 2020.

1.6 million – Tons of reinforced concrete are buried in the USA each year in the construction of vaults.



Changing perceptions

Italian design company Capsula Mundi has an innovative approach to green funerals through its biodegradable burial pods.

The body is placed in the foetal position in the egg-like pod and buried like a seed, with a tree planted on top. The ideal is to replace traditional graveyards with new ‘memory forests’.

At present, the burial pod is a concept and being used to change people’s perception of death, not as the end of life but as the beginning of a return path in the biological cycle.

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