Greening your funeral

Last updated Tuesday 20 January 2009

Having an climate-friendly burial

A 'green' burial is currently the best way to ensure that your emissions don't outlive you.

Coffins, carved headstones and cemeteries all come with a hefty carbon tag. In fact, a traditional burial can emit as much CO2 on the day of the funeral as the average Eritrean produces in a year, according to one international engineering consultancy.

You'd be hard-pressed to describe cremations as a green alternative. Firing up a gas furnace to 900C to perform a single cremation can use as much energy as an entire UK household uses in a working week, according to the Guardian's ethical guru, Leo Hickman.

But going to a better place doesn't have to cost the earth. 'Green' burials (in which the body is buried at a shallow depth in a recycled container in a local nature reserve) are low carbon to start with. And if you opt for a tree in place of a carved headstone, you can even start taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

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Photo: Greening your funeral

This will save 130 kg of CO2 per burial

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How will it make a difference?

The average cremation produces about 160kg of CO2 on the day of the funeral, four times more than is emitted by a traditional burial and five times more than a typical green burial, according to one Australian government report.

Having a green burial reduces the climate impact of a funeral in a number of ways:

  • Coffins are made from recycled materials and therefore have less embodied energy than coffins made from hardwood and metal. They also don't promote deforestation, which is second only to energy generation as a source of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Being buried 'green', rather than cremated, reduces demand for non-renewable fossil fuels like gas and electricity. A typical cremation, lasting for 75 minutes and raising temperatures to 900C, uses as much energy as an entire UK household might use over five days
  • Embalming fluids are not permitted in green funerals, which means that the body is buried quickly and minimal energy is used to keep it refrigerated. A body awaiting cremation might typically need to be refrigerated for 10 days (to allow time for all the paperwork needed from medical experts), using enough energy to power a 100W light bulb for 25 hours, according to one leading funeral equipment manufacturer
  • Bodies are buried in shallow, hand-dug graves rather than deep in the soil in graves dug by diesel-powered excavators. Bodies buried in a traditional manner (sometimes with more than 10 feet of soil above them) are starved of oxygen and produce the powerful greenhouse gas methane as they decay
  • Green burial grounds don't use concrete vaults to support the weight of the earth above the coffin. Manufacturing a single vault can use more than a tonne of concrete, producing more than 130kg of CO2 in the process
  • Lastly, planting a tree on your grave can reduce climate change, because trees extract carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, storing it in their leaves, stem and roots. Under optimal conditions a hectare of forest can extract 37 tonnes of CO2 per year according to the Forestry Commission- about as much as four Britons produce in a year

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What's the debate?

Pub Fact

  • Cremations account for 70% of all funerals in the UK
  • About 450,000 cremations take place in Britain every year
  • Seven percent of all funerals in the UK are natural burials, according to the Natural Death Centre
  • Cremations are responsible for 11% of airborne dioxins and 19% of mercury emissions in the UK's air, according to the Natural Death Centre
  • The average green burial costs between 200 to 1,200
  • A traditional burial emits at least 40kg of CO2 – more if you opt for a coffin made of hardwood
  • There are almost 250 natural burial sites in the UK, according to the Natural Death Centre
  • Ninety-seven percent of people sign up to the first funeral director they come too, according to a survey by the Office of Fair Trading,
  • Older crematoria can use twice as much energy as newer ones, according to the Green Burial Council
  • There's no real proof that embalming actually gets rid of organisms that promote decay, according to research published in the journal 'Communicable Disease and Public Health', 2001
  • The first cremation took place in Britain in 1875 in Woking

Which generates the most emissions, cremation or burial?

Tricky one. One study estimates that on the day of the funeral, a cremation emits four times more CO2 than a traditional burial. But in the long run, burials could work out to be 10% more CO2-intensive than cremations, because cemeteries continue to use fossil fuels to mow the lawns and maintain plots long after you're gone.

Do 'biodegradable' coffins have a smaller climate impact to conventional coffins?

Not necessarily. Because biodegradable matter broken down in oxygen-poor environments like soil emits methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2), a biodegradable coffin could potentially contribute more to climate change than wood-and-metal varieties, if a large amount of energy is used in manufacturing it.

What are the alternatives to cremation and burial?

Freeze-drying, a funeral practice used in Sweden but not yet permitted in the UK, uses huge amounts of energy keeping nitrogen gas in liquid form at temperatures approaching -200C. Yet it probably uses less energy than the average cremation, according to Steve Wright at the Golders Green Crematorium. Of course, there is a trade-off: no coffin, grave or cemetery is required.

Resomation, in which the body is dissolved in an alkaline solution to accelerate biodegradation, is not yet available but could soon be one of the lowest-carbon funeral practices on the market. There is minimal energy expenditure and the remaining solution is not only harmless but can also be used as a fertiliser.

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How do I do it?

If you've decided to bite the bullet and get buried in a green way, there are a number of ways to do it:

  • Avoid coffins made of hardwood or metal. James Brown, the soul singer, is buried in a 24-Karat gold coffin. But then he's James Brown.
  • Choose a coffin made from recycled cardboard or papier-mache. For the ultimate in low-carbon containers, choose a shroud made from recycled textiles. If you simply must have a wood coffin, make sure it's made from British timber from a sustainable source
  • Many funeral companies provide 'coffin covers' - decorative hardwood coffins that contain simple, internal units. The coffin cover is then subtly removed prior to the burial or cremation
  • Try to hold the funeral close to where the majority of attendees live. While Taoists believe that many mourners at a funeral brings good fortune, driving is also a significant source of CO2
  • Avoid flower arrangements that have been air freighted into Britain. Flowers produced in the tropics require less energy to cultivate than flowers grown in greenhouses in Europe, according to research at Cranfield University, but air-freight is still a significant contributor to climate change
  • Ask for your grave to be dug by hand rather than by a diesel-powered excavator. Better still, perform the burial in your back garden. As long as it fulfills the necessary criteria (for example, the grave must be at least 50m away from a source of drinking water), a burial on private land can be a very simple process
  • Hire a horse drawn carriage rather than a motorised hearse
  • Find your nearest green burial site on this map of 'natural' burial in the UK
  • If you opt for cremation, make sure the crematorium uses high-efficiency equipment. Also, make sure the ashes are disposed of in a low-energy fashion.
  • Try not to be buried in clay or peat soils, which reduce oxygen penetration and encourage the production of methane as the body decays

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Comments

Lynn, Belgium 2009-04-23

Love the green burial idea. I've always thought it wasteful to burn or bury horrendously expensive coffins. Must look more into legality of it here in Belgium though.

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Glossary terms used on this page
Embodied energy
Embodied energy - sometimes referred to as 'embedded energy' - is the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emissions) in manufacturing, packaging and transporting a product, material or service. So when calculating the CO2 savings from a new energy-efficient product such as a boiler or washing machine, its embodied energy needs to be taken into account. Usually the energy saved in use will quickly compensate for the embodied energy, but in some cases - such as small urban wind turbines - it may be that a product will use more energy in its manufacture than it will save across its lifetime.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

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