Dying to be green

G Magazine

Eco funeral alternatives that allow you rest in harmony with the Earth


Credit: iStockphoto

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My mother wants to be composted when she dies. Not just in a figurative "give my body to the Earth" way, but in a way that befits someone whose passion for gardening knows no bounds.

Her final act will be to produce the lushest crop of tomatoes and zucchini her garden and this world has ever seen. I'm not entirely sure what the health department will make of this request, but my mother doesn't care. She'll be dead.

As the Baby Boomers enter their twilight years and begin to consider the details of their demise, it's no surprise that this enterprising generation are pushing the boundaries when it comes to their funerals. And with the environment front and centre of society's conscience, many are planning their funerals with future generations in mind.

"There's a global movement towards green burial," says Zenith Virago, death consultant and president of the Natural Death Centre Australia in Byron Bay.

While Australia has been a little slower to twig than other nations, the funeral industry - coffin manufacturers, cemetery authorities and other organisations - are beginning to see the green light.

It's a good thing, too, because conventional methods of laying loved ones to rest are not doing the environment any favours.

Ashes to Ashes

As with the burning of any carbon-based substance, carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced. Cremating the average sized man pumps into the air just over 50 kg of the greenhouse gas, according to Roger Short, a reproductive biologist at the University of Melbourne.

This might not seem like a significant amount, but multiply 50 kg by the number of people cremated around the world and things begin to look a bit more sobering.

And this figure doesn't even account for the amount of fuel used to raise the temperature of the furnace to the 850ËšC needed to consume human remains fully. Nor does it take into account the carbon dioxide released from the burned casket.

"When you look around the world, here we are concerned about CO2 emissions and yet China have announced that because of the shortage of burial space all Chinese in the future must be cremated," Short says. "In terms of China's CO2 emissions, that's a staggering increase."

Cremation is also causing particular environmental problems in India, where Hindu tradition dictates the body be consumed by fire on a wooden pyre. With India's enormous and expanding population, this practice leads to the consumption of an estimated 50 million trees and produces half a million tonnes of ash and eight million tonnes of CO2 each year.

Six feet under

Being buried in the ground can also come with a hefty environmental price tag.

Over the course of a typical cemetery burial, carbon dioxide emissions actually exceed those involved in a cremation, according to a study commissioned by Adelaide's Centennial Park Cemetery Authority.

It found that in a typical lawn cemetery, the emissions associated with maintaining the lawns and grounds, as well as other environmental risks, such as fuel leakage into the water table, tipped the environmental impact scales.

"It's a more labour-intensive operation over the life of the burial so it consumes more fuels," says Bryan Elliott, CEO of the Centennial Park Cemetery Authority.

In an attempt to improve the cost-benefit ratio of burials, one Victorian company raised the prospect of upright burials several years ago, proposing that coffins standing on end would save not only space, but money.

However, Elliott argues this might be pushing the envelope a little too far.

"From a pragmatic point of view...we believe the family still want people to be laid to rest," Elliott says, with the emphasis on 'laid'.

"We currently, in our cemetery, allow three interments per grave and if you do three interments in a grave at different depths, the space taken is basically exactly the same as for three upright graves."


So is it possible to be laid to rest in an environmentally responsible way? The answer is yes.

For Colin Clarke, co-founder of Eco Funerals in Adelaide, it was simply a matter of taking the environmental principles he had already put into practice in his own green home and applying them to every aspect of a funeral.

With help from the local Landcare Australia group, Clarke calculated how much greenhouse gas was produced during each funeral, and how many trees would need to be planted to offset that. He then added the cost as a levy to each funeral, with the funds going to Landcare Australia.

To further reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each funeral, the company uses a small car - a Toyota Yaris - for the business.

Eco Funerals also don't embalm. "There's quite a lot of toxicity in embalming chemicals," says Clarke.

"Glutaraldehyde and formaldehyde are causing major issues around the world in both atmospheric and groundwater tests."

And instead of the typical MDF (medium-density fibreboard) or solid wood coffins, which use a large amount of non-recyclable materials and contain environmentally harmful chemicals that can leach into the ground, Eco Funerals offer a choice of two environmentally responsible coffins - a recycled cardboard coffin or one made of low-polluting MDF.

The interior is lined with unbleached calico and a small amount of decorative lace, Clarke says, and on the outside, unplated metal handles, which break down without major pollution, adorn the sides.

Eco Funerals is fairly unique in offering a complete 'green' package for funerals, but the market for environmentally responsible coffins continues to grow in leaps and bounds.

Around the world, boutique coffin manufacturers are offering caskets made from materials such as cardboard, paper, woven bamboo, willow and plantation pine.

In Australia, one manufacturer is even making constructive use of a pest plant by offering coffins made of camphor laurel wood.

The idea of a coffin made of cardboard might seem a bit risky when waistlines are getting ever larger. But Ivor Hay, managing director of OnEarth Australia - a leading manufacturer of cardboard coffins - says their coffins are run through a battery of tests to ensure they can stand up to the weighty challenge.

The cardboard is tested to withstand chilling for seven days (a corpse can last three days in cold storage) without losing its rigidity or ability to support a body weighing up to 120 kg , says Hay.

The handling system does not attach to the cardboard but is a hessian handle that wraps over and under the casket - spreading the carrying force more evenly.

The honeycomb cardboard, which itself is a recycled product, requires less fuel to burn during a cremation and contains minimal glue and lacquer, to make it less damaging to the environment as it breaks down.

Natural burial

Kevin Hartley of White Knight Funerals in Adelaide has taken the concept of a biodegradable coffin to its logical and most environmentally responsible conclusion - do away with the box altogether.

The body is first wrapped in soft cotton, then a biodegradable waterproof membrane and, finally, a hessian shroud.

Hartley has developed a unique coffin, which is built exactly like a top-of-the-range conventional coffin but has a bottom that opens like a trapdoor.

He calls this invention 'the transporter', as "the coffin is simply used to move that shrouded body through the service to the cemetery".

Once at the graveside, the coffin is lowered into the grave with a stretcher underneath; then as the coffin is lifted back up from the grave, the doors underneath open, allowing the body to come to rest on the bottom of the grave.

"There's just the shrouded body - no wood, no waste, no varnish, no metal, no formaldehyde," he says.

Most important, instead of the traditional six feet under, the body is buried at medium depth, allowing it to break down at a normal, healthy rate rather than the much slower rate imposed by anaerobic conditions further down in the soil.

Hartley launched his business in January 2008 after a long career in the funeral industry that left him disillusioned about how much other businesses focus on all the trappings rather than the simplicity of the event.

"A lot of people say I don't want to be buried in a box - just dig a hole and plant a tree on me," Hartley says.

Melbourne Uni's Roger Short would certainly agree. "I have every reason to think that we could move to a more ecological way of disposing of our bodies," he says.

Ashes to ashes, dust to … fertiliser?

"We are perfect blood and bone meal," he says. "It's a lovely thing to go and choose your tree or your seedling you would like to turn into and then there really is life after death."

Bush bound

Very popular in the United Kingdom are 'bushland burials', natural burial grounds where bodies are interred in a more natural setting with a tree planted over the grave.

There are more than 200 such cemeteries in the UK, but in Australia, just one bushland burial ground exists outside Hobart; another is planned for Lismore.

"Obviously people in the UK are keen to get back to the natural way of doing things," says Stephen Jacques, cemetery manager of Kingston Cemetery in Hobart.

"They are putting the remains in the ground and planting trees over the top to establish bushland areas where it had been cleared previously."

At Kingston, the site is already well forested, so rather than upsetting the balance by planting more trees, family and friends are invited to choose a smaller bush or shrub species native to the area that is planted on the grave.

The gravesites are carefully plotted so as not to interfere with existing trees. And instead of a carved, artificial marker, the grave is marked with an inscribed rock from the area.

In Lismore, they are hoping to offer an even more hands-on approach for family and friends.

"We would like to give people the option to come into the site and actually dig the grave," says Kris Whitney, coordinator of Lismore Memorial Garden.

At some point professional assistance is provided to ensure the grave meets standards, but Whitney likes the idea of giving ownership of a funeral back to the loved ones.

"The funeral industry takes everything off your hands, but a lot of people don't like that idea; they want to be involved."

In some cases, the deceased themselves take a more active role in their funeral - well before the event, of course. "Lots of people here build their own coffins," says Virago.

She describes how one man in the prime of life decided to build and carve the coffin in which he would eventually be buried. Once it was complete, it sat on the front porch like an old friend, collecting shoes and household bits and pieces and becoming steadily more weathered over nearly a decade.

When the time came for the man to be buried, the sight of the coffin held no fear, as it had become such a familiar presence and part of the family's life. Another resident held his wake before he died, and used the event to raise money for charity.

Whether you want your eulogy read to you while you're still able to enjoy it, wish to be buried in a bamboo egg or rest your weary bones under a big tree, it's important to plan in advance, says Virago.

While the funeral industry is beginning to offer more green choices, it's more difficult to arrange a green funeral under pressure than it is to think through the details well before the day comes.

At 77, Roger Short has certainly thought about his final resting place. "I'd always decided I was going to be cremated," he says. "I liked the idea of my ashes being blown over Scotland."

But since discovering the environmental cost of cremation, he has now changed his tune and plans to be buried when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

"I've found a lovely oak tree I'm going to settle under, and that feels really good."