How to have an environmentally responsible death (2022)

“We’re reaching a climate catastrophe and yet we’re still burning bodies,” Resomation Ltd founder Sandy Sullivan told The Guardian in 2019. Sullivan’s business is one of those at the cutting edge of body disposal technology, but she isn’t the only one innovating to provide options for people after an eco-friendly death.

Environmental concerns are becoming more important when we plan what we want to happen at the end of our lives, according to research published in 2020 by Ipsos MORI. This growing demand for an eco-friendly burial is being met by a host of innovative technologies, including human composting, burial suits and eternal reefs.

Want to go out green with an eco burial? We spoke to CEO of The Good Funeral Guide Fran Hall to find out about the latest options available to people in the UK when it comes to choosing an eco-friendly funeral.

How eco-friendly are cremation and burial?

Cremation is by far the most popular way to go for people in the UK. In 2019, 77% of people who died in Britain were cremated according to The Cremation Society . But for those after a low-carbon death, there are a few reasons why it’s not an ideal choice.

Cremation releases around 400kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per body. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of taking a flight from London to Rome . Cremation fumes also include other nasties like vaporised mercury from tooth-fillings, accounting for 16% of the UK’s mercury emissions in 2005, along with toxic emissions from prosthetics and materials used in common surgeries like hip replacements.

A standard burial has less of a carbon footprint, but can also be problematic. Embalming fluids can leak into groundwater, and coffins use up natural resources such as wood and metal.

Graves can be dug to a double or a triple depth, making the decomposition of the body anaerobic, which generates gases. We’re also running out of burial space .

If you have your heart set on a sustainable burial or cremation, there are a vast array of coffin choices and eco casketsfrom cardboard right through to shiny metal caskets, with some more environmentally friendly than others.

“Standard coffins offered by funeral directors are usually MDF with a veneered wood effect on the outside, and plastic handles,” Hall says. “They are not environmentally friendly. The advice is not to burn MDF, but we're cremating hundreds of thousands of MDF coffins every year.

“A locally-made pine or willow coffin is likely to be the most environmentally friendly if you look at all the factors involved in the manufacture.”

How to have an environmentally responsible death (1)

Natural burial (or eco burial)

What is it? A natural burial, or eco burial, involves using a shallow grave with a biodegradable coffin and no permanent memorial. There are more than 360 natural burial sites in the UK, allowing someone to be buried in landscapes like woodland, meadows or orchards in a way that preserves the existing habitat.

Is it currentlyavailable in the UK? Yes.

The expert’s view: “This is effectively human composting (see below) in a nice environment,” Hall says. “In my opinion natural burial is the most environmentally friendly choice when it comes to funeral options.”

Burial suits

What is it? Former Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry was laid to rest in a ‘mushroom suit’ in 2019, an outfit designed to encourage eco-friendly decomposition and stimulate the growth of wild mushrooms.

Another form of eco burial, the burial suit was developed by Jae Rhim Lee, founder of Coeio, a California-based green burial company. She wore an early version of the suit during a TED Talk in 2011 in which she explained her research.

"Some of our tastiest mushrooms can clean environmental toxins," she said, "so I thought maybe I can train an army of toxin-cleaning edible mushrooms."

Is it currently available in the UK?No.

The expert’s view:“This idea is beloved by the media. My understanding is mushroom spores need to be in the very top surface of the soil, but law in the UK at moment is that there needs to be a minimum of two feet of soil above the coffin.

“So I don’t think they work as suggested, but I’m very happy to be proven wrong because it’s a nice idea. I haven’t heard of anywhere offering it in the UK.”

Biodegradable urns

What is it?If you opt for a cremation, you can have your ashes stored in abiodegrable urnwhich also contains the seed or seedling of your choice. The urn is then planted and is designed to allow a tree to grow from the remains.

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Is it currently available in the UK? Yes.

The expert’s view: “They are great because they are widely available in the UK, and they will disintegrate in the soil allowing the ashes to return to the soil. However, when it comes to trees growing, they don’t like ashes as they are essentially lumps of bone meal.

“If you put ashes in the ground they just sit there, and the roots of the tree will grow around the ashes. If the goal is to grow a tree then a natural burial is a better option, as the body will decompose in the ground and a tree can grow without any problems at all. Trees are not keen on ashes.”

Eternal reefs

What is it? Another way of using ashes for something that benefits the planet, eternal reefs use a cremation urn and ashes to create a permanent ‘memorial reef’ that is then put on the seabed. The artificial reef is designed to provide a home to marine life in areas suffering marine habitat loss.

How to have an environmentally responsible death (3)

Is it currently available in the UK? Yes, but only at one site near Weymouth.

The expert’s view: “It would be a bit of a big ask for a funeral director to arrange putting someone’s ashes in an eternal reef.”

Donating a body to science or similar cause

What is it? Your body could be used to help train future medical professionals or in scientific or medical studies.

How to have an environmentally responsible death (4)

Is it currently available in the UK? Yes.

The expert’s view: “A lot of people do this, including my own mum! Her body was at Kings College for about 18 months before being released for cremation. However not all bodies that are bequeathed to medical schools or hospitals are accepted, and there’s a long list of reasons why.

“It might be to do with the circumstances of the death, or the condition of the body, or the teaching hospital may have sufficient bodies and not require more at the time.

“It’s a good thing to do, but families need to be aware that the body may not be accepted, and they might have to make alternative arrangements. And even if it is accepted, the body is returned to the family when the school no longer has a need for it, and the school will usually pay for a cremation.”

Human composting

What is it? A technology gaining attention ahead of its expected launch, human composting, or terramation, involves a body being put in a metal container along with wood chips, straw and alfalfa (a plant in the legume family). After four to six weeks loved ones are left with a pot of soil to take home, which they can use to grow flowers or a tree.

The firm Recompose claims that its human composting process saves more than a tonne of carbon compared to cremation or traditional burial.

How to have an environmentally responsible death (5)

Is it currently available in the UK?No, but development is continuing apace in the US with the first Recompose facility now open in Seattle .

The expert’s view:“‘We’re watching with interest! It’s something the media are very interested in, and the tests sound like they have worked. Katrina Spade (founder of Recompose) hascarried out some tests , and they all seem to have worked very well.

“Personally, with at least 350 natural burial sites in the UK, I think effectively that is human composting in a lovely natural environment. But it’s good that people are developing these options.”

Resomation / Alkaline Hydrolysis

What is it?Also known as water cremation, resomation is like human composting but supercharged with water and potassium hydroxide. The body is placed in a pressurised tank of water mixed with potassium hydroxide which is heated to around 150°C. After just four hours only the bones are left, and they get pulverized into a powder. Resomation has been happening in the USsince the 1990s.

Is it currently available in the UK?Not at the moment.

The expert’s view:“I’ve seen the machinery and visited the factory (in Leeds ). In principle it’s excellent, it’s operating in the US. But in this country, we haven’t managed to navigate the water authorities and the planning authorities. Water authorities have said no, and there’s an issue with the burial and cremation act, so at the moment it’s unclear how resomation could fit in legally.”

Promession

What is it?The body is frozen to -196°C in liquid nitrogen before being broken down into a powder through gentle vibration. This powder can then be buried inside an eco-friendly coffin, allowing the remains to become fertile soil within six months.

Is it currently available in the UK?No.

The expert’s view:“It’s never happened! Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful idea but as far as I know it’s never been tested. It’s a concept, not an option.”

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