A Green Goodbye

  • words Penny Kemp

Penny Kemp considers the future of funerals

One thing in life is certain. We will all die one day and it is becoming more common to consider what impact our funeral will have on the environment. The traditional funeral is being questioned and people are thinking of the alternatives available from woodland burial to coffins made from more sustainable materials. Research from the Natural Death Centre in London, shows that approximately 89% of coffins used every year (some 600,000) are made from chipboard covered with laminate and many are imported from Belgium.

Hazel Selina was concerned about the environmental issues surrounding funerals and began an investigation into the type of coffin provided. She was so concerned that she designed the Ecopod, made from 100% recycled hardened paper and sells them through her company ARKA. ARKA offers a flexible and creative approach working with the bereaved to find the most appropriate ceremony to mark the life of a beloved (www.eco-funerals.com). Hazel says, "The shape itself of the traditional coffin has become an archetypal symbol of the hammer horror movies and vampires so I thought I would like to create something more beautiful." The ecopod is strong and light and supplied with a calico mattress and carrying handles and is available in a range of colours.

Many people believe that to deviate from the standard funeral procedure is illegal but this is not true. The Natural Death Handbook is invaluable for those that want to organise, inexpensive, environmentally friendly funerals. The Natural Death Centre is a charitable project and gives advice on alternative ways of arranging funerals. Find them at www.naturaldeath.org.uk. Stephanie Wienrich from the Natural Death Centre says, "People just didn't realise. They thought, you have to use a funeral director, you have to use a hearse, you have to use a coffin. Actually, none of these are correct. A family can do everything themselves."

Many more people are choosing to have a woodland burial and instead of a headstone want a tree planted in their memory. At woodland burial sites, each grave is marked only by a tree and a number, rather than a headstone. There are eight woodland burial sites in the South East. A Woodland burial allows families and friends to organise the funeral in their own way. They can be religious or secular, last any length of time, be virtually silent, or involve music and dance.

The Natural Death Centre recommends the following questions should be asked of any woodland burial site, when organising a funeral:

  1. What long-term guarantees can you give of the security of the grave we purchase?
  2. What security is there that the site will be maintained even when there is no more room for graves or if the site goes bankrupt?
  3. On what ecological principles is the site managed?
  4. If I pay in advance (which the centre does not recommend), what security is there for my money?

Cardboard coffins can be bought at various outlets for under £200. They are made from extra thick corrugated board with an additional internal lining for support along the base to provide all the practical requirements needed from a coffin. A dear friend and colleague of mine who died at a tragically young age was buried in a cardboard coffin that had been decorated by his wife and two young children. It was a wonderful reminder of all the things he had enjoyed in life – hill walking, singing in the choir, ecology, music and parenthood.

Other materials used for coffins are willow and bamboo. Wicker Willow Coffins weave each willow coffin from plants grown on the Somerset levels, which can be harvested annually from the same crown for up to sixty years. They can be contacted at www.wickerwillowcoffins.co.uk.

Green Endings founded by Roslyn Cassidy is a complete funeral service for those living in the South East and offer a choice of coffins and services. Find them at www.greenendings.co.uk. Traditional funeral directors, such as Fuggles of Tenterden, will also be able to provide the service and burial of your choice.

It is also possible to bury your loved one in your garden if you desire but it is worth considering the implications. You must bury the body deep enough and you must keep a record of where and who is buried. The Environment Agency state that the site should be at least 250 metres away from any well, borehole or spring that supplies water for human consumption and be at least 30 metres from any other water course. You will need certificate for the burial, which can be obtained from the Registrar of Births and Deaths. Other points to consider are that burying someone in your back garden may detract from the value of your house and you should place a restrictive covenant on the property preventing future occupiers from exhuming the body and reburying it.

Increasingly, more and more people want to leave this world without causing unnecessary pollution. By choosing a ‘green’ option for your departing, you are sending a signal that we are all part of a delicate natural system and human beings are natural creatures that must die at some time.

Penny Kemp is a broadcaster and writer and runs The Headcorn Sustainability Group and is currently working on making Headcorn and the surrounding area a low carbon community. www.headcornsustainability.co.uk