Green Goodbyes, where sustainability is the new Black

Warning: this article discusses topics including death and burials

Death is understandably not everyone's cup of tea as a conversation starter. Perhaps because some consider it confronting or maybe because society has made it taboo. I mean, it's an intense and emotionally charging event in our lives and can often change the way we look at life itself. But when considering choices for a greener and more sustainable way of living, have you ever wondered if your end-of-life wishes are equally eco-friendly?

With a flourishing greener consciousness, it's no surprise that even the most profound moments of our lives are being discussed with sustainability in mind. As I read more, it turns out that there is a growing movement that's dedicated to re-frame the way we perceive death and the funeral industry itself, aiming for a more compassionate, transparent, and eco-friendly approach to end of life. 

What is the environmental impact of today's burial process?

The truth is that the current and most popular methods of body disposal aren't as sustainable as we might think and typically involved a significant waste of resources and the use of toxic chemicals.  Traditional burials as we mostly know in Western culture, while deeply ingrained, involve the use of highly toxic and cancerous cocktails, such as formaldehyde for the embalming process (which by the way, is optional). This practice of "preserving" loved ones is quite detrimental for the environment and also puts the health of those who work in the funeral industry.

In the UK, the most common and popular practice by far, is cremation. It's a significantly greener option than the traditional burial as it uses less resources and harmful components. However, even with the modernization of crematoriums, it still requires a significant amount of natural gas to reach  required temperatures which greatly contributes to the carbon footprint of the process. In addition to this, pollutants like carbon dioxide are released into the air and potentially harmful chemicals such as a mercury from dental fillings. These emissions can have detrimental effects on air quality and contribute to climate change, making cremation less environmentally friendly than one might initially assume.

How can we make death greener?

Eco death isn't about rejecting death rituals or denying grief. It's about embracing choices that emphasize sustainability, especially if sustainable living was a key principle of the recently deceased. It focuses on minimising environmental impacts and avoiding resource waste. Whether that’s through choosing biodegradable caskets, natural burial sites, or even innovative practices like aquamation. The options are diverse and immense, offering not only eco-friendly alternatives but also deeply meaningful ones.

What are some examples of green burials?

Natural burial, also considered until not that long ago the ‘traditional burial’. The difference relies on removing all the preserving, death beautification and sanitizing process. From simply being placed in a cotton or bamboo shroud or a casket made of biodegradable components such as willow, cardboard or wool and then buried in a natural area - it can be on your own land or designated woodlands and there you can rest surrounded by lush greenery and naturally become a part of life's cycle. In the United Kingdom, natural burials are indeed legal and increasingly popular as a green alternative to traditional burials or cremations. Local authorities usually govern burial grounds, so the specific regulations might vary depending on your location, but most are quite accommodating of eco-friendly options. It's always a good idea to consult with your local council for the most accurate information tailored to your region.

You can also choose to be made into compost and give back to nature by enriching the soil. The most recent and fascinating approaches include mushroom suits, where you can become one with mycelium or aquamation which has been gaining popularity as it has a lower environmental impact compared to cremation, using less energy and producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

In the end, regardless of your choices and feelings about this subject, when choosing how to grieve and honour your loved ones, there are no good or bad ways. But if we can make it greener without renouncing the ritualistic aspects of grieving, why shouldn't we? It doesn't need to be more complicated or a burden to add to the moment. Luckily, there are some great funeral homes available to guide and help us through it, the green way, and with no less compassion. You can talk about a loved one's funeral or even your own end-of-life wishes. Maybe thinking and talking about death in a greener way will make it less daunting. Maybe.

Regardless, goodbyes are hard, but wouldn't it be lovely if we could honour our friends and loved ones in the manner in which they lived their lives.

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