Eco Friendly Funerals: what are the options?

Freeman Brothers has been a funeral director in West Sussex for almost 170 years, and in that time has seen many changes in bereaved people’s requirements. Our colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint have told us some of their Frequently Asked Questions about environmentally-friendly funerals, and below we have collated the answers. What are […]

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Internal shot of the Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors Hills Cemetery Chapel

Freeman Brothers has been a funeral director in West Sussex for almost 170 years, and in that time has seen many changes in bereaved people’s requirements. Our colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint have told us some of their Frequently Asked Questions about environmentally-friendly funerals, and below we have collated the answers.

What are ‘greener’ options for a coffin?

There are several, and it depends on your definition of ‘green’. Willow coffins use materials that are probably grown specifically for this purpose and are usually handmade, and Freeman Brothers uses a UK supplier so the products don’t travel long distances. However, the raw materials are specifically grown to make the products and so all of the activity involved in that agriculture has to be factored into the final product’s impact.

It is possible to use coffins of other natural materials which are not purpose-grown. Water hyacinth is a pest which invades waterways. Where it naturally occurs, it would possibly be destroyed unless used as weaving material for items such as coffins. However, it only grows in tropical areas, so has to be shipped to the UK. This may be done by shipping rather than airfreight, and the shapes of coffins means they can be ‘nested’ for transport. There are also considerations about how raw materials are harvested, and by whom- I think environmental concerns also stretch to hoping for good treatment and fair pay for workers; buying anything from countries where standards differ makes this harder to guarantee.

In some ways, a cardboard coffin is a halfway house between natural woven products and a more traditional coffin. They are sometimes made from by-products of printing, use templates and so are part of a mechanised process which can presumably be refined and improved (and possibly reduces wastage), can be transported in nests like other coffins but are also lightweight which means more can be carried at one time, reducing the transport miles per item.

A traditional veneered coffin is made of a by-product of other woodworking industries, which might be discarded otherwise. The process of making them is not new, which means that it has had plenty of time to be refined for efficiency and minimise wastage. As the majority of our customers still choose one of these, we are able to reduce the impact of their transport through careful and timely ordering. All of the other coffin types I have mentioned (and any others, along with anything else not in our standard range) would be ordered and couriered individually.

Is burial a more environmentally-friendly option?

Again, this depends on your way of thinking. Natural burial grounds have to ‘create habitat for wildlife or preserve existing habitats’ under UK legislation, and this sounds like a good thing, especially in locations where the site might otherwise be targeted for building. However, the work of operating the site and burying people might be more than if it was just a nature reserve, and the necessary locations may drive traffic to rural areas.

It’s possible to bury someone in any land where the landowner’s permission has been received, although distance from water courses should be taken into account. This includes your own garden, although you should be prepared that future buyers might find this off-putting. This is probably a way of minimising the environmental impact of, for example, visits to a grave.

Other places where it’s possible to be buried are: churchyards; and cemeteries and burial grounds. Rules and regulations between all of these will vary and work on them to keep them in order will inevitably have a carbon footprint, but they will also provide valuable green spaces which are relatively (although not definitely) likely to stay that way.

What makes a natural burial ground a green choice?

As well as the requirement to create or preserve habitats, natural burial grounds’ methods of operating are often thought to make them more environmentally friendly.

Most green burial grounds will require a biodegradable coffin. Generally, you will be expected to choose something woven or cardboard, although other options are available. A solid wood coffin is theoretically permissible, as it will biodegrade in time, but may not be allowed, and any fixtures or fittings will have to be carefully considered as the metals used on traditional handles, nameplates and so on will certainly not be permitted.

Floral tributes may need to be free of pins or plastics, not wrapped, and not mounted on plastic structures or in floral foam. You may not be allowed to lay flowers on the plot in future (sympathetic planting might be permitted, depending on the burial site), and it is almost certain that you will not be able to leave mementoes such as windmills or small statues by the grave. Therefore, the burial ground’s environment will be free of plastics and other pollutants.

A very specific area of rules in natural burial grounds that the person who has died is often not allowed to be embalmed before they are buried, and a declaration may have to be signed to this effect. This prevents the embalming chemicals being released into the environment.

Natural burial grounds do not allow headstones in the traditional sense. The general principal of a natural burial ground is to promote rewilding and efficient but environmentally-friendly decomposition of remains. Headstones aren’t compatible with this goal unfortunately.

Some natural burial grounds discourage the visitation of specific burial plots– everyone is different, and so whilst some of us may wish to regularly visit a grave site, others prefer to leave after the committal and not return. This will naturally create tracks back to some graves and not others, and disrupts the meadow style of regrowth that these burial grounds are attempting to create.

What is the environmental impact of a cremation?

The main concern for cremation is minimising harmful emissions. Within the last few years, crematoria have been required to upgrade their equipment for better mercury abatement. About 85% of UK cremation authorities are members of the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA), which claims to be ‘committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cremators and finding greener alternatives’. The Funeral Furnishing Manufacturer’s Association (FFMA) operates a certification scheme with tests that have to be met around the way a coffin is constructed, how much weight it can bear, how quickly it ignites, and so on. This means the manufacture of coffins is more standardised, there are less likely to be polluting chemicals used in them, but it also means that crematoria are far less likely to use experimental- or, indeed, home-made coffins.

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Written by Abi Pattenden

Manager

March 27, 2024

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