Green funerals – your questions answered

In response to some of our most frequently asked questions, we have written a series of posts on those topics which require further explanation

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers has been operating as a funeral director in Sussex and Surrey since 1855. As we have been so long established, we have a good sense of some of the most common questions people have around funerals. Taking feedback from colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint as to what we are asked frequently, we have produced a series of blog posts addressing some of these issues.

As part of Plastic Free July, we will be looking at so-called ‘eco’ or Green funerals – what are they and what choices can you make if you are considering your environmental impact? Many of the options described are additionally impacted at the moment by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As you will continue to see, some environmental factors have been impacted positively, and others unfortunately negatively, in the cause of looking to successfully fight the virus.

The first thing to say is, as with most activity, it is very hard to have a funeral which is completely environmentally neutral. Therefore it comes down to a set of choices you have to make. This post is not intended to be exhaustive but rather to discuss what some of those choices might be and how they might have impact.

One way in which the environmental impact of a funeral can be considered could be in the location of it and how (or indeed whether) attendees travel to it – this is something which has also been impacted by recent social distancing restrictions, and lately has been self-selecting. If everyone who could be expected to attend is in a small area it might be practical to have the service locally (perhaps in a village hall or other less conventional space if a place of worship isn’t appropriate) rather than have everyone drive to a crematorium or burial place several miles away. The Deceased person can then be conveyed separately to the place of burial or cremation, perhaps accompanied by a smaller group travelling together.

It might be pragmatic to choose a service venue which broadcasts funerals online – or ask someone to livestream it – and encourage the logging-on at a distance for people not close by. This practice had been considered unusual until recently, and again the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact, with this becoming more readily available, and also more widely accepted. It would also be ideal for those making the journey to the service to share vehicles where possible, but this isn’t possible at the moment.

Most difficult of all, there could be some very hard choices to make. Obviously, when someone is to be buried in an existing grave, there is no option about location, but this is not the same with crematoria. People often feel wedded to a certain crematorium due to family history but those considering environmental factors might want to ask if the nearest venue is a better choice. There is nothing to stop the ashes being taken elsewhere later, to be reunited with those already in situ.

Something which isn’t currently an option and is having a positive environmental impact, is travelling from overseas to attend funerals. As the global population has become more adventurous and families have emigrated, they have continued to reunite for important events. Those who live abroad are currently seeking to participate virtually. This generally happens via watching the funeral online, but technology can allow for items to be pre-recorded, plus time allows those internationally to help make decisions regarding the organising of the service.

We could also consider the coffin. There are many different types of coffin and several of those types can claim to be environmentally friendly on a variety of different grounds. For example, a coffin made of English willow is made of a natural product, but obviously there is industry behind the growth of it and the making of the coffins from it, and so we need to factor that in. Coffins can be made of other materials such as water hyacinth. This is a wild plant which grows on water courses and spreads widely, damaging ecosystems if left unchecked. It has to be removed from the water to prevent this, and, if not used for coffins or other purposes, would be destroyed. Therefore a coffin is made using what is essentially a waste product. However, it then has to be shipped from overseas, possibly enlarging its carbon footprint, and there is a possibility that less sustainable production methods might be used in its manufacture if this takes place in a developing country. Long term, people might start growing it deliberately – with the inherent risks this would contain.

Veneered coffins seem a good solution. They are made of chipboard, which is a waste product, and also especially formulated to be low-emission when cremated. However, they are not quickly and easily biodegradable, and so may be a less appropriate solution for burials. At a deeper level, although they are not made of solid wood, they still resemble it and reinforce traditional imagery in people’s minds – this perhaps stops us being open to other solutions and might prevent environmentally-focussed innovation within design.

Mentioning cremations and burials leads us to consider whether one might be better than the other from an environmental standpoint. There used to be concerns about cremations from the perspective of emissions, but new regulations around mercury abatement and the collecting of metal residues should allay some of those fears. However, there is no denying that the cremation process uses energy, which is only ever going to be as environmentally friendly as the methods used to generate it.

If a crematorium can cremate a certain number of people on a given day, this can lessen the impact (as a disproportionate amount of energy is used in the process of bringing each cremator to the appropriate temperature) and they can balance how many of their cremators to use. However, this might mean people taking a view less common at the moment as to how long after a funeral is acceptable for cremation to take place.

Of course, these concerns do not exist with burials but there are different worries – the speed of biodegradation, and the possible impact to soil and water table. Some people have asked us whether it can be right to bury someone whose system might contain strong medication and the simple answer is that we can’t be sure long-term. This choice is academic, though, for some people whose religious beliefs or personal preferences mean that they will only consider one of the two options as suitable.

The fact that people are increasingly asking us about green funerals is encouraging as it shows we are all becoming more environmentally conscious. Freeman Brothers tries to be responsible in this respect. We try to use local suppliers and services, we would encourage our staff to car share when it is safe to do so by following our cohorting policy, and we consider all the options when we purchase vehicles. We also recycle as much of our waste as possible, order in bulk to minimise deliveries and choose the best options we can find when we consider lighting, fixtures and fittings, and so on. Our most recent innovation has been selecting more environmentally-friendly branded pens – our newest ones are made of a biodegradable material, rather than plastic. For more information on our environmental outlook, or any other aspect of funerals, please do contact us.


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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

July 8, 2020

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