AUTHOR OF THE NEW GREEN CONSUMER GUIDE
GREEN FUNERAL EXHIBITION
I recently met a Canadian who said his wife spent
$500 on burying a mouse! Actually it was a hamster
but don’t let that distract us. And if I’m really honest,
part of that was the vet’s fee for finding out that the mouse / hamster was going to
snuff it. Then there was more to pay to help the little creature along….
Now I’m not anti hamsters but I’m also not convinced that it’s worth spending large
sums of money on helping them pass into the next world. And I have to admit that
elaborate funeral arrangements for larger pets strike me as a waste of resources too.
Looking on the internet, I discovered that there’s a booming industry in pet coffins,
urns, caskets, memorials and even pet DNA necklaces – the DNA is suspended in a
OK so this exhibition is largely centred around funerals for humans. I’m afraid I think
that our fear of death leads us to some pretty bad decisions – from an environmental
point of view – when disposing of our loved ones. And given that we do some weird
things when burying our pets, perhaps it should be no surprise that there are some
odd practices for disposing of humans too.
Embalming is barmy
Bizarrely, I found that researching death issues for The New Green Consumer Guide
was particularly fascinating. This was chiefly because I learnt a lot.
One thing that particularly horrified me was the practice of embalming. What this
actually means is that they remove the blood from the body (one funeral expert said
this was then chucked down the drain - can this be true?). The blood is then replaced
with a pink coloured formaldehyde, which is a toxic ingredient. The idea is to make
your body look more 'life-like' - that's why it's pink - and to preserve the body longer.
But even the people I've talked to in the funeral trade say that it's very rarely
necessary from a practical point of view.
Environmentally this process is not so great. For burial it can contaminate the land
and in cremation cause more pollution. The really shocking thing is that it’s standard
practice for the UK’s two biggest funeral companies – the Co-op and Dignity. They
call it ‘hygienic treatment’.
Slowing down the rate that bodies de-compose is a pretty bad idea when we’re
running out of burial grounds. One solution to this is recycling the ones we’ve got.
Apparently this is hugely contentious even though it was common practice a couple
of centuries ago. Grave diggers would start at one side of a churchyard, work their
way across and then start again when they’d filled up the spaces.
Today, a number of European countries re-use graves. They dig up body remains
after about 20 years and store the bones in an ossary – meanwhile using the grave
for another corpse. But to do this you need to put bodies closer to the surface, for
speedier decomposition. If you’re put six feet under there is very little air and
therefore no worms and pretty few microbes working away to turn us to mulch.
In the UK the idea of ‘natural burial grounds’ is becoming more popular. These could
help reduce over-crowding, if they’re not solely designated as graveyards with
memorial stones. The modern approach has to be to use these areas for tourism,
leisure or agriculture rather than somewhere solely reserved for the dead and their
relatives – life goes on.
In the fire
Like 70% of the British population my father was cremated. We sprinkled his ashes
in our garden and planted a beautiful tree on top. Our family didn’t go to the
crematorium – we weren’t interested in that part of the process. So why I wondered
did we pay the bearers to put on sombre costume to carry the coffin to the furnace?
Come to think of it, why did he need to be put in a coffin – and have that burnt too?
I’ve discovered that crematoria are designed to receive bodies on a solid hard board,
which is why coffins are necessary.
But going back to my father. We didn’t feel able to make bold decisions once he had
died. My mother didn’t want to challenge the funeral directors about what they wore,
about the coffin or indeed about removing his gold teeth and fillings. Did you know
that 11% of mercury contamination in the North Sea comes from crematoria pollution
– from fillings? And its predicted this will increase to a third of contamination in the
next decade because the generation dying have well filled teeth.
Choosing how to go
The Green Funerals Exhibition was a good idea. We need to make decisions
about our funerals when we’re alive and well. Grieving relatives are not best
placed to challenge tradition – and if they’re going to do it they want to be certain
it’s something that would be appreciated by their loved one.
Apart from burial or cremation – which are the two main options today – the
biggest decision will be what sort of coffin to choose. In the New Green
Consumer Guide, I’ve given an eco-rating to different types of coffin oak to wood
chip to cardboard and even bamboo. Top of my list went to ones made from
recycled newspapers – using a waste material has to be better than growing
something from scratch.
Julia Hailes’ New Green Consumer Guide was published in May 2007 by Simon &
Schuster at £14.99 and is available at all good book shops and Julia’s website –