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The rituals we perform around death are sacred and can be extremely healing and comforting for those left behind.  They conjure a sense that we are returning our departed to the earth by burying them in the ground or returning their ashes to nature.  However, traditional burials and cremations are not as natural as you might assume, and their environmental impact is higher than you may realise.  A recent survey by Ecclesiastical Planning Services found that 85% of over 50s are now seeking more environmentally friendly options.  With an increasing demand for sustainability in death as well as in life, there are some interesting alternatives being explored.

Cremation has been an extremely popular option for hundreds of years, but its environmental impact is alarming.  Each cremation releases carbon and other toxic emissions (from tooth-fillings, prosthetics and other materials used in some surgeries such as hip and knee replacements) into the atmosphere.  It is also worth noting that a large proportion of coffin choices available on the market are made using veneered MDF and include plastic elements, neither of which can be safely burned.

While a traditional burial does leave behind a lighter footprint, it is certainly not without its own draw backs; the most obvious of which simply being space.  Did you know that the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in Newham is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and yet they are rapidly reaching capacity and have started recycling graves to keep up with demand?  You may also be surprised to learn that embalming fluids are a form of formaldehyde which is carcinogenic above certain micro doses.  And then there are the coffins themselves, frequently made from materials that are not usually biodegradable and use up precious natural resources such as wood and metal.  There are many funeral services available that market themselves as “eco-friendly”, but it is vital, if you want a truly ‘green’ funeral, to check the credentials behind such claims to ensure that the company is not simply greenwashing its practices through off-setting.

Many people choose to donate their bodies to science or university hospitals which is fantastic for learning and development, but it is important to note that a donated body is not guaranteed to be accepted.  This can be because of the circumstances of death or simply a lack of need at that particular time.  Even if the body is accepted, it will be returned to the family when it is no longer required and a funeral option still needs to be considered.

The most sustainable option currently available in the UK is a “natural burial”.  A natural burial does not use chemical preservatives, nor does it use any burial container preventing contact with the surrounding soil.  The body is laid in a fully biodegradable coffin and placed in a grave shallow enough to allow microbial activity to take place.  Biodegradable coffin options are made from cardboard, wicker, or willow – there are even willow coffin makers that encourage the family to be involved in the weaving process!  However, the issue of space remains as it can take years for a body to fully breakdown and, in the meantime, the ground needs to be left undisturbed.

In a bid to provide an even more environmentally friendly option, pilot studies began in the USA in 2018 to trial natural organic reduction, or to call a spade a spade…human composting!  Now, it’s understandable if the term initially makes you recoil in horror but hear me out.

Essentially, human composting is very much what it sounds like and has the same essential elements of a natural burial – no toxic chemicals and preservatives and no non-biodegradable materials – but it does take matters a step further to speed things along.  The process involves placing a body into a sealed vessel with materials designed to aide its breakdown such as wood chips, straw and alfalfa.  The levels of humidity inside the vessel are carefully monitored to ensure perfect conditions for microbial activity, generating heat of up to 175◦F (65.5◦C).  In just 4-6 weeks, the result is about two wheelbarrow’s worth of soil that loved ones can take away and use to grow a garden, which, when you think about it, is actually very beautiful!

The results so far have been very promising, with the practice being legalised and available in a handful of US states already.  Personally, I am very excited about this development and am keenly waiting to see if the practice will reach the UK.

Discussing your funeral options with your family can be difficult.  You may therefore consider including your preferences in your Will or appending these to your existing Will in a letter of wishes.  If you would like to discuss making or amending your Will, please contact a member of the Wealth Preservation team


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