DEATH. Deeeeaaaath. It’s a scary word – and one that the funeral industry tries hard to hide. From polished coffins with brass-look handles, to the hearty pink glow of chemical embalming fluid, the typical funeral can be guilty of cloaking our sorrow and reassuring our fears with a veneer that speaks of permanence and perfection – regardless of how it affects the planet.

And for some, that can feel like the wrong way to go.

For the sort of person who spends their life caring about the earth, it seems odd that their last farewell could harm it. Conventional burials leave plastic waste in the ground and leach toxins into the soil – and cremations do the same for the air. Which is why a growing number of people are asking to be sent off in a way that matches their values and beliefs.

Welcome to the world of the sustainable funeral.

What’s wrong with a normal send-off?

Cremation releases a number of harmful substances into the atmosphere – including nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide – and the UK Ministry of the Environment estimates that cremations cause 16 per cent of all UK mercury emissions due to the dental fillings that are burned.\

Burials are problematic too. Embalming fluids contain formaldehyde which eventually leaches into the water table – and the depth of a traditional burial can prevent most of the nutrients released by decomposition from returning to the soil.

Both options also require some kind of casket or shroud and the vast majority of people choose a casket made from MDF or chipboard, often with a plastic veneer, polyurethane finish and plastic “metal-look” handles, all of which contribute to cremation emissions and burial leaching.

Finally the protective sprays used when producing these caskets include chemicals that have helped land casket manufacturers on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top hazardous waste generators.

What is a natural burial?

The objective of a natural burial, by contrast, is to ensure the nutrients released by decomposition are returned to the earth without toxic residues leaching into the soil or waterways. This means that the embalming fluids, casket, shroud or liner, and the casket’s handles must all be made wholly of natural materials; the graves are marked either by planting a tree, putting a plain stake in the ground or sometimes simply through a GPS reference; and the body is buried as close to the active soil layer as possible (usually less than one metre deep).

In New Zealand, this can only be done in approved sites. Natural burial sites are already operating in Wellington, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Dunedin and Motueka, with a small scale “eco burial” site available at Auckland’s Waikumete Cemetery. Other sites in Wanganui and Christchurch are under consideration.

What are the options for caskets?

There is now a wide range of eco-friendly caskets – from a simple calico shroud with a solid base that sits inside a traditional casket during the service, to a wide range of caskets made of lighter, more sustainable products such as pure wood, eco-friendly plywood, recycled paperboard, bamboo and wicker.

Many traditional funeral companies offer sustainable casket options alongside traditional ones and if they don’t have one that suits you, you can go direct to one of the local manufacturers such as Auckland-based Return to Sender.

More than just a better option for the earth, many of these sustainable caskets are also objects of beauty that speak of the values of the people they’re designed for.

And choosing a more sustainable casket can be cheaper. Traditional caskets can cost anywhere from $900 to $5000 while sustainable funeral directors State of Grace stock a range of lightweight caskets priced from $350 for a cardboard unit, to $2200 for one created by renowned New Zealand designer David Trubridge.

Is embalming necessary?

Embalming is a process that traditionally uses a toxic combination of formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents to preserve the body until the funeral. At the moment around 90 per cent of people who die in New Zealand are embalmed as a matter of course. However, it’s not legally required and not always necessary.

Cooling can do the job just as well – whether the deceased is kept in a cool room or at home with the help of a continuous supply of ice packs. Opting not to embalm can also save you money – traditional embalming can cost anywhere between $450 and $700, while a cool room, for example, can cost $50 a night.

If you’d prefer embalming, funeral directors also have access to natural-based, biodegradable and formaldehyde-free embalming fluids.

What does a green funeral look like?

On the outside a greener service doesn’t have to look any different to a traditional one. The key is to take the environmental impact of every part of the process into consideration.

State of Grace for instance is a member of Greenfleet, which means the carbon emissions from their funeral cars are offset by planting trees; their coffin mattresses are made from recycled wool and calico, and the emissions from a cremation can be offset for $10. They also use a soft cornstarch plastic inside the coffin that is fully biodegradable. On the surface all of this appears as normal – but in reality makes a big difference to the way a loved one is sent off.

Many traditional funeral directors are now also offering a number of more sustainable options, and for the person who wants to take control over the details of their own funeral there is now a company called Good Grace. With the tag-line “Don’t be remembered with a warm cup of tea”, they provide a ‘lock-box’ service, where you can record and update your burial requests – from an eco-friendly coffin, to the songs you’d like played – and distribute the password to your lockbox to close friends or family so they can access it once you’re gone.


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