Dying to be green

Green and ethical lifestyles are becoming increasingly popular, but what of green and ethical end-of-lifestyles? Libby Peake learns that while ‘ashes to ashes’ might not be the norm, it is increasingly possible

‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ These words from the Book of Common Prayer’s burial service indicate better than anything else that the disposal of human remains – ‘our vile body’ as the original prayer has it – is part of the cycle of life, a perfect and natural example of closed-loop recycling.

And indeed, nature intended it to be this way: when an animal dies on land or in water, its body is attacked by microorganisms and other animals, so the nutrients in its tissue carry on while its mortal remains disappear. We humans find this idea distasteful, to say the least, and since the dawn of civilisation have sought to avoid this posthumous fate and maintain the body’s dignity – from the ancient process of mummification to modern-day embalmment and burial six feet under. In defying nature, though, funeral practices ensure that substances that should return to earth go up in smoke or putrefy underground.

Let’s start with burial, a millennia-old practice. The very act renders the ‘earth to earth’ concept inaccurate; as a report by infrastructure developer Parsons Brinckerhoff puts it: ‘The act of placing a body in the soil changes the nature of its decomposition… deeper burial fundamentally alters the biology of decomposition from aerobic to anaerobic. Under anaerobic conditions, the body’s own microfauna and enzymes cause a process of autolysis, putrefaction, liquefaction and skelontonisation.’

Green burial practices Indeed, burial more than 50 centimetres deep results in anaerobic digestion, meaning the body releases the powerful greenhouse gas methane as it degrades (or putrefies and liquefies). But this isn’t the only negative environmental impact of burial. Typical Western funeral practices call for the body to be embalmed to maintain its cosmetic appearance until the funeral. As Rosie Inman-Cook from the Natural Death Centre explains, however: “The public in general think embalming is a topical application of oils to the skin and some sort of disinfectant that’s rubbed on. They don’t realise how invasive and rough it is and the fact that all the blood is taken out and thrown down the drain and the body’s filled with highly toxic chemicals.” Embalming fluid typically contains two per cent formaldehyde, an irritant and volatile acid, which is also a known carcinogen.

What’s more, as Inman-Cook explains, typical coffins “are made out of hardwoods, environmentally unfriendly things including lots of resins, glues, formaldehyde again, plastics, plastic liners”, as well as valuable (and finite) metals like copper, bronze and steel. Headstones also entail substantial material use, as well as transportation, and burial takes up land, a significant problem when space is running out. Burial law in the UK does allow for the reuse of graves, but only after a period of 75 years. In the US, where coffins are typically enclosed in a burial vault or burial liner, the amount of land required and material used per burial is even greater.

Most people are no longer buried in the UK, however. These days, over 70 per cent of the population opts for cremation – a far cry from the outrage that was sparked in 1884 when eccentric Welsh physician William Price attempted to perform the first modern-era cremation on his infant son, defiantly named Jesus Christ. Price was stopped by an angry mob and set on trial, but cremation was not actually illegal by the letter of the law. It was officially legalised by the Cremation Act of 1902, and even the Pope lifted the Catholic ban on the practice in 1963.

Many people now choose cremation as a more sustainable option than burial (the cremation movement became popular under the slogan ‘Save the land for the living’), but the process carries significant environmental implications, the most significant of which is emissions to air. A typical cremation is fuelled by natural gas and the body (and the coffin – again, often made from finite resources) must burn for around two to three hours to be turned into ashes. This requires more than 20 litres of fuel and, on average, results in 160 kilogrammes of CO2 emissions.

More worrying, perhaps, are the other emissions that result from the process, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, persistent organic pollutants and, most worrying of all, mercury from amalgam fillings. Cremations are currently responsible for 16 per cent of all UK mercury emissions, a figure that is set to rise as mercury from other sources falls and “more Baby Boomers with their teeth in tact rather than grannies with their dentures” are cremated, as Inman-Cook puts it.

Recognising that this was a problem, Defra set up the Crematoria Abatement of Mercury Emissions Organisation (CAMEO) in 2005, with the aim of halving mercury emissions from cremations by 50 per cent by 2012. The abatement technology this requires is very expensive, meaning only some crematoria can fit it (while others pay additional fees), and, as of August 2010, it was deemed unlikely that the 50 per cent reduction target would be met. Defra was unable to comment on the scheme’s current status.

And then, of course, there’s the reality that cremation, like other forms of incineration, destroys a resource (it’s more ‘earth to smoke’ than ‘earth to earth’), preventing nutrients from being recycled back into the environment as nature intended. (Unless, of course, you have your ashes mixed with concrete to form an artificial reef, as is becoming more popular in the US.) The process also results in a good deal of waste heat that dissipates into the atmosphere; this is a resource that could be harnessed, but public opinion might be a stumbling block in the UK. Indeed, Redditch Borough Council caused some outrage when it announced earlier this year that it would be using the waste heat from its crematorium to heat a nearby leisure centre. The local leader of the union Unison called on the council to “apologise to local residents for the insulting and insensitive proposals”, though the council claims the plans have been favourably received in general.

If the options seem limited for someone who wants to be as green in death as in life, fear not: environmentally-friendly alternatives are on the increase. The first ‘natural burial ground’ was opened by cemeterian Ken West in Carlisle in 1993 and the movement has spread so that there are now 267 natural burial sites on the books at the Natural Death Centre (though not all are operational). Inman-Cook explains the ideology: “In natural burial, you’ve got a shallow body, unembalmed, in a coffin that might be made from recycled newspapers, for example. The grave is not marked with an expensive stone, so you’d have a tree planted or wild flowers, for example. In the bigger picture, you’re looking at a living legacy, a positive memorial.” In addition to recycled material, coffins can be made from cardboard, cornstarch, plain wood, and so on, or a simple shroud can be used. Though the movement encourages shallow graves, the Ministry of Justice, the government department that leads on burials and cremations, has indicated that at least two feet of soil should separate coffin lid from ground surface.

Space is still an issue with natural burial (although Inman-Cook says: “If we buried everyone [naturally] in the UK, it would take 2,000 years to fill up the same amount of land that is currently under set aside schemes.”), and so the Co-operative Funeralcare, the nation’s largest funeral director, has thrown its weight behind a new technology, resomation. The alkaline hydrolysis process sees the body placed in a potassium hydroxide solution and heated under high pressure until, after two to three hours, it dissolves, leaving only a sterile liquid and bone ash behind. The liquid remains can be disposed of down the drain, while the bone ash is placed in an urn as with cremation. The process, which is already legal in some US states but not yet available in the UK, still requires fuel to run, but allegedly reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 35 per cent compared to cremation and prevents mercury emissions entirely.

Asked about the decision of Co-operative Funeralcare to purchase a majority share in Resomation Ltd, Managing Director George Tinning says: “Resomation offers an innovative approach which uses less energy and emits significantly less greenhouse gases than cremation.” Now, whether or not many people (even environmentally-minded ones) will want to subject their bodies to this process remains to be seen. The reaction Inman-Cook has encountered so far, for instance, has been “one of absolute horror”. Tinning, however, anticipates that this will change: “We understand it may well take time to gain widespread public acceptance as cremation did at the start of the twentieth century. However, we will commence an information sharing programme to ensure our clients have all the information they need to make an informed choice.”

Another option that may soon be available is promession (also marketed as cryomation), developed in Sweden by biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, with the specific aim of returning the body to the lifecycle through aerobic decomposition. Nathan Levy, Sales Director for Promessa in the UK, explains the process: “We freeze the body gently with liquid nitrogen, down to about -190 degrees Celcius. At that stage, it’s extremely brittle… we apply vibration to it to break it down into smaller pieces and then withdraw the water, which varies between 60 and 80 per cent. You’re left with the organic remains, less water, unchanged. And then we separate out any metal and the remains are put into a sealed, biodegradable coffin. At that stage the family can either chose to have that cremated further or buried in a shallow grave in the top 50 centimetres of soil… which would return the body to the soil in six to 12 months.”

Asked about the environmental benefits of the process, Levy highlights its aerobic nature: “If you bury a body in a traditional way, or even in a green burial, more than likely it’s going to go through an anaerobic decomposition, because the body in one piece is too big to allow oxygen to get through to every part.” He also points to the lack of emissions – promession itself allegedly produces no mercury and minimal carbon dioxide as metal fillings are removed in tact and the liquid nitrogen used to conduct the process is a largely unused by-product of the gas industry.

Promession is already legal in Sweden and Scotland and, as with cremation until 1902, is technically not illegal in the rest of the UK. Promessa expects its first UK site to open in England in 2012 and Levy anticipates it will quickly gain public acceptance: “It’s quite easy to grasp and because it’s gentle and clean, people warm to it… You’ll always get newspapers or tabloids that try to put spins on it to make it sound a bit futuristic and weird, but at the end of the day it’s sensible.” Levy anticipates the costs will be at first similar to cremation (at present, the average crematorium fee is £600, which doesn’t include the coffin, service, embalming, transport, et cetera) and will come down as the technology spreads.

In our discussion, Levy identifies the ‘sky burials’ practiced by Mongolian and Tibetan cultures as “the most environmentally-friendly burial you could have”. Sky burials involve a body being taken to a mountaintop, cut into small pieces – often by monks – and left as food for birds of prey. Levy quickly acknowledges that “obviously that can’t happen in Western cultures”, but we Westerners do still have another natural option open to us: burial at sea.

Though burial at sea is strictly regulated in the UK (as opposed to, say, the US), it is available to anyone. The country currently has three burial at sea sites, chosen because their tides and currents minimise the chance of a body washing back to shore: the Needles off the Isle of Wight; Newhaven, Sussex; and Tynemouth, Northumberland. To minimise marine pollution, the body is not allowed to be embalmed (which makes you wonder why land pollution isn’t given the same consideration!) and must be buried in light, biodegradable clothing in a weighted softwood coffin. The coffin must be drilled with 40 to 50 50-millimetre holes to ensure it sinks quickly to the seabed. These holes also allow fish and other sea life immediate access to the body, so they can start doing what fish do.

If you’ve read this far, it’s clear you’re capable of engaging with the ideas of mortality and funeral choices, which puts you in an elite minority of the population. A recent study conducted by ComRes for Dying Matters found that only 33 per cent of Brits have spoken to their partners about the type of funeral they would like. One of the reasons so many people are cremated or buried in a cookie-cutter service is that people are afraid to talk about death – so even someone who is as green as can be while living leaves no instructions for a green funeral. As Inman-Cook explains, it’s now necessary to “spread the word that people do have more options and they don’t need to make bad, distressed purchases, which is what happens because people don’t talk about it and they don’t plan. And then when something awful happens and they’re so shocked and horrified and dealing with their bereavement, they just hand it over to the funeral director to take care of everything.”

Unlike popping a can in the kerbside box, this ultimate act of recycling requires a bit of foresight – so get planning!