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An Environmental Burial

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 30 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Burial Death Cremation Funeral

When someone dies, the close relatives are usually thrown into a turmoil, even if the death has been expected. In the midst of their grief, they must register the death, tell other relatives and arrange for a funeral. It can be a very stressful time.

Burial traditions vary across different cultures and in different parts of the world. They have also changed over time in the UK. Before the 1870s it was actually illegal to cremate a body but now, many people choose this as a funeral option. Others still chose to be buried in a churchyard or cemetery, but this is becoming less popular as space can be limited.

With many people's lives and thoughts turning towards the environment, it is now more common to think about a method of burial that will be more ecologically sound. But what damage do current burial practices do to the environment?

The Problems With Traditional Burial

When someone dies in the UK it can take up to three weeks to arrange the burial. The body is stored at a low temperature during this time, and is frequently embalmed using preserving fluids such as formaldehyde. This has become an established part of burials but it is really bad news for the environment. Once buried, the chemicals can leach out of the coffin and into the land and groundwater around the burial site. Such toxic contamination takes a great deal of money to clean up.

In the USA, people have become convinced that lined caskets are a good idea to protect the body from the environment, and the other way around. But this, to many others, means going against nature. When living things die, their bodies decompose and the nutrients in them are recycled. Burying an embalmed body in a sealed casket means that graveyards will be unusable for hundreds of years.

Cremation and its Emissions

Space is not an issue with cremation, as ashes are often scattered at a favourite place of the deceased. No land is taken up for the burial. However, the actual burning of the body uses up a lot of energy and does release carbon dioxide. An Australian undertaker has actually commissioned some research that shows that a single cremation emits 160kg of carbon dioxide. This is due to the fuel used and the fact that a large wooden coffin (often a very expensive one) is burned with the body.

Another problem at the moment is the fact that many people who die today still have mercury based fillings. A great deal of mercury is getting into the atmosphere just from cremations in the UK. This is a very toxic metal that accumulates in the body, so letting it escape into the air is a very bad idea.

Natural Burials

A new trend is now emerging to avoid either of these types of funeral. People who have been trying to be green all their lives want their funeral to be green too. Several sites in the UK, usually on farms that have land that has been set aside, are offering a much more ecological option that also offers more flexibility and is popular with relatives.

The basic idea of a natural burial is for the deceased to be buried in the Earth in a biodegradable coffin or shroud. This can be made of cardboard or willow and it is presented attractively with flowers and designs. The burial can be overseen by a minister of any faith, or as a secular ceremony, and the grave is marked by a new tree. As the tree grows, it gains from the body buried beneath it, and produces valuable oxygen and acts as a small carbon sink. The nutrients of the body are released into the soil naturally.

In Australia, where the practice is also gaining support, one undertaker has designed a special wooden coffin that is used to transport the body to the burial site. The body itself is wrapped in a shroud but relatives don't like to see this. So, the coffin contains a removable end and the bodies are all buried vertically next to an existing tree. The coffin is up-ended and the body is lowered gently to its final resting place and the coffin is then reused, time after time.

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