• Made from biodegradable materials, the Bio Urn Tree uses ashes as fertiliser to grow a seed or sapling. (AAP)Source: AAP
An increased awareness in environmental issues in the community has led to a demand for a final send off that comes with a smaller ecological impact: the eco-friendly funeral.
Nicola Heath

29 Mar 2016 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2016 - 12:25 PM

The bad news is you’re dead. During your long and hopefully happy life you dutifully recycled, avoided plastic packaging and rode your bike to work in your effort to reduce your carbon footprint, but all of that is over now you’ve shuffled off the mortal coil. The good news is you can still do your posthumous bit for the environment and plan an eco-friendly funeral.

There are a number of ways a funeral can improve its green credentials. A major consideration is how to dispose of the body, with a range of alternative processes to traditional burial and cremation now available. Resomation, also known as aquamation, uses alkaline hydrolysis to break down the body over two to three hours, leaving a small amount of sterile liquid, safe to return to the water cycle, and bone ash, which can be placed in an urn and returned to family. The production of fewer pollutants including carbon dioxide reduces the ecological impact of the process, which has limited availability in Australia.

Yet to arrive on our shores is the more radical method of promession developed by Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, a Swedish biologist. Using Wiigh-Mäsak’s method the body is first frozen and then submerged in liquid nitrogen, leaving it very brittle. It is then subjected to vibrations which reduce it to tiny particles that are freeze-dried in a vacuum to remove moisture before being sent through a metal separator to sift out old tooth fillings and titanium knee joints. The final result is a sterile and odourless dry powder that can then be buried in a shallow grave in a biodegradable corn starch coffin to allow decomposition. A tree is then planted on the gravesite, staying true to the original vision of Wiigh-Mäsak, reportedly a keen gardener.

While resomation and promession are more ecologically sound than standard cremation and burial, you can still have an eco-friendly finale if you choose these traditional methods. Each comes with its own set of opposing costs and benefits to the environment. When a body is cremated, carbon is released as carbon dioxide during combustion, a better result for the atmosphere than burial, where the process of anaerobic decomposition means that a body’s stored carbon is released as methane, a much more harmful greenhouse gas. 

Leave aside the glossy mahogany casket in favour of a more environmentally friendly material like bamboo, banana leaf, cardboard, plantation timber, sea grass, wicker or wool. 

Whether you choose burial or cremation, choosing the right coffin will reduce your funeral’s impact on the environment. Leave aside the glossy mahogany casket in favour of a more environmentally friendly material like bamboo, banana leaf, cardboard, plantation timber, sea grass, wicker or wool. You’ll need a one of these coffins if you want to spend the hereafter at Kemps Creek Natural Burial Park, the only natural burial park in Sydney.

“A natural or ‘green’ burial seeks to return one’s remains to the earth, as directly and simply as possible,” says Janine Edmunds, Community Relations Manager at Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria. In the place of manicured lawns and rows of headstones at Kemps Creek is unspoiled bush, home to native flora and fauna. Instead of grave markers, which are not permitted, grave sites are mapped out using GPS technology, and a communal memorial records the names of the people laid to rest at the park. So far 15 people have been interred at the park, and a further 55 plots have been pre-purchased.

For natural burial, basket fittings must also be biodegradable; materials not allowed are plastic, PVC, glass, ceramic, metal, treated varnished timber and toxic glues. Due to the risk of groundwater pollution bodies are not permitted to be embalmed, a process where a mix of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, dyes and other ingredients, is injected into the body’s arterial system before burial. Of particular concern to the environment is formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound that is toxic, allergenic, and carcinogenic to humans and animals, and as a readily soluble substance can enter the water system. “The goal is to allow the body at death to re-join the elements it sprang from, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust,” says Edmunds.

If you go with cremation, there is the dilemma about what to do with the ashes. Green thumbs may take comfort in returning to the earth in a Bio Urn Tree from UK company Urns for Ashes. Made from biodegradable materials, the Bio Urn Tree uses ashes as fertiliser to grow a seed or sapling. Those looking for a watery resting place are catered for too. Eternal Reefs takes a person’s ashes and mixes them with concrete to form a ‘reef ball’, which is used with other balls like it to form an artificial marine environment for fish and other sea creatures. According to the Eternal Reefs website, reef balls are “the world’s gold standard for artificial reef development and restoration”.

Finally, often overlooked in the carbon footprint calculation is the ceremony. Forgo the petrol-guzzling funeral procession of cars crawling to the cemetery. Ask that any paper or cardboard used during the service be made from recycled stock. Nominate a charity to accept donations from mourners in lieu of flowers. Hope that your friends and family follow your example and try to reduce their carbon footprint in life, and death. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @nicoheath

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