Wish to shuffle off this mortal coil without leaving a carbon footprint? I investigate environmentally sound funerals and burials.
Clayton Wood Natural Burial Ground
“Soylent Green is people!” exclaims Charlton Heston in horror in the 1973 cult film upon discovering that the food dished out in the overpopulated and malnourished Earth of 2022 is in fact made of recycled bodies. We’re not quite there yet, of course, but the UK’s cemeteries are fast running out of space.
Every year, about 600,000 people die in this country and soon we will have to resort to “double decking”. “If all the graves that haven’t been visited for the past 75 years were reused in the UK, we would have enough burial space for the next 80 years,” says Mike Jarvis, director of the Natural Death Centre in north London.
But it is important to understand the impact burials have on the environment – it turns out that we are just as troublesome when we are dead as when we are living. Some 90 per cent of coffins sold in this country are made of wood chip, stuck together by formaldehyde, an extremely toxic chemical which leaches into the soil as the coffin breaks down. And while some 70 per cent of us still opt for cremation, it’s worth knowing that burning bodies releases vast quantities of toxic gas into the atmosphere – while cremated fillings and artificial limbs account for 16 per cent of all mercury emissions. As a result, new guidelines dictate that crematoria have to install filters to cut mercury emissions. This will be expensive: a filter can cost up to £200,000 and many could go out of business.
But since 1993 there has been another option on the table: a natural or ‘green’ burial. There has been a significant rise in environmental awareness, especially among baby boomers who are now burying parents or even partners. Today, there are as many as 220 natural burial grounds in the UK, half of which are owned by farmers and half by local authorities. Mike Jarvis, who has had a growing number of information requests about green burials at the Natural Death Centre, predicts that 20,000 burials a year (12 per cent) will be at natural burial grounds by 2020.
A natural burial isn’t just greener, it’s also cheaper. In the past six years, the cost of a traditional funeral has gone up from £2,048 to £3,307. Burials at green sites cost half that but do little to solve the issue of space. There is only so much undisturbed woodland to be had. But a solution is close at hand. It can be found in the sleepy market town of Crewe in northwest England where Mary Slinn is cemeteries and crematorium manager. A few years ago she read about a Swedish project called Promessa. Although it is still largely in development, this novel process promises to be a completely carbon and toxin-free solution. With promession, the body is placed in a tank of liquid nitrogen until it becomes brittle. It is then shattered, dehydrated and filtered for metal fillings and surgical parts. What comes out is what you would see in an urn – fine ash.
It would cost about £1m to install an Promessa apparatus, roughly the same as it would to build a new crematorium. So could it happen? At the moment, “an alternative form of disposal” is not written into the Coroners Bill. A spokesman from the Ministry of Justice explains: “The government will consider promession if it is presented with a sizeable lobby, but there are no plans in place to introduce it in this country yet.”
But Mary Slinn is hopeful that it will go ahead in the next few years, especially as the cemetery at Crewe is filling up fast. “I think it’s the right way to go. We can’t afford not to do this.”