The death economy

Wish to shuffle off this mortal coil without leaving a carbon footprint? I investigate environmentally sound funerals and burials.

NaturalburialgroundClayton 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.”

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Waste not, want not

young people furniture projectI’ve been meaning to write about London’s Goldfinger Factory for some time. An award-winning design collective, it not only provides affordable space for craftsmen but makes sure that knowledge and skills are passed on – young apprentices are taken on from the surrounding area and are taught skills such as woodworking. It’s design-led, so it’s not just about upcylcing, but about creating pieces that really stand out. Designers such as Tom Dixon have gotten onboard and have created pieces that the factory has then manufactured. The profits are ploughed back into the enterprise.

I also really love that it’s located on the ground floor of Erno Goldfinger’s iconic grade-II listed Trellick Tower – it’s an impressive space.

I’m chuffed that the factory is considering making some of my grandmother’s lamp designs. An interior decorator and designer, she was working in Soviet Russia in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m guessing that the designs she would have been most inspired by are those coming from Finland and the Nordics – Italy was just a little too far away in those days. I’ve located an entire folder of her sketches so the Factory is hoping to make a couple of prototypes and if it’s feasible sell them in its showroom. So if you’re a fan of Soviet modernism – and who isn’t really, eh? – then watch this space!

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia

© Tony Sleep

For its forthcoming exhibition, Frestonian Gallery presents ‘Welcome To Frestonia’ – an exhibition that will examine and celebrate the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia. It was founded 40 years ago, in October 1977, by a group of disparate inhabitants of the abandoned, run-down Victorian terraces and expanses around Freston Road and Olaf Street. These streets formed the Republic’s territory in the western outreaches of Kensington and Notting Hill.

The space now inhabited by Frestonian Gallery is within the 1902 red-brick ‘People’s Hall’, which served as something of a de-facto capital building and cultural centre for the Republic and its citizens.

The Republic was broadly speaking an alliance formed in opposition – in this instance against the eviction notices and threats of the Greater London Council – from which flowered an extraordinary breadth of communal output, both practical and cultural. Artists, musicians, poets, engineers and builders mixed their skills and outlooks in an environment of material scarcity but creative abundance.

Many strong characters contributed to the founding and the guiding principles of this fledgling Republic, which had begun to produce its own stamps, currency and had already petitioned to the United Nations for full membership. Chief among these were the Frestonian Ministers of State – including the actor David Rappaport (Foreign Affairs), Enrico Weber (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Bryan Assiter (Industry) and Josefine Speyer (Transport). Other figures key to the founding and development of the Republic included the social activist Nicholas Albery and the playwright Heathcote Williams. Each of these ministers and citizens adopted the suffix ‘Bramley’ to their names (after Bramley Road, one of the streets of Frestonia), and united under the banner of the Republic’s motto: Nos Sumus Una Familia (‘we are all one family’).

One of the most comprehensive documents of the Republic, celebrating its triumphs and laying bear its social issues, is the photographic series ‘Welcome to Frestonia’ by Tony Sleep, which will be shown alongside archive material that is still maintained under the custodianship of the wider Frestonian community.

The exhibition is open 11 October to 4 November 2017.

Bata: shining bright

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Bata’s former office building in Zlin

A few months ago I went to the Czech city of Zlin where I had the chance to look around the former shoe factories and brick workers’ homes built by industrialist Tomas Bata at the beginning of the 20th century.

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One of the many workers’ houses in Zlin

Once a sleepy market town, between the wars Zlin was transformed into an industrial powerhouse churning out millions of pairs of shoes from fast-moving production lines. Dreamt up by Bata, his shoe brand became ubiquitous not only in then Czechoslovakia but in the furthest reaches of the world. But the forward-looking industrialist was not just responsible for building a shoe empire; he built a new way of life too – one that he did not hesitate to export to countries such as Brazil, India and even to the UK, to East Tilbury in Essex. Truly, a shoemaker to the world!

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Former Bata factory sitting derelict in East Tilbury

The newly adapted use of reinforced concrete meant that both factories and multi-storey housing could be built quickly and efficiently. And Bata’s workers wanted for nothing – he built them canteens, shops that sold food from his own farms, an open-air swimming pool and a cinema – Europe’s biggest at the time – and housing. For Bata, a happy and well-fed workforce was good for business. This formula, which worked so well, meant it was easy to transplant abroad.

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Statue of Tomas Bata in East Tilbury

The shoe factories in Zlin came to a final halt in 2002. Luckily Bata’s architects had left the city with a generous infrastructure that has survived because it has been simple to reanimate and Zlin is waking up to the merits of its modernist architectural inheritance.

The recent reincarnation of the factory complex has seen Buildings 14 and 15 transformed into a smart library and regional museum that celebrates Bata’s legacy, while Building 21 was sensitively refurbished in 2004 and now houses Zlin’s Regional Government. Young companies are moving into cheap office space, cafes are popping up – and life is returning to the industrial complex.

Meanwhile young families and students are moving into the former workers’ homes and are taking advantage of their central location and spacious gardens.

If you’d like to find out the full story, read my report for Monocle magazine here!

Britain’s post-war prefabs

I wanted to dedicate my first blog to a long-term project: recording the history of Britain’s second-world war prefabs.

It’s been 70 years since the prefabs welcomed their very first residents.

These squat and cosy houses were quickly built by Churchill’s wartime government across Britain for those who lost their homes in the Blitz. No more overcrowded rooms and dank outdoor privies – the prefab residents considered themselves lucky to have been allocated a brand-new home with hot running water and a fridge!

The prefabs – built in the factory and arriving in parts to be quickly assembled – were a wonder for their time. Meant to last just 10 years, they endured much longer than a decade and provided many young families with much-needed shelter. Some were so well looked after that they are still standing and inhabited today.

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Excalibur Estate

The Prefab Museum has been documenting this fascinating piece of social and architectural history since 2014. The Museum tells a story that resounds today, of housing shortages – and innovative solutions that were embraced by their tenants – and paints a picture of social, domestic and working-class life from 1946 to the present day. The Museum owns a large and growing collection of photos, stories and memories contributed by prefab residents, website visitors, emails, social media and from people attending talks and walks.

Starting life in an empty prefab in March 2014, the Museum has moved online and it is now building a unique national archive that is accessible and participative, as well as organising events celebrating prefabs and prefab life.