If you’re taking steps to live a more sustainable life, and make greener choices where you can, it’s natural to want your final goodbye to stay true to that.
Whether you want to go fully eco-friendly, or just make small changes to help reduce the environmental impact of dying, here are some good places to start.
Is a burial or cremation better for the environment?
There isn’t a definitive answer, as it depends on a few factors. Both have some impact on the environment, but in different ways. Cremation uses fuel and releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. But a traditional burial uses more land than cremation and, if the body is embalmed, the chemicals used may affect the soil and waterways over time.
But while traditional burials and cremations don’t always offer the most eco-friendly send-off, you can make choices that lessen the impact. And the good news is it doesn’t necessarily mean compromising on the goodbye you want.
How can a funeral be eco-friendly?
A natural, eco-friendly burial is where the body is laid to rest in an area that creates or preserves wildlife habitats. So that’s outdoor spaces like woodland, meadows, wildflower glades, farmland that uses sustainable practices, and orchards.
It’s about taking a burial back to basics, and a return to unspoilt nature, with its flora, fauna and fungi, rather than a traditional cemetery. But it’s also about leaving a positive, living legacy for future generations, by helping preserve green spaces and the species that live in them, for years to come.
The Association of Natural Burial Grounds, created by the charity the Natural Death Centre, has compiled a regional list of UK natural burial sites that comply with their code of conduct.
In a 2020 SunLife survey 1, 11% of people asked said they’d want a woodland or eco funeral — which is only one per cent less than those who wanted their favourite songs played.
Woodland burial grounds are often set within acres of woodland and surrounded by countryside. They can be anything from an ancient bluebell wood, where you wouldn’t even know it’s a burial ground, to a plot that’s a designated wooded area near a more traditional cemetery. If you’re planning a woodland burial, it’s a good idea to visit it in person, so you know it’s right for you.
There are rules you need to follow with a natural burial. The coffin needs to be biodegradable, and the body mustn’t be embalmed, as this uses chemicals that aren’t permitted at woodland burial sites. Funeral directors can care for people who have died without having them embalmed.
You don’t have to rule out a woodland if you’re choosing a cremation, though. If you’re looking to bury ashes, many offer ash internments in a burial plot. You can also get permission to scatter ashes there, if you prefer.
You could organise a memory walk through the woodland burial site as an act of remembrance, if you don’t want a ceremony. That way mourners can enjoy the peace and beauty while thinking about the person that’s passed, in an informal way.
Burial at sea
If it’s done in an environmentally considerate way, burying a body in the sea could be considered a green choice. That would mean no embalming, and using a coffin or shroud that’s biodegradable.
But there are strict regulations, and you need a licence to bury someone at sea. And, as there are only three locations in the UK where this is allowed, it might not be a practical option.
If you’d like to plan a cremation, perhaps due to cost, or because that’s your preference, there are ways to help reduce your carbon footprint.
Choosing a direct cremation, where there are no mourners to transport, and usually no service or wake, means you’ll already be reducing the environmental impact, because less resources and fuel will be used. So while it’s not an eco-funeral as such, it might offer a good compromise.
In the same SunLife survey, 13% of people asked said they want a direct cremation when they die; yet just 3% of funerals in 2019 were direct cremations. So it makes sense to tell your family if that’s what you want, as they may not be aware it’s an option, or that you want the low-key, no-frills approach.
If it’s practical, location-wise, you could look for a crematorium that has a good record on emissions, or has been recently upgraded, to minimise the impact.
More environmentally friendly methods of cremation are being developed and used worldwide.
Water cremation, also known as aquamation, is available in some areas of the US and Canada. It’s a flame-free cremation in a pressurised tank, where after around four hours, the body’s cells are broken down into ash and a bio-fluid 2. It’s legal under UK law, if it complies with health, safety and environmental rules, but there’s no facility up and running just yet, and studies are ongoing. But it could be an option in the not-too-distant future.
What’s the most sustainable coffin, casket or urn?
A natural burial in a biodegradable coffin will reduce your carbon footprint, when compared with a traditional burial.
A biodegradable coffin won’t be made from unsustainable materials, like mahogany or other rainforest timber, and it won’t have extras that don’t degrade easily. So adhesives and solvents in MDF coffins, plastic coffin handles and leakproof linings are a no-no.
More eco choices might be a locally made coffin that uses materials like bamboo, wicker, banana leaf, seagrass or cardboard, without nails, screws or staples. Or, if the burial site allows it, choose a linen, leaf or woollen shroud, or cocoon, which is wrapped around the body.
It follows that after a cremation, if the ashes are going to be kept, interred or scattered, choosing an urn or casket made from non-toxic material like coconut shell, using vegetable inks, is the most eco-friendly option. Some biodegradable urns, when buried, germinate a seed or tree, using the phosphate from the ashes as a fertiliser for the plant as it breaks down in the soil.
There are other creative ways to return ashes to the earth. You could incorporate them into artificial coral reefs, where fish and other marine life can thrive — like Solace Reef, off the Dorset coast.
How else can you make a funeral more environmentally friendly?
Even if a natural burial isn’t for you, there are smaller ways to do your bit.
Save resources by keeping it digital
If you’re organising a funeral, encourage the essential admin to be via email, rather than printed out. Even if you’d prefer face-to-face meetings with a funeral director, you may be able to arrange them virtually, to save on the environmental impact of travelling to their location.
And when it comes to letting people know the details of the service, opt for e-invites, or go for recycled and recyclable paper. Instead of a printed order of service, you could project it on screen during the service, which has the added benefit of reducing paper shuffling.
You could share details of the service and wake with family and friends through a secure personalised web page, called a funeral announcement or funeral notice. That way you can also organise things like donations to charity, collate RSVPs, and tell people if any details change — and it can also serve as an online memorial. It’s worth asking your funeral director if they offer this service.
Keep the miles down for mourners
You’ll want to keep the intention with how mourners get to the service or wake, too. You could encourage car-sharing, using electric or hybrid cars, or going by train or bike, to reduce fuel consumption. If it’s possible, try to choose a location that’s close to most of the people who will attend.
Many crematoria offer virtual webcasts of funerals for those who can’t get there. So you could offer it as an option and reduce the carbon footprint of friends and family who don’t live nearby, so they don’t have to travel.
Consider the flowers and tributes
Even if you opt for a more traditional burial or cremation, you can still make green choices, like only having local, seasonal flowers, that haven’t clocked up air miles, and tributes that are plastic-free.
Or you could ask that instead of flowers, donations are made to an environmental charity.
How to make greener choices after the funeral
After a burial or cremation, there are a few ways to adapt the traditional acts of remembrance to a more eco mindset.
A more eco memorial
Permanent memorials go against the idea of leaving as little impact on the land as possible. That’s why natural burial sites don’t permit leaving that kind of marker behind.
But there are greener options. Instead of a hefty, imported headstone, an environmentally friendly grave marker could be a wooden sign, a flat rock in keeping with the area’s landscape, a plant they loved, or a sapling. But check the rules of the burial site before going ahead, so you know what’s permitted. You’ll want to preserve the beauty of the site, not create waste disposal issues.
You might like to pick a spot away from the burial site for remembrance. You could plant a tree as a living memorial — whether that’s in your back garden, or through tree sponsorship in a woodland area. Or you might want to dedicate a tree, bench or area of the woods to the person who’s gone, through an environmental charity.
Ashes can be scattered somewhere meaningful. Even without a permanent memorial, family and friends can visit and reflect.
It’s legal to scatter a person’s ashes on your own land, but if it’s on land you don’t own, you’ll need permission from the landowner. It’s also a good idea to check the Environment Agency's guidelines, so you minimise the potential harm to waterways and plant life.
If you want to scatter ashes in woodland that isn’t a burial site, bear in mind ashes can change the soil chemistry and damage its fragile balance.
A greener wake
Some woodland burial sites offer areas for a wake — whether that’s barns, yurts or gazebos. This also means not having to consider the carbon footprint of the transport from the service to where you’re raising a glass to the person who’s gone.
Avoid temporary setups, like marquees, to reduce the amount of energy and materials used, and go for greener sites that embrace sustainability. Catering can be made less wasteful if you:
- Lay on local, seasonal food to reduce air miles, and consider making it meat-free
- Avoid paper plates and single-use plastic utensils, and go for reusable plates and cutlery that can go in a dishwasher, so you’re not adding to landfill
- Plan ahead, so recycling and composting anything that’s left is easy
An eco-friendly funeral plan
If you want your funeral to run along eco lines — and save your family the worry of choosing, arranging and paying for your funeral — you might want to consider a prepaid funeral plan.
With a funeral plan, you can ask for an eco-send-off, and your plan provider will explain how the services included can be adapted to suit that. You can usually add special requests to a prepaid funeral plan, but they might cost extra. So make sure you’re clear on what’s included before you buy.
An eco-friendly funeral is about leaving as little trace as possible, while still being able to say goodbye in a meaningful way. So if that’s important to you, tell your loved ones that’s what you want. Whether that’s in person, in your will, or by putting a financial plan in place.
That way, the environmental impact will be kept to a minimum, and you’ll get the send-off that mirrors the sustainable way you lived your life.