Traditional burials can have negative impacts on the environment due to the use of virgin resources in the materials used such as wood, steel and concrete, the toxic chemicals often involved and the creation of greenhouse gases. However, there are alternatives available to help mitigate these impacts.
Natural burials mitigate many of the environmental issues associated with traditional burials by allowing bodies to decompose naturally. These burials do not use coffins, vaults, concrete or chemicals; opting instead for biodegradable shrouds or caskets made from biodegradable materials such as cardboard. Bodies are buried at a shallower depth, without preservatives and in biodegradable materials, allowing for decomposition with oxygen (aerobic), which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Burial locations are marked by GPS coordinates and with time the land is restored to natural vegetation and trees, and may be used for another purpose such as grazing farm animals. A natural burial is the most sustainable burial option.
Sustainable coffin and casket options
If you or a family member would prefer to have a coffin or casket rather than use a biodegradable shroud, there are many biodegradable options including untreated formaldehyde-free wood, cardboard, fair-trade certified bamboo, wicker, seagrass, water hyacinth, banana leaf and felted woollen coffins. Some caskets are even embedded with tree seedlings which take root as the casket decomposes. It is also possible to rent a casket with a separately sold cardboard inner. The casket can then be returned to be reused by another family.
If a more traditional coffin is important to you, look for coffins made from sustainably sourced wood rather than virgin sources and endangered trees. You can even purchase 'Shelves for life' that can be used during your life and then easily transformed to a coffin after your death. Remember to reduce your shopping miles as much as possible when purchasing the coffin that you choose, by ensuring that it isn't transported too far from where it is manufactured.
Sustainable approaches to traditional burials
If you feel that a traditional burial is the only option for you or one of your loved ones, there are simple ways you can make this approach more sustainable.
- Choose a simple, locally sourced, metal-free coffin and a cemetery that doesn't require a cement vault.
- Choose a coffin made from biodegradable materials such as cardboard or sustainably sourced wood.
- Use non-toxic embalming fluids such as those made from essential oils, rather than toxic embalming fluids such as formaldehyde, or forgo the embalming process completely (refrigeration and dry ice are other options).