International Perspective: 'Green' Funerals

How the “Green” Funeral Trend is Presenting Itself Internationally

Each year, we pose a question to OGR’s international members, asking them about how a trend in funeral service is playing out in their countries to offer our North American members a more global perspective on the profession. This year, we asked about “green”/environmentally conscious funerals. Several such practices are still banned in many U.S. municipalities - are they allowed in other countries? If so, how common are they? If not, do they see that changing anytime soon?

C.P.J. Field & Co. Limited
West Sussex, England, United Kingdom

Following Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in the latter part of 2021, there was a huge amount of interest in responsible and environmentally sustainable business. As inflation has taken hold in the U.K. and consumers feel the impact on their cost of living, that interest has softened to a certain extent. After all, it’s easier to make decisions on environmental impact that might have cost implications when you feel like you have more money in your pocket.

To make comparisons to the way things are in the USA, you need to think about what funerals look like in the U.K. Nearly 80% of deaths in the U.K. result in a cremation. This does vary by region as well as between urban and rural areas (cremation is higher in England than Scotland and in inner cities than in the countryside). Most funeral directors, with notable exceptions, do not own their own crematories. Instead we buy cremations on a case-by-case basis from a mixture of privately owned and municipal facilities. The majority of the remaining deaths that result in a burial take the form of earth burial, typically in coffins made from wood. Vault liners are not in widespread use. Aboveground burial chambers are available, but are somewhat unusual. A relatively small proportion of burials have a metal casket of the style that would be recognized by our colleagues in the USA.

Therefore the opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of the funerals we provide are limited. The type and construction of coffins, where coffins are made, reducing the amount of single-use plastics (cremation handles & fittings, etc.), fuel for funeral vehicles, the use of energy in our funeral homes and so on, are more principles of how we provide our service rather than discernibly “green” choices our client families can take to reduce the impact of their funeral.

Worryingly most of the cremators in the U.K. use natural gas to fuel cremation, though electric cremators are being installed in newer facilities. Resommation is not currently permitted under U.K. law. This is being tested at the moment, which raises the prospect of non-carbon fuel-based disposal options for client families in the future.

Greener funeral options that are in the control of funeral directors and client families include using alternative fuel vehicles (some hybrid and electric funeral vehicles are available), vehicle sharing among mourners, keeping funerals local by using a nearby crematory, keeping the time from death to funeral as short as possible to reduce pressure on refrigerated storage, using locally manufactured coffins made of sustainably and relatively locally grown materials, and the like. Overall these are small things that can reduce the impact of a funeral but wouldn’t amount to a “green” alternative.

It is, perhaps, more important that as funeral companies we carry out carbon lifecycle assessments to help us understand the implications of the way we go about our business and what decisions we can make to reduce that impact and being “greener” about the way we provide our service to the public. Balancing this with a mantra of always being customer led in the services we provide presents an ongoing challenge for U.K. funeral directors. Resisting the temptation to “greenwash” our products and services with limited - or sometimes worse - environmental credentials than a typical funeral arrangement for the purposes of marketing is the really hard part.

--Jeremy Field, OBE

Nelson Brothers Funeral Services
Melbourne, Australia

In Melbourne, a city with a population over 5 million, green trends are gaining popularity in all areas of life. Recent state and federal government elections saw an increase in the election of candidates with “green” and “sustainable” policies. Solar panels increasingly cover roofs of homes and businesses, more electric cars are on our roads and our state government is shutting down all our coal-fired power plants in favor of renewables.

Where funerals are concerned, the same families who adopt solar panels, electric cars and organic groceries in their lives, are also interested in green solutions for their funerals. True green options exist, including rental caskets, natural burial grounds and the Living Urn bio and tree burial system for cremated ashes. Curiously, the interest in green solutions does not always translate into the adoption of them when all other aspects of the funeral are taken into account. There is a perception that green is “simple” and therefore “cheaper,” but the reality can be different, just as the organic grocer is usually more expensive than a traditional supermarket. In our experience, when presented with the options, families considering “green” end up choosing a less expensive, traditional option instead, often including cremation.

Our natural burial grounds at cemeteries feature some beautiful, sustainable and biodiverse places of burial, but these grounds are typically far out of town and not convenient for all families to visit. Just last month, I arranged a funeral for a family considering this option, but they instead decided on a cremation and scattered the ashes at their family farm.

It seems that the “green” options are often about the appearance of doing the right thing – having a coffin or casket that looks natural, scattering ashes in nature or having a funeral service at a venue that provides a connection to the environment. All these elements are gaining in popularity. They don’t have a true environmental impact, but they do make people feel better about themselves.

--Adrian Nelson

Palau Funeral Home & Chapel
Koror, Palau

This is actually our first time to hear about green funerals and as we dig into the idea, it sounds very interesting as it is not only sustainable but also environmentally friendly. We have encountered a few clients who requested us to fix a biodegradable casket as the deceased has lived his/her life caring for the environment. Here in Palau, we usually make wooden caskets since wood is easily available on the island compared to metal. Embalming is also not common here as we only do the procedure when repatriating remains off-island. Traditionally, human remains are kept inside the freezer until the family decides to hold a funeral for the deceased.

Our building is designed to have big windows to maximize the use of daylight. Therefore even during the funeral, we don’t have to turn on all our lights and are able to save power. We are also lessening the use of paper programs by just projecting it on our screen or by printing a single large program to be put in a frame. Since drinks are necessary at every funeral, our cleaning staffs are taking their time to collect plastic bottles and soda cans after the event to recycle them.

Now that we found out about this, we would love to learn more about green funerals and offer them to our clients.

--Lisa Borja Tmetuchl

If you have a question you would like to see featured in a future installment of International Perspective, you can submit it anytime to [email protected].

This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of The Independent® magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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