Humanists believe in caring for the natural world and share these values with many others. This approach can be a reason why people choose a humanist celebrant to lead a funeral or memorial service.
Every funeral has an environmental impact, especially when it comes to what happens to the body after death, but there are plenty of ways to have a greener funeral. We share some ideas and options here.
What are the different environmentally friendly options for a funeral?
This is the most popular choice in the UK, but not the most environmentally friendly one. Cremation is good as, unlike burial, it doesn’t use up land, but it is very carbon-intensive.
A typical cremation produces around 126 kg CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e) – about the same as driving from Brighton to Edinburgh.
However, change is coming. Most cremators are gas-powered but, as some crematoria upgrade their equipment, they are switching to renewable electricity. You can see why – an electric cremator can reduce CO2e by up to 85% when compared to the standard gas-fuelled process.
Natural burial is currently the greenest available option. It’s also an idea that really appeals to people who care about biodiversity or who love spending time in the natural world. It’s a chance not just to reduce any negative impact, but to leave a positive legacy on the planet.
Since the first UK natural burial ground was set up in 1993, the number has grown to around 300. They are all listed here. These can be woods, grasslands or meadows – all managed to encourage wildlife and to support local ecosystems.
In contrast to traditional burial, a natural burial encourages the body to decompose naturally. This means burying the body at a slightly shallower depth and only allowing natural materials into the grave, so no plastic, metal or artificial fibres
Woollen, wicker and cardboard coffins are permitted, as well as some types of wood and simple cotton shrouds. Embalming is prohibited because the toxic chemicals used in the process can filter into the ground.
In order to preserve the natural environment, natural burial sites usually don’t allow headstones, grave markers or flowers to be left on the grave. However, other memorial options, such as planting a tree or native wildflowers around the grave, are often possible.
One downside is that most natural burial grounds are out of towns and cities. Be aware that if lots of guests are driving to the funeral, or if you plan to visit the site many times, your journeys may also be contributing to carbon emissions.
You might not have heard of resomation yet, but you soon will. The process is also sometimes called water cremation or aquamation, but its technical name is alkaline hydrolysis.
In alkaline hydrolysis approximately 1,500 litres of water is mixed with a small amount of potassium hydroxide, and heated to extremely high temperatures. After four hours, the body is reduced to liquid.
Just like with cremation, any remains are reduced to a white powder, similar to ash, which can then be scattered, kept or buried.
Research from Resomation Ltd shows that this process typically uses less than one fifth of the energy from gas or electricity than a traditional cremation, with less climate-changing gases going into the atmosphere.
Resomation is likely to be offered in the UK very soon, but it will take time before it is available throughout the country.
Yes, that’s right, your body can literally return to the soil as compost. While this is not yet possible in the UK, in growing numbers of states in the USA people are able to choose this option.
The body is placed into a stainless steel vessel along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Naturally-occurring microbes from the plant material and from the body take around six weeks to gradually transform it into soil.
After the soil has been left to cure for a few weeks, and any impurities removed, it can be used on trees and plants. So, for example, a keen gardener can continue to nurture their garden even after they’ve died.
Composting is definitely an environmentally sustainable choice – it doesn’t use up land, can be carried out in cities and research shows that the climate impact is much lower than cremation, only producing around 28 kg of CO2e.
How to have a green funeral
Your options might be limited when it comes to what happens to your body, depending on where you live, or what feels right for you.
However, there are plenty of other simple choices available right now, here in the UK, which can make a significant difference to your funeral footprint.
What’s more, these choices can often be creative, meaningful, personal and lower cost, as well as better for the planet!
Your humanist celebrant can also share their ideas and experience with you.
Focus on the flowers
Avoid plastic-wrapping, formal arrangements or flowers flown in from afar. Instead look for seasonal, locally-grown flowers – or use flowers from your garden, potted plants that guests can take home and tend, or decorate the coffin with messages, pictures or hand-crafted items instead of flowers.
Choose your coffin with care
Natural burial sites will only accept coffins that are biodegradable, but these types of coffins can be used for cremation or traditional burial too. There are many beautiful, UK-manufactured options available which have a low carbon footprint. Ask your funeral director where the coffin materials were sourced and where the coffin was made.
Think about your travel
Can you encourage people to take public transport, lift-share, cycle or walk to the funeral to cut down on emissions from car journeys? The hearse itself can be lower-emitting too, with electric, hybrid and even bicycle-powered options now available. Live-stream the funeral ceremony so that people can be included, even if they live too far away to travel.
An environmentally friendly humanist funeral
An environmentally friendly funeral can be a meaningful way to honour and remember the values that someone held during their life. Whatever type of funeral you choose, a humanist celebrant can help you weave that person’s values and personality throughout a unique ceremony.
Humanists believe that this life is the one life we have, and similarly, this is the one planet we have. We are aware that our lives are given meaning and purpose by our actions and the legacy we leave behind.
Given this, it is unsurprising that humanists are more concerned about climate change than the general population. YouGov polling has found that 84% of humanists think that climate change is the biggest threat to civilisation, versus 63% of the general population.
Like all of us, the funeral sector needs to play its part in tackling climate change. Independent research from Planet Mark unpacks more about the environmental impact of funerals, and positive measures that can be taken to reduce these.
As technology moves forward and laws change, what might not be possible now, could be just around the corner.
A humanist memorial can happen anywhere at any time after the person has died. This gives you the flexibility to make environmental choices and to make the ceremony personal to your loved one. Talk to your local humanist funeral celebrant to find out more about the different ceremony options.
Find out more
To learn more about humanist funerals, or find a celebrant, use the links below: