Emmaline's Blog

Sustainable funerals

Tonight I'm back in the hospital, hooked up to my pre-hydration, with my chemo starting within the hour. I'm vastly more relaxed than previously because I've got a single room. So I'm digging up this half-draft about Sustainable Funerals from a few weeks ago as a bit of a community resource. These are my notes from a local event that was part of the Sustainable Living Festival. I went along at the last minute and my Mum came with me. I think she was just being nice, but then she and I found it all so engaging that I thought I'd post a few points here.

The event was run by Annie Bolitho and I think I can give my understanding of and reactions to some of the issues she raised at the festival event because her major motivation was to open up broad community discussion about these issues. I don't think I'm stepping on her intellectual property, so to speak. There's a whole international (but you know, mostly American) movement towards green burials, conservation burials, green funerals and so on. There's even a doco, entitled "A Will for the Woods," showing in Melbourne around now (and elsewhere at some other time, sorry, you'll have to google it yourself).

The Sustainable Funerals discussion started with people wanting data on carbon pollution associated with different options, just as one might set about quantifying any other event in life, but Annie resisted this approach. She wanted to talk about the social dimension of sustainability, about how satisfying and effective funerals really are and/or really could be, as vehicles for the grief of family and friends, as fully lived rituals rather than carbon transactions. The process of arranging a funeral can be very rushed, but it is possible to negotiate to slow things down and make more individualised, careful decisions, particularly if there's been some forward planning. It's worth seeking out funeral directors and/or celebrants who work with the kinds of practices you prefer. In some cases, there are well-defined protocols that have been developed by religious communities that can be adapted for environmental or other purposes.

One way to give friends and family more time to process the meaning of a person's death is to hold a vigil (not necessarily a religious one). In Melbourne now, one can hire a 'cold bed' (essentially a refrigerated steel slab that can be disguised as a bed) so that a vigil can be held with the deceased present without any question of physical complications, even in the height of summer. This is a better option, environmentally speaking, than the extremely toxic and environmentally persistent embalming fluids that are otherwise routinely injected throughout the deceased's body (which is pretty invasive, really). I'll put several celebrant's contact details at the end of this post, since they could be a starting point for arranging any of this.

And the question of a vigil leads to a question of what the person would be displayed in. They might not need to be in a coffin, but could instead be wrapped in a shroud, or in specific burial clothes for the dead. In the UK and in New Zealand there are woollen coffins (think very thick felt) and woven wicker options. I think there's creative possibilities there for both facing the reality of the processes of death, and also avoiding the visually shocking image of a person dressed in their best (as though alive) but lying in a box (as though trapped). I like the idea of defining a liminal (in-between) state by using softer materials that aren't quite associated with life or death. 

Shrouds might work for those who are keen on minimal barriers between their deceased body and the earth, as an alternative to a large wooden casket, so often made of rainforest timbers. Some people within the Muslim community bury their dead in shrouds, and their preferred funeral directors can give information about which cemeteries they work with, and the minimum requirements of those cemeteries for making, approving and handling shrouds. The issues are mostly to do with occupational health and safety for cemetery workers - shrouds must be strong and waterproof (typically plastic lined). The whole funeral business is full of technical details like this that must be worked out (ideally in advance) or the possibilities for individualised, sensitive funerals are easily derailed.

Some people seek out less resource-intensive coffins, made of from recycled timber or cardboard, and there are rental coffins promoted as green alternatives to the hardwood standard issue ones. But there are complications with every option. Cemeteries require assurance (and often documentation) about the load bearing capacity of the coffin for occupational health and safety reasons. And it's worth considering the long term effects of the materials - cardboard can contain noxious and persistent chemicals, rental coffins are only able to be re-used because they have very substantial inserts that must be buried or cremated with the deceased - almost as substantial as a coffin, apparently. In every case it's worth trying to find out the labour conditions behind the object, as well as the material costs.

And there is the issue of the sustainability of the site where a person is buried. Lawn cemeteries require such intensive maintenance that, over time, burial in a lawn cemetery can be more carbon-intensive than straightforward cremation. And - particularly in Victoria - it can be complex having a cemetery declared on private land, and having a private cemetery declared raises  issues of the long term ownership of that land, and management of grave access. Such complex, interlinked, long term considerations.

A key way to engage with these issues is to form or join a Friends group for a cemetery. One of the attendees was a core member of Friends of Coburg Cemetery and as I listened to her I thought that she'd identified a really practical niche for a bit of urban ecology and community building. Cemeteries are some of the greenest and quietest places in the inner city, with their layers of history potentially really engaging and accessible. I'm quite taken with the idea, though I think it's probably not my best moment for joining committees.

There are very few of these Friends groups for cemeteries, presumably because of the general avoidance of talking about death in our society. But the avoidance of conversation is what has led cemeteries and funeral directors to run with a pretty rigid set of practices. To return to the question of carbon accounting from the top of the post and the start of the Sustainable Living Festival event, there apparently isn't enough data to make meaningful comparisons, either because cemeteries and funeral directors haven't been talked to enough, or because they like to run a closed shop, depending on your perspective. Again, a good job for a Friends group.

Anyway, I've written too much already. For more specific information arising from the Sustainable Living Festival event, see:

Annie Bolitho, celebrant and Sustainable Living Festival event organiser:

Sally Cant, a Melbourne celebrant with experience in running sustainable funerals

Pia Interlandi, who makes garments for the grave and is also a celebrant

Doco about green burials

And there's very much more if one does a web search for the many variations on this theme (conservation burial, natural burial, green funeral, etc).