Forest Graves

Wooded fields are popular in the U.K. Australian cemeteries are starting provide greener options.

Eco-friendly exit options can be a challenge in Australia, particularly due to laws and regulations that don’t tend to support the trend towards a true eco-friendly burial so popular overseas. There are only a small handful of green burial sites in Australia, and if you don’t live near one, it may be a challenge for your family to meet your wishes if you have requested one.

There are personal steps you can take to ensure that your exit from this world leaves as low an impact on the environment as possible.

What are the most eco-friendly exit options?

It is difficult to tell definitively which type of exit is more environmentally-friendly. Opinions vary. Many people think that the co2 released during cremation (around 50kg per average-sized male) is more harmful. Others argue that over the life of maintaining a burial plot, factors including fuel for regular mowing and maintenance, watering costs, potential risk of leaching varnishes etc. into the water table, lighting costs, the use of rare and sometimes endangered timbers, the energy cost of creating and transporting headstones etc., could cost the environment just as much in the long run. Plus there is the issue of the amount of land required for burial. For example in the United States there are approximately 1800 graves per acre of land.

The ‘greenest’ option is a natural burial, which is the interment of the body in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition and allows the body to recycle naturally. Think ‘composting’. Australians can only choose this option on religious or cultural grounds.

What’s not cool?

Embalming (a legal requirement for deceased who are ‘viewed’) is not considered environmentally-friendly as it slows down the decomposition of bodies. Other no-nos include caskets made of hard woods and covered in varnish; metal-lined caskets (reportedly to stop leakage); vaults lined with cement; synthetic clothes and casket linings; deep burial (closer to the surface the earth is warmer and therefore allows for faster composting.

Whichever way you choose to go, natural burials and cremations require planning, so people who want the natural, ‘eco’ or ‘green’ option need to plan for it before they die, as some cemeteries require pre-registration, and not all funeral homes have cardboard coffins.

There are some considerations and choices you can make that will certainly help your exit to leave a lighter footprint. This could include:

  • cardboard caskets or a shroud straight into non-lined plots (enhances the efficient ‘composting’ of the body)
  • caskets mate from woven bamboo, willow and plantation pine
  • sea burials
  • cremation using a cardboard casket, wearing no jewellery, make-up, hairspray nor synthetic wig, and wearing natural-fibre clothing (cardboard caskets take less energy to burn than solid coffins and caskets).
  • upright‘ burials or placement in bush cemeteries or woodland settings
  • no embalming (no formaldehyde, menthols, glutaraldehyde or phenols, which inhibit the composting process by destroying microbes in the soil)
  • no cut flowers at the funeral service (invite people to donate to local Landcare groups, plant a tree in a park or school etc.)
  • no make-up, hairspray or synthetic wigs on the body and dressed only in natural fibres
  • no caskets made of exotic or treated woods or particle board that contains glue;
  • no options that require long-distance transport including glass or metal headstones, ornate caskets with lots of trimmings etc., and
  • no releasing balloons into the air
  • Other eco-friendly exit options include:

  • Avoiding caskets lined with metal, and avoiding cement-lined plots or vaults.
  • Using a simple headstone such as an inscription on a rock from the local area.
  • Having a private cremation in a cardboard casket and scattering the ashes.
  • Instead of a formal ceremony where people have to travel distances, having a memorial service in a local park or community hall.
  • Ensuring the recycling of catering utensils, e.g. biodegradable paper plates, bamboo forks, non-dyed serviettes etc.)
  • Having hand-made ‘seed cards’ distributed at a memorial that can be planted to produce flowers annually.
  • Choosing a cemetery that attempts to use sustainable practices. Some Australian cemeteries are choosing to minimise waste and implement resource recovery; use low-energy light bulbs or are solar-powered; use water resources sustainably, use smaller and/or gas cars—some are even providing a carbon offset program.