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Exit strategies

Death can become you. Fiona Osler investigates the green and non-religious alternatives for seeing off this mortal coil

November 1, 2006
5 min read

Cremation or burial?

At one time, with the growing land shortage, cremation was seen as the more ecological alternative to burial. However, it is not the greener choice as the process involves the release of carbon and other particulates into the environment, as well as using fuel.

If you have a ‘grave’ fear of being buried alive, this may be the only option. (Unless you go for burial at sea – but this could be even more dodgy for the burial phobic, weak swimmers or seasickness sufferers.) In this case, you should refuse embalmment, which cuts down the eco-deathprint, and resign yourself to a biodegradable urn or a reusable coffin cover such as the range sold by Green Endings.

DIY burial

DIY burial can be a surprisingly unbureaucratic process in the UK.

Apart from a signed death certificate and a certificate for burial it’s easier to bury someone in your garden than to obtain planning permission for an extension.

Providing that there is no covenant restricting burials on the land (an application can be made to lift this) and you own the property or have the owner’s permission, a burial can go ahead with little or no interference from the state.

Local authorities will want a form of authorisation completed and you will need to keep a record of where the body is buried, appended to the house deeds. You should also make a record of the burial at the local registry of births, death and marriage. Bear in mind, too, that the value of your home is more likely to go down than up if Auntie is buried next to the plum tree and you may risk upsetting your neighbours.

There are a few simple ‘rules’ to follow. The body should not be buried on waterlogged soil or within 50 metres of a borehole or well; and it should be at least 10 metres from any drain, standing or running water.

Regulations on the depth of the grave are vague but there should not be less than three feet of earth between the ground and the upper level of the coffin; it is advisable to dig deeper. The Natural Death Handbook is recommended reading for anyone planning a DIY burial.

Storing the body

Some people choose to store the body at home, but you may think twice about this if the person died in summer. Use the coolest room in your house and keep the window open, employing ice cubes strategically. Otherwise you may be able to rent space in a mortuary, or if the person died at a hospital ask them to store it for a while longer.

Using a green funeral company

There are now many green funeral companies in the UK, who can arrange everything from the coffin and burial to the service, or you can pick and mix. Some, such as Natural Endings will work with you to provide the level of support you need, be it just a coffin, storage or even a green alternative to formaldehyde – if your Lenin fixation means you want to ensure the body can be viewed in a preserved state without the nose falling off.

Natural burial: pushing up daisies or feeding trees?

Specially created woodlands, nature reserves or even farmland are all alternatives to the overcrowded cemetery or churchyard, and allow your body to biodegrade naturally, while helping sustain the environment. Some woodland burial sites do not require coffins and a simple shroud is enough.

Most green funeral companies can recommend suitable local sites or consult the Natural Death Handbook for a list.

The coffin

Traditional coffins are an unnecessary expense. Most are made from chipboard stuck together with formaldehyde glues that do not biodegrade; mock brass handles are usually plastic; and more expensive coffins do not generally come from sustainable wood supplies.

There is a good range of green biodegradable coffins from flat packs to ornate bamboo, wicker and woven. HIW Ryalls funeral directors provide a mail order flat-pack cardboard coffin made from 98 per cent recycled lumber as well as other ecological coffins made from bamboo and willow. They also provide an economical green funeral plan for people in the east Midlands.

The service

Funeral services can be very impersonal with words said by someone who has never known the deceased. For some people, the thought of bringing a god in to the process is an anathema.

There are many alternatives that make the grieving process more relevant and allow time for relatives and friends truly to celebrate the deceased’s life.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) can provide local officiants to help you organise the ceremony or even lead it. They will talk extensively with relatives and friends, whoever wants to be part of the process, to collect memories, discuss music the deceased loved to help evoke his or her life and weave in stories of humour understanding and love.

(http:// www.humanism.org.uk /site/cms/contentviewarticle.asp? article=1176).

Alternatively, you can organise the service yourself, finding friends and relatives who want to speak about their personal memories of the person who has died. The BHA also produces a practical guide, Services Without God, to arranging a non-religious ceremony.

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