A summary of current and emerging funeral options when your body has died and the environmental considerations and legacy.
One of the first decision points you are presented with when you are arranging a funeral is – which way to go? Generally, the only choice is burial or cremation. What is to happen with your loved one’s body? What do you want to happen to your body when you don’t use it anymore? This is what is called, body disposition. It is not an elegant turn of phrase, but it really represents the nitty-gritty fact of the funeral care process. Whichever way you look at it, it is a profound contemplation and undertaking.
Having worked in the end-of-life, death care and funeral industry for over a decade, even my own thoughts on this topic have shifted and changed and are changing again. The funeral industry is finding itself in the middle of changes, innovations, and even disruption, by new practitioners and emerging technologies. Whilst death is a reliable constant of life, the technologies and practices around death change over time and are different all over the world.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2019), the number of cremations in Australia has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, with over 70% of Australians now choosing cremation over traditional burial. In some areas, such as Victoria, the figure is even higher, with more than 80% of deaths resulting in cremation. However, there are still significant regional variations, with some rural areas showing a preference for burial.
As a holistic and bespoke funeral specialist, my families are giving clear feedback that they want more choice around all aspects of death and dying, including the ultimate choice of ‘which way to go’. Motivating these decisions includes, among other things, their desire to reduce the impact of death practices and technologies on the environment. Now with climate change upon us, this is a personal choice everyone is faced with that can have a direct impact on climate wellbeing. Other determinants include funeral cost, culture and convenience.
Let’s review the common and emerging options and their impacts:
Cremation is currently the most popular option, with factors such as cost, convenience, and environmental concerns playing a role in its popularity. It does not require a burial plot, and ashes can be easily transported or scattered in a location of the family’s choosing. Additionally, some people choose cremation for environmental reasons, as it is generally considered to be an eco-friendlier option than a traditional burial. But is it?
Cremation is the process of reducing a body to ashes through high-temperature burning. The cremation process can take anywhere from one to four hours, depending on the size of the body and the type of cremation chamber used.
According to some sources, an average cremation in Australia can take between 2 to 3 hours and requires temperatures ranging from 760 to 1150 degrees Celsius. The energy required to reach and maintain such high temperatures can vary depending on the type and size of the cremation equipment used. For example, a cremation furnace with a capacity of 400kg could require around 200 kWh of electricity to complete a single cremation.
To put this into perspective, an average Australian household consumes around 20 kWh of electricity per day. Therefore, the energy required for a single cremation could be compared to powering an average household for 10 days or more, depending on the specific circumstances.
And then there are the emissions from the cremation process. One of the main environmental impacts of cremation is the release of greenhouse gases. The burning of fossil fuels to power the cremation process releases carbon dioxide, as well as other pollutants such as mercury, dioxins, and furans. These emissions can contribute to air pollution and have negative effects on human health.
Another impact of cremation is the release of metals into the atmosphere. Dental fillings and other metal implants can survive the cremation process and release metals such as mercury and cadmium into the air. These metals can then be deposited into the soil and waterways, potentially causing harm to the environment.
And for those who think they can plant a tree on top of their loved ones ashes and that will make it green….don’t! Ashes are highly alkaline and will most likely kill your tree.
For those interested in an environmentally friendly return of the ashes to the earth, an Australia company called Living Legacy Forests offers a unique service that combines alkaline hydrolysis with tree planting. The company uses the resulting nutrient-rich liquid from the process to nourish trees that are then planted in a designated forest area. This provides a sustainable and eco-friendly way to return the remains to the earth, while also contributing to reforestation efforts.
Did you know you can cremate two bodies together? True, you can!
Did you know, you can witness or participate in the final placement of the coffin into the cremator? True, yes you can. Having supported several families members to do a “witness insertion”, I fully respect and understand this choice and know it really can be a legitimate need. It is, however, a hard experience.
I have to say, the ceremonial experience and realness of a burial delivers a profound experience of the full life of circle. There is something deeply visceral and real about returning a body to the earth. Some of my families have even participated in the grave dig and close. It’s a sweaty, full-body experience of channelling the energy of grief!
Burial is also preferred by some religious communities, who consider it to be a more respectful and appropriate way of disposing of the body. There is something comforting for many families to have a ‘place’ to commune with their loved ones. Another benefit is you can have double plots, so a grave can contain two coffins in the one plot. You can also inter ashes atop a graveside plot, bringing loved ones together in one final resting place.
One of the main environmental impacts of burial is the use of land. Cemeteries take up a significant amount of land, which can be a problem in areas where land is scarce. The use of embalming fluids, which are used to preserve the body, can also have negative environmental impacts. These fluids can leach into the ground and contaminate the soil and waterways.
Burial is also significantly more expensive than cremation. Depending on location, a burial plot can vary from $3000-$35,000 and even more. Additional costs can also involve the open/close of the grave by the gravedigger, gravestones, cemetery fees and taxes. Another consideration is the plan by some cemetery administrators to now only ‘lease’ plots with 25, 50 or 99-year leases. The permanency of the gravesite is no more.
In Arabic and Jewish communities, there are specific cultural practices for burial. In Arabic communities, the body is washed and wrapped in a plain white shroud before being buried within 24 hours of death. In Jewish communities, the body is also washed and dressed in a plain white shroud before being placed in a simple pine box. Both traditions do not typically involve embalming and prefer to bury the body without a coffin.
In Australia, the law requires that a body must be placed in a coffin or other suitable container before being buried. However, some religious and cultural groups may be exempted from this requirement, provided that certain conditions are met. For example, the New South Wales government allows for burials without a coffin for religious or cultural reasons, as long as the body is wrapped in a shroud made of natural fibres and a waterproof liner is placed beneath the body to prevent soil contamination.
Private Property Burial
One surprisingly common question asked is if you can bury a loved one on private property? In New South Wales, it is generally not legal to bury a loved one on private property without obtaining the appropriate permits and complying with certain conditions. This takes time and needs to organised well before a death occurs as there are many conditions and regulatory bodies to liaise with to achieve success.
Under the Public Health Act 2022, burials on private land are regulated by local councils, and they have the authority to grant or refuse permission for a private burial. In order to obtain permission, the property owner must submit an application to the local council and provide detailed information about the proposed burial site, including the location, depth of burial, and measures to prevent contamination of groundwater.
Natural & Green Burials and Shallow Graves (including Mushroom Shrouds)
Natural and Green burial refers to a burial method that seeks to minimize the impact of burialon the environment. This can include the use of biodegradable materials, such as caskets or shrouds made from bamboo, wicker, or even cardboard. It can also mean minimizing the use of chemicals, such as embalming fluids, that can be harmful to the environment.
In addition, green burial cemeteries often prioritize conservation efforts, such as preserving natural habitats and reducing the use of water and energy resources.
In Eastern NSW, there are several cemeteries that offer green burial options. These cemeteries advertise environmentally friendly burial options that minimize the environmental impact of burial. Here are some of the current green burial and natural reserve cemeteries in Eastern NSW:
- Kemps Creek
- Frenchs Forest Bushland Cemetery
- Wollongong Memorial Gardens
- Grafton Cemetery – Grafton Cemetery
- Lake Macquarie Memorial Park
- Newcastle Memorial
- Coffs Harbour Cemetery
- Lismore Bushland Cemetery
For some, this is viewed as “green’ish burial” and a ‘real green burial’ should also mean ‘shallow burial’ to allow for the topsoil regeneration. With a shallow burial the grave depth is shallower than the standard depth of burial, which is typically around six feet (1.8 meters). The exact depth of a shallow burial can vary, but it is usually shallower than three feet (0.9 meters).
In Australia, the laws regarding burial depth vary by state and territory. However, in general, burials must be at least one meter deep to ensure the body is properly contained and to protect the surrounding environment from contamination.
While shallow burial is sometimes promoted as a “green” burial option, it is not widely accepted as a genuine option for green burial because it can pose environmental and public health risks. Shallow graves can be more susceptible to disturbance by animals or human activity, which can lead to the release of bodily fluids and the spread of disease. Additionally, shallow graves may not provide enough protection for the body from the elements, which can lead to incomplete decomposition and odour.
One technology addressing these challenges is Mushroom Shroud burial technology. The mushroom shroud burial technology involves wrapping the body in a specially designed mushroom-infused shroud or suit that contains a mixture of mushroom spores and other organic materials. Mushrooms are known for their ability to break down organic matter and convert it into nutrients that can be absorbed by other plants. In the case of mushroom shroud burial, the mushrooms break down the body and turn it into compost that can be used to nourish the soil and promote the growth of plants. This is a process called mycoremediation.
Currently, mushroom shroud burial technology is not widely available, and not available in Australia at all, but it is gaining popularity as a green burial option overseas. Several companies in the United States and Europe offer mushroom shroud burial services, and it is expected to become more widely available in the future.
When this first came out a few years ago it really inspired many and certainly tilted me for the first time to consider burial over cremation. You can watch Jae Rhim Lee’s Ted Talk on mushroom burial suit here: https://www.ted.com/talks/jae_rhim_lee_my_mushroom_burial_suit
Aquamation & Human Composting
One of the newer technologies to emerge recently, that is available in Australia, is Aquamation, also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. It is considered to be more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation, as it uses less energy and does not release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Aquamation involves placing the body in a vessel filled with water and potassium hydroxide, which is then heated to a high temperature and pressure. The process dissolves the body’s organic matter and leaves behind only the bones, which are then crushed into a fine powder.
In Australia, alkaline hydrolysis is currently only available in a few locations, including Sydney and Melbourne.
One of the next technologies on the farther horizon is Human Composting, also known as natural organic reduction or aerobic decomposition. Human composting involves placing the body in a specially designed vessel and allowing it to decompose naturally, resulting in nutrient-rich soil. This offers more sustainable and eco-friendly option, as it has a significantly lower carbon footprint than traditional burial or cremation.
One company in the US gaining traction and investment in human composting is Recompose. You can learn more of the process on their website here https://recompose.life/
Did you know? Anti-apartheid leader, Nobel Laureate, and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, requested Aquamation for his funeral. True!
While aquamation and human composting are still relatively new technologies in Australia (human composting is not yet a legal option anywhere in Australia), they are slowly gaining acceptance overseas among those looking for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option. However, there are still challenges to overcome, including regulatory barriers and public acceptance.
It is inevitable that we will see further changes in the funeral industry. Ongoing education, discussion and advocacy will be needed as new technologies continue to evolve.
So, which way will you go?