Over the past couple of months I’ve been reminded several times how quickly and unexpectedly life can change forever or end. These events have given urgency to increasing my death and dying literacy (the practical know-how needed to plan well for end of life) so that I may live, care for others, be cared for, and die in line with my values and theirs.
While mentally and emotionally processing these events and what the future might hold, I was able to attend a presentation called Going Out Green: Planning A Sustainable Funeral by Libby Moloney.
Libby is the Managing Director of Natural Grace and is a Holistic Funeral Director practising natural, culturally sensitive, family led funeral care. She’s also a founding committee member of the Natural Death Advocacy Network, a not-for-profit organisation committed to demystifying and reclaiming death and dying in our community.
I’m so glad I attended her talk as I really got a lot out of it. I went with the intentions of getting more clarity around how I can make my death more natural and sustainable and to learn what my options are should anyone close to me die unexpectedly (I didn’t want to find myself defaulting to conventional options which I would later regret because I lacked the knowledge to choose something more suitable for us), but I came away profoundly moved by my new understanding of what is possible in terms of family-led, home-based death care and funerals.
After seeing and hearing about Libby’s real life examples of family-led, home-based death care I wouldn’t do it any other way for a child or partner of mine (unless they wished otherwise or it was legally impossible). The time, love and care given by family and loved ones to the deceased at home feels worlds apart from what is now an industrialised, sterilised process involving strangers in strange places on a company timeline, trying to convince us that the more we spend on coffins the more we demonstrate our love for the deceased (see the Four Corners episode below). Clearly, based on my response, family-led, home-based care is better aligned to my values than the conventional approach (I understand that conventional funeral care may bring comfort to others, and I’m sure not everyone operating in the conventional funeral industry is as depicted in the Four Corners episode).
I also believe that family-led, home-based death care is a therapeutic means by which to process and integrate the death into our lives, allowing us to let go and move on when we are ready and when the body informs us that it is time.
Much of what Libby spoke about is covered in this recording of her presentation for the Centre for Palliative Care, so I encourage you take a look to learn lots about family-led, home-based, natural funerals. However, I will try to cover what I’ve learnt about planning a sustainable funeral from Libby’s presentation, further reading and my own knowledge about sustainability below.
What constitutes a sustainable funeral?
I learnt from Libby that first we must understand what the legal requirements are when someone dies, then we can evaluate all our options for a low impact, sustainable funeral.
In practice, sustainable funerals include:
- how we care for the deceased,
- the funeral service and
- the burial/cremation.
And it’s more about what we don’t do than what we do do that makes a funeral sustainable, for example, eliminating stuff we don’t really need (clearly a top priority for a person who lived as a minimalist).
In Victoria, Australia, the law stipulates that when someone dies:
- the death must be certified by a doctor
- the body must be lawfully returned to the earth and there are only two options: burial or cremation. Burial must be in a cemetery (very rarely it is possible to get a permit to bury on private property or at sea or to donate your body to science but special conditions must be met for each of these options). Only government-regulated cemetery trusts can conduct cremations (in NSW cremation can be done by private operators). Astonishingly, cremation can occur by fire or water; learn more below.
- the death must be registered with Births, Deaths and Marriages
There are no requirements to:
- use a funeral director
- have a funeral at all
- use a specific building or location for the service (a service can be held anywhere as long as you have the owner’s permission)
- use a celebrant
- use a coffin
- use a hearse (you can transport a body yourself but a coffin must be used during transportation)
- remove the body from home within a specified timeframe (other states vary, for example in NSW a body can remain at home for up to five days)
- and so on.
Caring for the deceased
- Natural body care (no embalming)
- Dress in natural fibres
Natural body care (no embalming)
Embalming is a method of preserving the body usually using the toxic chemical formaldehyde. It is not necessary (in rare cases it is required by law) so should be avoided to prevent the formaldehyde from leaching into the environment. Keeping the body cool is a better method of preservation until the funeral.
You can wash and prepare a body for a funeral using natural products such as water and essential oils, natural soap, or other natural, organic and sustainably produced and packaged (or unpackaged) personal care products.
Natural body care can occur at a funeral director’s premises or at home by them or by you. By keeping your loved one’s body cool, you can comfortably care for them yourself, in your own time and in your own way, with as little or as much support as you need (this can be especially comforting for parents who have lost a baby or child, limiting the trauma they experience from separation).
Home vigil is still possible following organ donation or an autopsy.
Dress the body in natural fibres
Dress the body in natural fibres so that they won’t inhibit the decomposition of the body and will biodegrade themselves. Ideally this would be clothing already owned and valued by the dead person.
In response to a question, Libby said that it is not a requirement to be dressed at all, perhaps just a shroud will suffice.
The funeral service
- Choosing a low impact funeral director or choosing to DIY
- Eliminate the stuff we don’t really need
Choosing a funeral director or choosing to do it yourself
If you decide to use a funeral director to support you through the process of planning a funeral, do some research to see if they have a sustainability policy. Do they:
- offset the carbon emissions from their vehicles
- encourage families to offset the funeral service of their loved one
- support local environmental groups
- use necessary resources efficiently, recycle and compost waste where possible
- engage like-minded, local suppliers with certified environmental products and services
- utilise existing community resources that are meaningful to the family
These are all things you can consider if you choose to organise a funeral service yourself.
Eliminate the stuff we don’t really need
A lot of consumables can be used at wakes and cemeteries which could be avoided or switched for more sustainable options. For instance:
- Only print what is necessary, try to print on recycled paper from environmentally sound sources.
- Minimise packaging associated with food and aim for locally sourced organic food. Imagine how special it would be if you were able to use food from the deceased’s garden!
- Similarly, flowers from the deceased’s garden or the gardens of family and friends would be very special and more sustainable than using most suppliers in the flower industry. If you want to purchase flowers, request that they are free from non-biodegradable polystyrene foam or plastic-covered wire.
- Alternatively, request donations to a worthy cause instead of flowers. Perhaps your loved one felt strongly about a particular issue. A donation to an environmental organisation is also a great way to promote sustainability and awareness amongst friends and family of the deceased. Or request a tree be planted.
- Be as efficient as possible with fuel use. You might want to find an alternative to the funeral procession of cars crawling to the cemetery. Perhaps organise a bus or encourage car pooling.
- Coffin / shroud / urn made from natural fibres
- Shallow grave
- Minimal natural memorialisation
Coffin / shroud / urn made from natural fibres
Coffins can be made from biodegradable, sustainably sourced timber, wool, wicker, seagrass, bamboo, banana leaf, and cardboard without the use of plastic, PVC, glass, ceramic, metal, varnishes and toxic glues.
You can opt to be buried or cremated in a shroud which uses less resources and is more sustainable than using a coffin. A shroud is simply a length of cloth that gets wrapped around the body and is typically made from cotton, wool or linen.
Like coffins and shrouds, cremation urns are now being made of recycled and biodegradable materials.
You can even make your own coffin, shroud or urn which would be low impact, low cost, and deeply meaningful. DIY could also be a cathartic experience for a family member or friend after the death of a loved one, or a project to come together to work on.
Another option is to use a reusable community coffin (cleaned between uses). This makes transporting shrouded bodies easier and meets the legal requirement that bodies must be transported in a coffin. Sometimes it is possible to rent a high-end coffin with a separately sold cardboard or timber inner. The coffin can then be returned to be reused by another family.
The law says that only 75cm of dirt on top is all that is required when burying a body. Therefore, natural sustainable burials are done at this depth because it allows for better decomposition through greater oxygen levels, which also reduces the greenhouse gases generated, and greater microbial activity in that part of the soil profile. Conventional burial at large depths involves anaerobic decomposition which produces the potent greenhouse gas, methane and it also substantially disrupts the soil.
All cemeteries now allow the practice of natural burial even if they don’t have a designated natural burial area.
Designated natural burial areas act as natural flora and fauna reserves with low impact maintenance practices. Native vegetation is restored and protected, herbicides and pesticides are avoided.
Minimal natural memorialisation
Markers may involve nothing at all, just a GPS coordinate on a map, or maybe a native tree, rock, or something made from clay or timber.
Which is more eco-friendly, burial or cremation?
The answer depends on the type of cremation and the type of burial.
Further research needs to be carried out, but a natural burial is generally considered to be more sustainable than a conventional fire cremation and conventional burial, but water cremation (aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis) is promoted as the most sustainable end of life option currently available in Australia according to Libby, Aquamation Australia and Sustainability Victoria.
Aquamation is quite fascinating to read about and it provides a solution for many issues presented by burial and fire cremation, such as mercury emissions released from fillings in teeth during fire cremation, recovery of medical devices such as pace makers and titanium hips, greenhouse gas emissions, availability of land and maintenance required for burial sites, and it has virtually zero maintenance needs and costs.
If aquamation and natural burial are not options, conventional cremation is considered more sustainable (about 10% greener) than conventional burial because there are no gravesites that require ongoing maintenance. The ongoing graveyard maintenance (watering, mowing, herbicides) combined with methane emissions from anaerobic decomposition makes the full environmental impact of burial larger than the impact from the energy use and carbon dioxide emissions from fire cremation.
At the end of the day do what feels right for you and make as many sustainable choices as you can.
Dispose of personal belongings properly
In addition to the three aspects of planning a sustainable funeral above, some additional things we can do following the death of a loved one is ensure the responsible and sustainable disposal of a lifetime worth of belongings. There are a variety of ways to do this safely and minimise environmental impact through reuse, recycling and safe disposal.
Communicate your wishes
Don’t forget to tell your family what you’d like for your funeral and to ask them about their wishes.
I hope you’ve found this blog post informative and helpful. I’ve listed further resources below that I have come across.
Increase your death and dying literacy:
- Human composting has been legalised in the USA
- ‘Start to talk’ is a resource from Alzheimer’s Australia
- Preparing a loved-one’s body for a family-led funeral
- Lifting the lid on funerals – CHOICE
- Australian Natural Burial Project
- Natural Death Advocacy Network
- Palliative Care Australia
- Australian Doula College: Honouring Life’s transitions
- The GroundSwell Project
- Dying to Know Day
- The Order of the Good Death
- Gippsland Memorial Park in Traralgon is one of the first cemeteries to offer natural burials in regional Victoria.
- Funeral Rights: What the Australian ‘death-care’ industry doesn’t want you to know by Robert Larkins