Why Are Most Funerals Not ‘Green’?


In the UK, about 70% of funerals are cremations, due to a percieved lack of space in church graveyards and urban cemeteries. The process uses between 50m3 and 120m3 of natural gas to incinerate the coffin with the body inside, and leaves ‘ashes’ which are then put in an urn and given to the relatives who may then bury or scatter them.

The energy used for cremation is considerable, some estimates suggest it may be equivalent to an average home’s central heating for a month or a 800 km car journey.  This results in a lot of carbon dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, and other pollutants such as mercury vapour, furans and dioxins.  It has been estimated that 100 to 230 kg (200 to 500 lbs) of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere with one cremation event.  Most traditional caskets are constructed of chip-board, which contains glues, and many bodies have undergone embalming which means they contain preservative chemicals.  These substances add to the emissions.  Some modern crematoria have gas scrubbers to remove some of the pollutants but this increases the cost of the service.


Burial is often thought of as more natural, as the remains are placed in the soil where they decompose and become part of the earth; ‘dust to dust’.  However, whether in an urban or rural setting, this must take place at a reasonable depth to prevent access by animals or the risk of the ground giving way once the remains have rotted away.  This means that decomposition is mostly anaerobic and very slow, generating methane which slowly seeps up through the soil over many decades.  Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and therefore traditional burials cannot be regarded as ‘green’ either.  An additional problem is that some of the chemicals used to construct coffins or for embalming may leach into groundwater and cause pollution.

The Casket or Coffin

These are often chipboard, but may be solid wood, sometimes very expensive imported timber, and not all neccessarily from sustainable sources.  Many coffins have carrying handles and plaques, and many are varnished.  Whether buried or cremated, this resource use adds to the environmental cost of the funeral.

Headstones and Memorials

Traditional cemeteries have allowed carved headstones and more elaborate memorials, and some cultures go for interring respected family members in vaults and sarcophagi, or have elaborate concrete-lined chambers constructed.  These practices all use non-renewable resources and can be very expensive.  In the UK, many headstones are imported from India or China.


A traditional hearse is another way of adding to the resource use, as it is often a large car… followed by mourners in more cars. This may be exactly what is wanted or expected, but these days more of us are using more ethical and appropriate forms of transport, and this may extend to our wishes for our funeral.

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