Funerals aren’t a topic many of us wish to think about. They’re a fact of life, but one most people don’t consider until they absolutely must. For this reason, you may not realise the impact that modern funerals have on the environment.
When it comes to planning funerals, our choices can make a big difference. And for many Kiwis, doing right by the planet may be important even in death. There are several elements of a traditional funeral service that could be made greener, sometimes with just a small adjustment.
Treating remains in a gentler way
Deciding whether to bury or cremate a loved one’s remains is often the first decision made when planning a funeral. This is often a deeply personal choice. Many people make their preference on this known to close family before their death to be sure their wishes are followed.
Burials can be very unfriendly for the environment. The chemicals used in embalming and building caskets leech into the ground over time, polluting the soil and water. However, there are ways to make burials more natural:
- Choosing not to embalm the body is possible in many cases. Funeral professionals can also use a mixture of essential oils instead of harsh formaldehyde.
- Select a casket made of sustainable, biodegradable materials like wicker, bamboo, cedar or heavy-duty cardboard.
- Wrap and bury the body in only a burial shroud made of cotton, linen or burlap.
Cremation is often thought of as a greener option for handling remains. Cemeteries occupy large portions of land that then cannot be put to other use. Large amounts of water are needed to keep their lawns green, and pesticides may also be used. Choosing cremation over burial is one way to curb the need for cemeteries.
However, traditional cremation also has its downsides. It takes around 106 litres of fuel or natural gas to complete an average cremation, which releases approximately 227,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.1 Bio-cremation, a method that uses less energy and produces fewer emissions, has been developed to address these issues. This process is quite new, and not yet available in New Zealand.
Mourners often send bouquets and wreathes to the deceased’s loved ones as a token of their sorrow. But, flower production often has a negative impact on the environment. Despite controls on the industry, pesticides are commonly used on the cut flowers sold by florists and in shops. Growing these blooms also requires massive amounts of water, diverting it from other uses and driving up water prices in some nations.2
Asking for donations to a conservation group in lieu of sending flowers may be a good way to bring awareness to this issue. Family and friends of the deceased could also volunteer to help remove litter from a public space, such as the beach or a nearby park.
Skip service booklets
Families sometimes like to keep a memento from their loved one’s funeral service. Printed order of service booklets or memorial cards are two popular options. These may include photos of the deceased, hymn or song lyrics, or poems and readings given at the service.
These can be printed on recycled paper, or only given to family and close friends, as acquaintances might be less likely to save their copy. If it’s decided that no booklets or cards will be printed, small photo albums for only those closest to the deceased or a digital slideshow may be more meaningful alternatives to printed paper versions.
Choose friendlier transportation
The type of transportation used to and from your service could also be environmentally friendly. There are several options that could cut down on petrol use and pollution:
- Use electric vehicles to transport the bodily remains and mourners from the church to the cemetery.
- A horse-drawn carriage could be practical if the gravesite is close to where the funeral service is held.
- Weather and distance permitting, mourners could walk from the church to the graveyard.
- Holding the service at the cemetery—either in a chapel or graveside—can eliminate the need to travel between multiple locations.
Say no to balloons
Releasing balloons at a memorial service can hold meaning for mourners, allowing them to symbolically let go of their grief. For families who have tragically lost a child, balloons might also add colour and youthfulness to the service.
But as they say, what comes up must come down. Balloons will eventually fall to the earth as litter. They can take years to break down, and often end up as a snack for unsuspecting wildlife.3 Local, state and federal governments around the world are starting to address this issue through awareness campaigns, enforcing littering fines or making balloon releases illegal.
Though it may look pretty, mourners might want to reconsider celebrating a loved one’s life with balloons. Other options—such as planting their favourite flowers, hosting a memorial meal or entering a charitable walk—could be more meaningful and better for the planet.
A greener farewell
Caring for the environment is something many Kiwis are concerned about. Planning a green funeral is just one way to do this. Talking to your family about any eco-friendly funeral wishes you may have could help make them a reality when the time comes.
Download our free Funeral Wishes Guide and let your family know all your funeral wishes!
1. Colliers News, A quick guide to green burial options
2. Asia & the Pacific Policy Society, Love hurts: environmental risks in the cut-flower industry
3. Balloons Blow, Latex balloons are not “biodegradable”