Meas Grupa TimpeaIlachta Gort a' Choirce, Iar-Thuaisceart - Environment Group, North West Ireland

Dying To Pollute - Eco Burials

The environmental hazard our departure from this life causes is not necessary says Judith Hoad

Reproduced with permission from 'Organic Matters' magazine, Issue 103 September/October 2008

There was a time when I would have thought cremation was the tidiest, most ecological and environmental way to dispose of the dead.

A growing number of us is considering how the disposal of our bodies could reflect the way we have lived. We’re writing Living Wills, (aka Advance Directives). A Living Will has nothing to do with your possessions, but everything to do with how you would like to be treated medically if you lost your faculties and how, where, and under what circumstances you wish your body to be disposed of when you die. It’s read before you die, unlike you Last Will and Testament, which is read afterwards.

Adding to Pollution

Through researching cremations and burials, I discovered how environmentally undesirable cremation is. When my mother died, she was cremated as she had wished and I was the one who collected the urn containing her ‘ashes’, less than an hour after the end of the ceremony! The urn was quite warm. This brought it home to me that a very high temperature is necessary to destroy all that flesh and the coffin in so short a time. The usual fuel is either oil, or gas – and the coffin is not emptied and re-used, it’s burned along with the body it contains, in an individual oven. The Natural Death Centre in London has published a book, The Natural Death Handbook, in which they quote an air-quality survey over England. Among other things, it contains furans and dioxins, of which 12% are attributed to crematoria!

Although there is anxiety about the availability of grave sites in cities, there is no such fear in most rural areas, but, more pressing is what goes into those graves? Those air pollutants are not derived solely from the fuels used in crematoria. There is a growing fashion for ‘enbalming’ bodies. The body is drained of its fluids, which are replaced with a preservative – usually formaldehyde-based. This volatile chemical is cheap to produce, but very hazardous, because it’s a neuro-toxin, attacking the central nervous system of any creature with which it comes into contact. There is another component in this fluid which has the effect of plumping up the flesh and changing it to a more life-like pink. It’s as though we’re happier to bury our loved ones if they look as though they are merely sleeping, rather than dead.

Cheap coffins are finished with veneers of beautiful hardwoods, but are built from MDF, which is a hard, compressed board made from a slurry of sawdust and glues onto which the veneer is glued, as well. In those glues is a goodly proportion of – yet again – formaldehyde. The varnishes on both the veneered coffins and those made from hardwoods also contain this dangerous substance. It's in everything connected with coffins.

Bury me Green

With all this depressingly knowledge, began the search for alternatives. Through a friend, who came across a Coffin Shop in a town in Southern England, I learned about Natural Burial Grounds and Ecological coffins.

With Ken West, the Cemeteries Manager for Carlisle City Council, who was the initiator of Natural Burial Grounds in England, as principal speaker, the first Bury Me Green Conference took place in Dublin on October 14th 2005. Ken held back none of his encyclopaedic knowledge of Natural Burial Grounds. The first of these public amenities was created by him for Carlisle in 1993. Since then, over 200 more have been established in England, Scotland and Wales. It’s not enough to consume organic food, lead a chemical-free life, it’s also necessary for us to become the best, chemical-free compost, when we return to the Earth!

Although the many Natural Burial Grounds in the UK are very varied, they all have in common the absence of large, permanent monuments. Instead, any identification tags are discreet and usually made from wood. Graves are easily identified from detailed maps and, sometimes, electronic tagging. The whole ethos of the burial ground is to be ecologically aware.

Dust to Dust

The Code of Ethics and Practices of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds states that the bereaved may, if they wish, help in the digging and/or the infilling of the grave. Also, perhaps because the prime emphasis is on the ecology of burial, there is a clearly stated welcome to people of any belief, or none, to be buried in these public facilities. While there are some belief systems that would find this hard to tolerate, it is always possible for them, also, to create Natural Burial Grounds, but use them exclusively for their own adherents.

Natural burial avoids all the hazards inherent in conventional burial and cremation practices.. The absence of gravestones makes the burial ground resemble natural park, or woodland, which, of course, it is - making it dual purpose! I have an image of a songbird, orchestrating the landscape as a result of feasting on worms and insects that found my body a banqueting hall! That bird’s song is symbolic to me of the release of my spirit...

In the next few months, there will be another Bury Me Green Conference. This time, among the speakers will be the creator of a new business initiative to establish the first Natural Burial Grounds in Ireland – and not one, but several. Keep your ears open – you may hear soon of a Natural Burial Ground opening near you!

Ecopods and information about many aspects of natural burial, including celebrants from a number of minority beliefs, can be had from LIVING EARTH FUNERAL OPTIONS, Inver, Co. Donegal. Tel. 0749 736 406

Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground is opening in Killane, County Wexford on 9 October 2010.