Are green funerals actually better for the environment?

Poetic Endings in London offers environmentally friendly funerals, including wicker baskets.

Poetic Endings in London offers environmentally friendly funerals, including wicker baskets.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. How can we best manage our own funerals in order to reduce the negative impact on the environment? LAURA BRIGGS reports
When you go beneath the surface of many ‘environmentally friendly funerals’ there really isn’t much that makes them such

Being buried under a tree, laid to rest in a wicker casket, mourners arriving with flowers in their hair -  maybe that’s the sum total of what many would consider to constitute a “green” funeral.

But we can do better when it comes to our own death. Many of us spend our lives making conscientious choices to lessen our impact on the environment, so our own funeral should probably be higher up on the agenda.

I for one have never had reason to consider my death much beyond accepting it’s going to happen at some point. But there are good reasons to gather as much information in advance for your own funeral, and know that when you fall off this mortal coil, you’ll sleep easy knowing you’ve not unwittingly contributed to climate change.

A burial is marginally greener


When you go beneath the surface of many ‘environmentally friendly funerals’ there really isn’t much that makes them such

Speaking with Chester-based green-funeral aficionado Stephen Nimmo, the challenges with a so-called environmentally friendly funeral include looking beyond the obvious. “Most people see this type of funeral as being buried somewhere under a tree,” he says. “However, when you go beneath the surface of many ‘environmentally friendly funerals’, there really isn’t much that makes them such.”

When you take into account the amount of miles one lorry has to travel to deliver a coffin, or the amount of fuel needed for the hearse to transport it to the burial ground, or even the carbon used in producing the coffin, it makes you think that a lot of this is unnecessary.

Cremation also produces high levels of CO2, so on balance, it’s thought that a burial is marginally greener – albeit dependent on how far everyone has to travel.

Crematoriums have been working hard to limit the impact on the environment with better filtering, including ploughing huge amounts of money into mercury filters to remove the metal from fillings. Monitoring of emissions is carried out at every cremation and the laws surrounding what can and can’t be cremated are becoming more stringent.

Burying a body has no environmental impact, other than the decomposition of the body itself, providing it hasn’t been embalmed. Comparing the two, Stephen says: “If we can have a gravedigger who lives next to the cemetery, who digs the grave by hand, and a family who live the other side of the cemetery, with a celebrant who rides a bike, then I reckon we can say, burial would be the better option!”

Her own willow coffins


The aim for us while we still draw breath is to have an environmental awareness from the outset.

Green funerals are in no way the choice for the majority. Currently just 30 percent of Stephen’s clients will opt for a green funeral.

For those who do choose greener options the willow coffin has its place. Just around the corner from Stephen’s funeral directors, a lady crafts her own willow coffins which are collected in a 1.6 litre-engine car, putting paid to the need for a lorry. That same car can then be offered to the families to transport the deceased to the service.

Clearly, there are two fundamental choices, burial or cremation, but what is put together around those choices is what defines any funeral service. Stephen’s team has overseen funerals in a field under a yurt, by the sea in a beach hut, around the graveside, and in hotels and clubs. All of these locations will give the funeral a different style, and ensure the service is as personal as possible but in the end there’s still the burial or cremation decision.

If I choose to have a tree planted on the day of my cremation, after two years the environmental impact of that process will have been removed. Rather than just focusing on the day itself I need to have a long-term outlook.

By choosing a local source for a coffin, environmentally sound embalming fluids, less polluting ways of travel and to plant trees, then I could contribute positively towards my environmental endgame.

Green doesn’t have to mean expensive either – this is another reason why the planning is so important. By thinking outside the box (excuse the pun) people can make economical as well as environmental choices.

Savings can be made


Use an estate car rather than a hearse. Choose a natural, less elaborate coffin, look at all your options and you’ll save money. Stephen says: “Green is still not the norm, and when something isn’t the norm, it is generally more expensive, but as long as the family will accept the move away from traditional, and the funeral director is willing to leave the traditional behind and provide what the family actually want, then savings can be made.”

Funeral directors are looking more at alternative methods to accommodate a growing desire for green funerals. Taking this concept one step further, Stephen and his team have also found a way to keep the memories of the deceased well and truly alive.

Stephen’s stepson Taylor, came up with the idea of using technology to mark people’s existence, and decided that with QR codes used on stones and used in a non-intrusive way you can simply scan the code and find out all about the person buried there.

Embracing technology now can help me to stay alive long after I’m dead, and being buried under a tree, laid to rest in a wicker casket, and mourners arriving with flowers in their hair and more trees to plant, isn’t such a bad idea either.

This Author

Laura Briggs is a regular contributor to the Ecologist. Follow her at @WordsbyBriggs.

You can find out all about Stephen Nimmo and Chester Peace Funeral Service at


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