Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Green Funerals Exhibition (Apr07)

My sisters is so amused by the fact that I was the key note speaker at the Green Funerals Exhibition that she says she’ll put it on my tomb stone. But I’ve had to tell her that tomb stones are not very green! I’d prefer to have an internet memorial site and to have my body buried in a shallow grave, preferably without a coffin.

My view of ‘green death’ is to use the minimum resources possible – and that includes land space. We’re running out of burial grounds and need to recycle the ones we’ve got, but this is apparently hugely contentious even though it was common practice a couple of centuries ago. Grave diggers would start on one side of a churchyard, work their way across and then start again when they’d filled up the spaces.

The Green Funerals Exhibition was organised by the Natural Death Centre. There were a variety of coffins in display from plain cardboard and chipboard to more exotic ones made from bamboo and even banana leaves and water hyacinths. Actually I wasn’t convinced the latter one was particularly ‘green’ and to be fair their main claim was that it was ‘natural’. It had a solid wood frame, so it didn’t transport very well from the exotic location where it was made and had a cotton lining. Made me realise that coffin linings would be a great way of using recycled textiles – where there is more supply than demand. Was sorry that my favourite coffins – Ecopods, which are make from recycled newspaper, were not on display….

One of the issues in my speech that caused the most stir was explaining about the process of embalming. Both the leading funeral companies in this country embalm bodies as a matter of course – they call it ‘hygienic treatment’. What this actually means is that they remove the blood from the body (one funeral expert said this was then chucked down the drain – can this be true?). The blood is then replaced with a pink coloured formaldehyde, which is a toxic ingredient. The idea is to make your body look more ‘life-like’ – that’s why it’s pink – and to preserve the body longer. But even the people I’ve talked to in the funeral trade say that it’s very rarely necessary from a practical point of view. I’ve covered this issue in The New Green Consumer Guide.

Whether embalmed or not most people nowadays are cremated (70% in the UK). But crematoriums are in tricky times. By 2012 they’re supposed to have installed hugely expensive pollution control equipment to clean up their emissions. Did you know that 11% of mercury pollution in the North Sea comes from crematoria and this is predicted to rise to one third over the next decade because of the increased number of fillings in people dying – I’ve got lots.

The main point to make is that it’s worth thinking about your funeral before it happens! It’s very difficult for grieving relatives to know what their loved ones would find acceptable and when they’re in mourning it’s the worst time to have to make difficult decisions.

I plan to keep up to date with ‘green death’ issues – it will be one of the key subjects on The New Green Consumer Guide website, which is being designed at the moment. One problem I had on the day though was deciding what to wear. As you can see in the photo above I decided to be colourful rather than funereal. Then I saw a couple of chaps on Waterloo station on my way back who were even more colourful in their attire – see below.

Addendum: I got the nicest thank you card from the Natural Death Centre for my speech at their conference. It was signed with a personal message from each member of their team!

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