Green Burials | Reducing the Impact of Ashes on Ground Conditions

Insights into best practice on green burials when reinstating historical scatter beds, as well as the latest developments in organic dispersal.


| Read time: 5 mins

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Faunus Group CEO and Founder Simon Holden, CEO for a webinar facilitated by PlotBox, hosted along with ICCM Chief Executive Julie Dunk.

A green initiative formed as a vehicle for their first venture, The Woodland Burial Co, and Woodland Burials, the Faunus Group specialises in producing environmentally beneficial, socially responsible projects and developing green industry, and has developed into a sounding post and springboard for developing new green businesses and ventures.

Simon provided insights into best practice on green burials when reinstating historical scatter beds for future use, as well as the latest developments in the organic dispersal area of the UK funeral sector - an area of growing interest and awareness, and some background on their ongoing research into Precision Organic Dispersal.

Here are just a few of the takeaways from the session.

#1 A common issue

Through their initial research, and before starting the company, Faunus discovered that what they considered to be a niche area of facilitating memorial plantings using cremated remains that would be successful and wouldn’t die off, was actually happening a lot in the crematoriums they were visiting.

The more crematoriums they visited, the more they saw the same problem recurring, and therefore now, not, just something they wanted to achieve in their own burial grounds - this was actually something that could become a  functional product.

#2 The problem with ashes

The first issue is that ashes don’t go anywhere - staying as they are in the ground, whether that be interned or scattered on lawns, or interred as whole; staying as they are for generations.

The second issue is that the ground will start to deteriorate - scarred grass on lawns, plants dying off the memorial, and a high level of replacement plants - all of which are caused by cremated remains.

These negative properties, or ‘prohibitors',  include the pH of cremated remains - being a very alkaline, corrosive material - especially when water passes through, and the huge amounts of sodium - around 2,000 times the tolerance of native plants. 

The third of these, which isn’t as much of a prohibitor, but is in those circumstances, is that after cremation, all of the biology that would assist the decomposition of bone fragments into the ground so that they could be absorbed, has been sterilised.

Once those ashes are then placed in the ground, they create issues with the surrounding microfauna, breaking down the function of the soil and leading to issues with grounds. 

While the solution sounds simple, it is difficult to achieve - the pH needs to be balanced, bonding sites for the sodium need to be created so the plant root systems can't interact with them, and the third is to reintroduce the activators.

This means reintroducing the bacteria enzymes, the microorganisms in high numbers that naturally affect decomposition - kickstarting the decomposition of those almost sterilised fossilised bone fragments, breaking them down at a steady and safe pace. Thus, all of the useful elements become part of the environment they sit in.

#3 Approaches

As with many things, prevention is always better than cure. Faunus have worked with numerous Local Authorities and also privately operated crematoriums over the last two years, seeing many new innovations and approaches to green burial, which has been encouraging. In doing so, they have been surprised at the amount of people who want their loved one's ashes to go into sustainable beds - and for them not just being somewhere to maintain space, and so not taken up with unattended or uncollected sets of ashes.

In effect, lots of ways to use innovative new products and approaches as ways to prevent these issues from occurring.

#4 Future-proofing

The idea of future-proofing is an important issue for many crematoriums. With crematorium grounds over the years having had numerous sets of ashes dispersed and scattered over decades, and with these problems compounded, many are now asking if they can reinstate and restore historical grounds. 

To that end, Faunus are working with a number of crematoriums to put grounds back into usable state, freeing up space so they can continue to memorialise going forward.

#5 A bespoke approach

The law, of course, is important to factor in when considering interacting with sets of ashes that historically interred vs scatter grounds where the ashes have been strewn. With that being the case, it's clear that there isn’t a one size fits all solution - rather, it will be bespoke to the crematorium grounds, taking into consideration the individual needs, where the usage areas are, and what the intended use is going forward once the grounds are being reinstated. 

The important point here is where the law stands with disturbing the cremated remains on scatter grounds. How do we stand with being able to reinstate these grounds? While very much on a case by case basis, which can then determine the approach - where ashes have been distributed or scattered or strewn, gives a different legal parameter to work with than if they'd been committed as a whole. 

#6 Full Body Research

With full body burials, the prohibitors - more like variables,  are slightly different, while the activators are all largely the same. Factors such as ground conditions, temperature, moisture content of the ground, soil structure, the water table in the grounds and also the oxygen content and air content within the ground.

While there are lots of different variables, the premise is exactly the same. 

To that, Faunus’s US partners have been researching the negative effects of committed remains and full body burial and how to mitigate and resolve those issues in a positive and natural way, while the UK team have been challenged with finding a tech solution behind the biological science of full body burial variables.

In practice, the team have been carrying out hundreds of test burials and system trials using swine carcasses, an ethical but biologically comparable alternative to human bodies, to understand exactly what affects decomposition - its different stages, and what delays and speeds up the process -  ultimately to determine what makes it an effective, positive decomposition.

#7 NOR and Precision Organic Dispersal

This work has happened simultaneously with the growth of and interest in Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) in the US, with more taking note of what the group is doing. 

The main difference between NOR and Faunus’ Precision Organic Dispersal method is in the tech element - with POD having control over the process - controlling the speed to a degree, and understanding when it's finished or within the transition.

Another difference is that POD is a single phase process - once the cadaver is laid into the chamber, the pod chamber is then only opened once that decomposition is ‘full complete’, meaning it's completely gone, with the body completely into full nutrient state.

With research ongoing, and as a new process, it is important to adopt the right approach, to get a sense of public consensus, and what they’re ready for, and of course, gain a real understanding of what the law will allow, in order to move forward in the best possible way.

#8 A Choice 

Ultimately new and emerging solutions or approaches are about creating choices for a developing marketplace, and for different morals, viewpoints and ethics that exist now - recognising that what people wanted 20 years ago is very different to what people want now - and the reasons for also being very different. 

Understanding that, and an engagement and a passion for the environment, rather than presenting it as a replacement for burial or cremation, is important, as well as supporting operators of other systems as we learn, explore and progress together.

It’s also about opening up a conversation, and as the Faunus team has seen when engaging with those across the sector, the enthusiasm for choice has been refreshing.

#9 An Opportunity for Change

One important point raised during the course of the discussion, was that with the UK  law commission having just launched their review of burial information law, now is possibly one of the best opportunities in recent times to change Victorian laws to something for the modern age, taking account of these new emerging technologies.

Watch the webinar in full at the link below:

ICCM Webinar Jan 23

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