Changing Attitudes to Deathcare and the Rise of Green Burials

We explore the rising trend for green and natural burials, why it's happening and what it means for deathcare providers.

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| Read time: 4 mins

Changing attitudes and beliefs are often drivers for change, with new services and products developed to meet growing demands that are based on shifts in perspectives and behaviors.

And so too, as our cultural, social and spiritual beliefs and attitudes towards death and memorialization change, the rise in green, natural and alternative methods of burial may be seen as a reflection of, and response to that change in thinking.

“According to the NFDA 2022 Consumer Awareness Preferences Report, 60.5% would be interested in exploring ‘green’ funeral arrangements because of their potential environmental benefits, cost savings or some other reason.”

Attitudes to burials changing may be for a number of reasons: as we become more environmentally conscious, people are looking for eco-friendly or sustainable alternatives; cost may also be a factor, with people seeking more affordable burial options; as cultural attitudes to death change, people may be seeking more personalized ways of saying goodbye - those which they may consider bring them in ‘harmony with nature’; and tech of course, providing new options that simply may not have existed previously.

Broadly speaking then, as we’ve become more environmentally conscious, sought more personalization and as our values, priorities and concerns have changed, so the number of burial options available to us has grown.

Not only this, but green and alternative burial methods also provide the potential for existing cemeteries to become more sustainable - both in a literal sense, in the case of hybrid cemeteries, but in also providing a greater number of internment options for the families and communities they serve. 

The rise of cremation

Cremation, of course, as a precursor to what we might more broadly consider ‘alternative’ methods of disposition is on the rise, now becoming the preferred option over burials. In 2019, cremations were used in 54% of deaths in the US, projected to rise to 78% by 2040 [1], a figure at which it currently stands in the UK, and in Australia that figure is said to be around 70%.

That may be for a number of reasons. Cost is sometimes cited as a factor, with cremations typically costing less than traditional burials; not without its own impact in terms of emissions and energy consumption, some may see also view cremation as a more eco-friendly option from the perspective of space and resources; cremation also provides flexibility in terms of memorial options with the scattering of cremains in a meaningful locations, tree plantings, or placed in columbariums to name just a few; and there are of course other considerations such as changing religious attitudes and increased urbanization which may have had some effect.

By no means a new concept (going back to the 19th century, after all), in cremation we see a precedent for looking at alternatives to traditional burials - and with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at green burial, and what they might spell for the future of funeral services.

Green, natural and woodland burial

As defined by the Green Burial Council, “Green burial allows full body interment into the ground in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition.” [2]

In effect, green burials provide a way of returning the body to earth with minimal environmental impact.

Eschewing the use of chemicals such as embalming liquids, and non-renewable materials such as concrete vaults, grave liners or metal caskets, bodies are typically placed in a biodegradable shroud or casket and placed in the ground within a green cemetery dedicated to conserving, promoting or restoring the natural habitat. In this way, the body will decompose naturally and return to the earth.

Green burial, standards and the law

With a mission to, ”inspire and advocate for environmentally sustainable natural death care through education and certification”, the Green Burial Council is a non-profit organization providing certification programs based on set standards for environmentally responsible burial practices. 

These standards encompass a number of factors, including materials or containers used, and best practices. As well as educating consumers, they are also advocates for change to support environmentally friendly practices.

In terms of green burial and the law, in the US, these may vary by state, with some having specific regulations relating to green burial and some more general regulations applying to all forms of interment. 

There are currently 270 natural burial sites across the UK. In the UK, the Natural Death Centre provides advice and guidelines and a professional code of practice on environmentally-friendly funerals, with guidance for natural burial ground operators laid out by the MOJ ensuring familiarity with the “legal and regulatory framework governing natural burial”, noting that while privately owned natural burial grounds are not covered by LACO provisions and largely unregulated, they do state that, “there may be other legislation which regulates what the burial operator must do.”

‘Alternative’ burial methods

In terms of sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives, green or natural burials are not the beginning and the end, and through scientific research developments and technological innovation, new burial alternatives are emerging - not all of which are yet available, or legal, in all countries, states or territories.

Aquamation, also known as, ‘alkaline hydrolysis’ or ‘water ‘cremation’, uses a mixture of water, heat and an alkaline solution within a pressurized chamber to break down body tissue and accelerate decomposition. Seen as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation, with advocates claiming it uses less energy and produces less emissions, it recently gained notoriety as the cremation method used during the cremation of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Envisaged as an “urban alternative for a more environmentally friendly end of life option.” [3] NOR or Natural Organic Reduction, is a comparatively new method of body disposal is a method of transforming human remains into soil (first legalized in the US in Washington in 2019).

Methods may vary, but essentially, the body is placed into a vessel along with organic materials such as wood chips or straw. Over time, the body is broken down due to naturally occurring microbes and this ‘composting’ process results in a nutrient-rich soil-like material which can then be spread or scattered in a meaningful location or conservation area.

Evolution or Revolution?

So what does this all mean for deathcare going forward? Well, we might see it as a natural evolution of traditional practices, as a response to changing consumer demand and a greater awareness of our environmental impact, but also somewhat revolutionary in terms of a response to our changing attitudes to death and dying.

We say that there is nothing new under the sun, and indeed some of what we now refer to as ‘green’ methods have been in practice in some form for centuries in many cultures, but with shifting practices throughout the industry, and changes in laws and regulations through advocacy and the promotion of sustainable options, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.

Refs.

[1] The pros and cons of cremation
Erica Lambeg, USA Today

[2] On the way to the green burial cemetery: a guide for families
L Webster, GBC

[3] Becoming Human compost: The Process of Natural Organic Reduction
TALKDEATH, Jun 22 


 

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