How can I have a burial leading to degradation without harming the environment?

 In Article

Recently I was asked ‘How can I have a burial leading to degradation without harming the environment?’

Ken West in his excellent book ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ states ‘a massive number of graves contain chipboard coffins with plastic handles and cremfilm coffin liners’. We are all very aware of plastic pollution and burial is an area of activity where plastic really has no place. It is possible to choose a coffin that is made with the care of the environment in mind and that will degrade quickly and allow the body to do so as well.

Depth of burial makes a difference to the rate of decomposition, the general rule being a shallower burial allows for more insects and microorganisms to be available to aid the decomposition process. Different burial grounds will have different rules as to depth due to soil structure so it is always a good idea to check their policy before you make a choice.

Grave depth regulations state ‘burials in a municipal cemetery must normally be at a minimum depth of three feet from the top of the coffin to the natural soil level. Where the soil is considered to be of suitable character, however, coffins of perishable materials may be placed at a reduced depth, though never less than two feet below the level of any ground adjoining the grave. Natural burial ground operators are recommended to follow this regulation. ( In theory a grave could be as little as 3 and a half feet deep.

Natural burial grounds are an attractive alternative to municipal cemeteries, but you do need to think about how much further is everyone going to have to travel to get to an out of town natural burial ground as compared to a local crematorium? For example, 12 cars travel an extra 20 miles would result in a total of around 57.6kg of CO2.) Maybe a minibus would be a better option.

However, you could argue that the maintenance of a natural burial ground where sheep graze to keep the grass down rather than petrol mowers incessantly mowing municipal cemeteries has a carbon benefit, but could it be better still with grazers who are not ruminants so produce less methane, like horses and ponies?

Flowers at funerals is big business. We encourage you to source flowers from a local florist who grows their own rather than from a florist who buys in from outside the UK, or you could supply flowers from your own or the mourners’ gardens. One of the most beautiful funerals I have experienced was one where all the mourners brought a flower and place it on the coffin during the service, it was a very creative and therapeutic act.

Embalming is almost always unnecessary and due to the toxicity of formaldehyde should never be the choice for someone who wants an environmentally friendly burial.

Natural burial grounds do not allow big gravestones but a small plaque flush with ground level is often permitted. Gravestones are another big contributor to the carbon footprint, they often come across the sea from India or China and are very expensive – they can double the cost of a funeral!

At a natural burial ground consider a succession of bulbs planted on the grave so that there is something lovely coming up throughout the year. They may get nibbled by the grazers of course.

If you have some woodland or a field you can be buried at home, you need to get some paperwork from the council but burial on private land is possible dependent on distance from watercourses.

 Ref A Guide to Natural Burial (2010) Ken West, published by Shaw and Sons

Natural burial site with sheep