Andreas Späth

A greener death

2015-03-23 09:13

If you find calls encouraging people to die in a more eco-friendly fashion a little odd, you’ll be surprised by the growing global trend in so-called green burials.


More and more people want to minimise their final ecological footprint – the one they leave behind when they pass away. One man who gave this idea a lot of thought while coming to grips with suffering from terminal cancer was American psychiatrist Clark Wang.

Wang is the central character in a moving documentary film called A Will For The Woods, which will be screening at the South African Eco Film Festival in Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape at the end of this month. His sad, yet inspiring story makes viewers contemplate what sort of environmental legacy they will leave behind themselves one day.

It’s not necessarily something you relish thinking about, but if you’re concerned about the environment, you shouldn’t ignore the fact that conventional funerals come with a significant ecological impact:

Unless buried soon after death, bodies tend to be preserved with embalming fluid heavy on chemicals that can result in soil and groundwater pollution problems.

A lot of valuable materials are used in funerals, many of which aren’t exactly biodegradable, from treated hardwood caskets designed to last for decades six feet under to sizeable concrete vaults.

Perhaps the biggest headache around burials, particularly in urban areas, is the fact that they take up a lot of valuable space.

There’ve been some rather exotic, if not to say controversial, proposals on how better to deal with our mortal remains, including:

Building giant composters that would “safely and sustainably turn bodies into soil-building material, which is then used by nearby farms and community gardens”.

Incorporating cremated remains into artificial coral reefs aimed at preserving marine environments.

Burying people inside egg-shaped funeral pods to serve as fertiliser for trees planted above them.

Flash-freezing bodies in liquid nitrogen, smashing them into tiny little bits and spreading those on the ground as fast acting compost.

If you’re not quite ready to go to those extremes, there are plenty of options to choose from to ensure that the last thing you do on earth isn’t bad for the environment:

 Opt for a closed casket burial soon after death avoiding the embalming process.

 Use a biodegradable coffin or urn made out of natural materials like cardboard, bamboo, jute, reclaimed and untreated wood, or even just a shroud.

 Instead of a quarried headstone, consider planting a tree at the gravesite.

 Consider various green burial options that are becoming more widely available in South Africa, for instance at eco cemeteries.

 Keep the funeral service as green as possible with locally sourced flowers and organic food.

 Ask funeral guests to make donations to a local eco charity instead of buying short-lived cut flower arrangements.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath


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