As far as trends go, this one is macabre — literally. The popularity of green funerals has increased significantly in recent years. These events can incorporate everything from biodegradable coffins, to eco-friendly clothing for the deceased, to using fuel-efficient cars for the procession instead of gas-guzzling limos, to a burial plot in a natural setting (as opposed to traditional cemeteries or churchyards). In the United Kingdom alone, where the first natural burial ground opened 15 years ago, today there are 228 such sites.

The UK’s Natural Death Centre (NDC) is just one of many groups that offers advice on green burials. On April 19, Mike Jarvis, the organization’s director, spoke at London’s Green Funeral Exhibition, where those in the business showcased their services and products. The center projects that by the year 2010, natural burial will account for 11 to 12 percent of all burials in the UK.

To help educate people about the benefits of natural burials, the NDC publishes The Natural Death Handbook (an updated version will come out in 2009), which contains tips, legal advice and case studies on how to arrange a “dignified death in harmony with nature.” We caught up with Jarvis, who broke down the nuts and bolts of green burials.

Q: What is your view of the conventional funeral industry?

A: Many undertakers provide a very good service. Sadly, many others are hidebound by traditions that encourage death issues to be surrounded in some form of mystique. It is not helpful when death is seen as a taboo subject.

Q: Can you tell me more about the environmental impact of funerals?

A: Cremation is the single biggest source of mercury pollution in the UK. Standard coffins are made of veneered chipboard, much of which is made with formaldehyde in the glue. Natural burial in a biodegradable coffin will easily reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent.

Q: What are the best eco or biodegradable coffins on the market right now?

A:  In my opinion, the most eco-friendly coffins are the ones made of woven materials. If they don't have to be transported too far from the place of manufacture, that helps, too, although bamboo coffins made in China score well as the material is sustainable and the shipping is done in such a way that the carbon footprint of transporting one of them to this country is no more than driving a coffin three miles by road (Ecoffins manufactures the bamboo coffins and was the first British company to get Fair Trade accreditation in China.) Solid wooden coffins from sustainable sources score well, too, but they may not be so user-friendly because of their weight.

Q: What is the most unusual funeral you have offered advice on?

A:  I suppose the oddest was a man who wanted to bury his father on his favorite golf course. As a result of our advice, that did take place!

Q: What options are there other than burial in a cemetery or scattering in a crematorium's memorial garden?

A: Burial in a churchyard, burial on private land, burial at sea, burial in a natural burial ground; disposal of ashes by scattering (more or less anywhere with the landowner's consent). You can also have ashes made into artificial gem stones; mixed with pigments for paintings; sent skywards as part of a firework display; sent (in small amounts) into space; turned into artificial coral reefs; or interred in a family grave plot.

Q: For those lacking a lot of cash or time, what are some simple tips you can recommend to make a funeral greener?

A:  Use a coffin made of biodegradable materials from sustainable sources. Make sure that floral tributes are not bound with plastic covered wire — use raffia instead. Don't have floral tributes in "oasis" (a form of foam for floral displays made of expanded polystyrene which doesn't break down). If the funeral is by way of cremation, use a crematorium with up-to-date filtration. Do not have unnecessary following cars provided by the undertaker. Don't pay for unnecessary embalming.

Q: Can one scatter ashes wherever one wants?

A: The landowner's consent must be obtained if scattering on private land. Many well-known places will not allow scattering because of excessive demand (some football grounds, for example). One cannot scatter ashes on the seashore between high and low water marks. Ashes scattering is bad for some plant life found at very high altitudes.

Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Green burials go mainstream
An expert in natural burials offers insights on the industry. Plus: Simple tips for making funerals more eco-friendly.