*This post is in honour of Mike Wines, Green Party activist and an all-round good guy. We valued your dedication to the environment, your willingness to stand up as Portsmouth Green Party coordinator and council candidate, and your dry sense of humour. You are missed. *
(Disclaimer: Unsurprisingly, the following post is about death and funerals. Please be mindful and look after yourself. I am going to say it like I see it, so be prepared!)
Let us begin at the end
I am going to die. My loved ones will one day die. The people sat chatting around me in this café will all eventually die. You too, dear reader, will die.
Why are we so surprised by this? I (Tamara) don’t see any point in beating around the bush about this inexorable fact and I don’t understand why death is such a taboo subject; to only be discussed when one is very old or in the process of actually dying.
I think now is the perfect time to consider the shape of my funeral. I am not ill, and neither is anyone close to me. The Mothers of the Dutchman and me are in good health and happily living their lives. While friends procreate, I have the epic responsibility of a cat. The time is now!
So many of my friends have no idea what they or their parents and partners would want if they became ill or died suddenly. This baffles me but then I grew up with an outspoken Trinidadian mother whose catchphrase whenever death planning is mentioned is ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead. Just burn me – or whatever is the cheapest.’ As you can see, we don’t stand on ceremony in my family!
Death shopping is a thing. Even in death we are consumers and I am determined that my death and body disposal should be as earth-friendly as possible. When the Dutchman and I wrote our wills, about ten years ago now, we stated our preference for an ‘environmental funeral’ and thought no more about it. But recently I realised it would be useful for my friends and family to have specifics as to what I mean by ‘an environmental funeral’.
Dear Reader, I went so far down the rabbit hole with this one, this blog post will be in two parts!
My Initial Green Death Requirements
I want a funeral with friends and family talking and laughing. Lots of alcohol and speeches. Basically, a raucous wake that will make my neighbours complain. No whispering allowed. The Victorian style funeral with a black hearse and pallbearers in top hats does not appeal to me at all.
I want it to be earth-friendly with minimum impact. I don’t want it to be a conveyor belt of death and whispers. No embalming (unless absolutely necessary). I’d love my body to stay at home. Minimum death purchases – no plastic flowers, no tombstone, no crap. Locally sourced food and drink. A biodegradable coffin made in the UK.
So armed with my list, I started my research…and immediately fell into the rabbit hole that is the internet – tabs galore were opened, never to be closed. I decided to take myself out of the internet and talk to real people with knowledge about this funeral malarkey.
Friendly Funerals R Us
I visited a local funeral director who kindly talked through my many random questions and allowed me to a look round the viewing room – a subdued space with low lighting and a strategically placed box of tissues. I left understanding why so many of us use funeral directors when we are amid a loss – they are experts in the mysterious ways of the funeral world, whilst most people will organise only one or maybe two funerals in their lifetime. I can imagine it is incredibly soothing to know that it will run like clock-work with minimal stress to the family.
Not for me – I left knowing what they were selling wasn’t what I wanted. But I am aware I must be mindful of what I am asking of my loved ones who may not be able to do the DIY funeral I’d prefer. If my mother decides she needs the support of a funeral director, I hope she will go to a local independent that is understanding of my environmental wishes. I want more than just an eco-coffin, I want a lifestyle…or should that be…deathstyle?
There are so many misconceptions surrounding the funeral industry. Did you know you don’t need to engage the services of a funeral director anyway? A deceased body does not have to be embalmed within the UK and can be transported via any vehicle – it doesn’t have to be a hearse, if the vehicle is safe, a suitable size and the body is covered – you are good to go!
My biggest learning curve was the costs associated with a funeral –so unnecessary, so much gentle up-selling and so very very expensive. I hadn’t realised how much a coffin could cost. You gotta have money to die.
Lay ME in Lavender
To bury or not to bury, that is the burning question! I have always thought burial was an unsustainable option due to the sheer impact on the land, waterways and green spaces. The earth is for the living, so why take up precious land space once I’m dead and with an ever-growing population, we certainly can’t all be buried!
Being pumped full of chemicals for short-term preservation which will leach into the soil and water, being housed in a coffin which could last longer than my decomposing body – nah mate, burial isn’t for me.
Until I went on a road trip to the South Downs Natural Burial Site with my wonderfully open-hearted friend Chris. We met the manager, Al Blake, in a dusty cluttered office for a quick-fire round of conversation and questions. It couldn’t have been more different from my visit to the friendly funeral director. Here was a natural burial expert in walking boots and jeans who understood my distaste for the conveyor-belt style funeral, wasn’t fazed by the request to have the body at home and has a database of natural burial and DIY funeral friendly Funeral Directors.
At the South Downs Natural Burial Site, embalming and cremated ashes are not allowed. To be buried here, my coffin or shroud must be 100% bio-degradable. My unmarked grave will be dug by hand and my body taken to its resting place on a hand-drawn bier or horse-drawn cart. It will be the only funeral that day. My loved ones can lower me into the earth. When I asked this of the friendly funeral director, I was told this wouldn’t be possible due to health and safety. At the natural burial site, it seems anything is possible.
Chris and I wander down to the Natural Burial Site, originally a conifer and beech plantation planted about 40 years ago by the Royal Navy, now being replanted with species that belong on the South Downs. The re-stocked woodland will consist of native species that may eventually be coppiced and harvested for rural industry and wood fuel. Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management where trees and shrubs are cut back to ground level periodically to stimulate growth.
We meet ‘Young Chris’ who is hand-digging a grave under the cover of a flappy tarpaulin. This is too good an opportunity to miss and I leap down into the grave. It doesn’t feel scary or weird or morbid. It smells of damp earth and chalk – not surprising, considering the burial site is on chalk land. With both cemetery and national park status and the whole park belonging to Earth Trust, the 1985 bodies buried here aren’t going anywhere. Most natural burial sites shallow bury but here they dig deep into the chalk. Al comments that it might not be the most eco but with the local wildlife he considers it the most secure option.
There are considerations – I know my Mum will hate the stee walk down to the burial site. On a wet day, the chalk path is slippery. My guests will need to be prepared to rough it with walking shoes and sticks. But I don’t care – this is the place where you can stand in your sorrow and no one will rush you. I am in love.
But the price pulls me short. Back to reality. Can I really justify £2000 to be buried here? Holy guacamole, that is a lot of money. A cremation at Porchester Crematorium costs £615. Cost is my one big concern and I am still mulling it over. I will continue my death investigation into cremation and other body disposal options before I make my decision.
Let me put it this way – it’s going to take a green death extravaganza to top this.
Have you visited a natural burial site? What were your impressions? And where do you stand on funeral directors and the associated costs of death? Let us know in the Comments section.
The Second Part of my Green Death investigation will be published at the end of April. Probably. Who knows?!