Menu Close

Green Death #2: Demystifying Body Disposal

Welcome to the continuation of my personal investigation into Green Death. For the last few months, I (Tamara) have been trying to figure out what is the ‘greenest’ option for my funeral and body disposal as well as generally empowering myself with end-of-life research and planning. I have spoken to funeral directors, cemetery staff, visited a natural burial site and even seen ‘behind the curtain’ of two local crematoriums.

However, trying to figure out which is the most earth-friendly option sent me spiralling down the internet rabbit hole. Dudes, I have to admit I got bogged down with stats and info on energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions in body disposal. I opened ALL the links and it was tab city all up in here!

So, as this is about my personal green journey, I hope you will enjoy my statistic-lite ramblings on Body Disposal and feel free to do your own due diligence if anything sparks your interest, and let me know what you find in the comments below.

So much choice in body disposal! Which door to choose?

The Demystification of Body Disposal Options

To be buried or to be cremated, that is the question! Actually, there are a few other interesting options I considered. But I’ll start with the most traditional option of burial.

The Traditional Option: conventional Burial

Milton Road Cemetery, Portsmouth

In my introductory post on Green Death which you can read about here, I visited the South Downs Natural Burial Site and found it an inspiring and peaceful place. Elements that appealed to me such as the rough and ready nature of the site, the lack of headstones and grave adornment and the openness to coffin-free burial are not features that will appeal to all – I’m thinking of my mother and mother-in-law particularly here. A friend of mine spoke to me about their in-law’s burial in a Hampshire churchyard a few years ago – the family viewed a traditional coffin, headstone and all the conventional add-ons as being the respectful, loving and dignified choice. Being able to visit the grave has also been essential in their grieving process.

Green space in Portsmouth is an ecological and emotional necessity on our densely populated island. Portsmouth’s cemeteries are oases of calm amid our urban landscape – the working cemeteries of Milton Road and Kingston and the historic Highland Road cemetery offer green and reflective spots to stroll and for the bereaved to visit loved ones. However, as Portsmouth is so densely populated, I have never really considered it as an option for myself or my family, especially as we do not have any particular leaning towards traditional burial.

This impression was reiterated when I met with a Portsmouth cemetery staff member to talk through the burial process. With approximately 20,000 burial spots available, Portsmouth’s two cemeteries could be full in approx 20 years.

Blossoms at Milton Road Cemetery, Portsmouth

Unlike at the natural burial site, my visit and questions were unusual to cemetery management who are more used to dealing with funeral directors.  This was made clear by management’s strong preference that a funeral director is used by the bereaved, with some religious exceptions.

Family cannot be involved in the grave preparation with only trained staff allowed to lower the body or ashes into the ground. Use of a shroud or alternative coffin-free funeral would be at the discretion of the cemetery manager and cremated remains must be buried in a wooden casket.

I left much more informed and very clear that this would not be the right option for me. There are some faiths where the deceased must be buried – as an agnostic, I am happy to leave those spots in Portsmouth’s cemeteries to those who prefer traditional burial and require it in the next 20 years.

Green Death Pros: Both Portsmouth’s cemeteries are located within the city. This means minimal emissions in transporting my body and the mourners, and for my local friends and family to visit my graveside over the years. As my husband has expressed the desire to have a spot to visit, a clearly marked graveside for the duration of the plot lease is a positive.

Green Death Cons: Portsmouth cemeteries are running out of space and so I cannot justify being buried there.  The leaching of toxic embalmed fluids into the soil and waterways can prove a danger to groundwater. Fuel and energy would be used for the long-term maintenance of my grave and the cemetery, including the use of fertilizer and pesticides. As DiY funeral elements are discouraged and the use of coffins are preferred with shroud usage unconfirmed, the element of involvement in the process would be missing.

Eco Burial Tip: Go for low-impact elements that are within your control such as a cardboard coffin, local (or no) flowers and a monument (or no) made from British stone.

the popular option: Cremation

My favourite spot at The Oaks, Havant

Now cremation is another familiar concept to most of us and is the most popular body disposal option with 77% of all deaths in the UK resulting in cremation[1]. Judging the environmental impact of cremation vs burials is not one I have found easy. Cremations use fossil fuel energy to incinerate the body and release carbon emissions and pollutants into the environment. However, burial takes up valuable land space and with an ever-growing population, we certainly can’t all be buried!

A side note is that I intensely disliked all the cremation funerals I have attended so far due to the conveyor-belt vibe. Crematoria are busy places, for example, Porchester Crematorium is a high-volume crematorium with more than 3000 cremations take place there a year.  Most crematorium services are only 20-30 minutes long, though some offer the option to book a longer slot (at a cost).

As cremation is my mother’s top choice for her body disposal, I needed to gain some clarity and address my conveyor-belt concerns. I visited my two local crematoriums – Porchester Crematorium and The Oaks in Havant, both of whom have an open-door policy, an attitude I found very refreshing in comparison to my cemetery visit.

I was given a tour around the facilities which included ‘behind the curtain’. My friend Chris, who has been with me on my death planning journey, accompanied me on this behind-the-scenes tour of Porchester Crematorium. She remarked how comforting it was to see the process, as both her parents were cremated there.  Reader, I recommend everyone does a behind-the-scenes tour of a crematorium. It was so interesting, educational, respectful and not at all frightening or macabre.

Image from Funeral Wise

Both Chris and I found the process of cremation fascinating and were walked through the stages. Here’s a debrief of the cremation process:

  • After the committal – the concluding rite of a funeral service – the crematorium has 72 hours within which to cremate the body.  
  • The body is cremated in the cremation chamber (also known as a crematory, crematorium, cremator or retort) which is essentially a large industrial furnace. 
    • Using fossil fuels (most likely natural gas), the cremator is pre-heated to around 1,400 – 2,000 degrees Farheight.
    • The coffined body is slid into the cremation chamber where it will self-ignite, taking approximately 2-3 hours for the body’s soft tissue and the coffin to burn, leaving the remains of bone fragments and metals.
    • Emissions are filtered through a flue system, collected in barrels and then disposed of as hazardous waste or recycled (though I am not sure how it is recycled or if that was green wash).
    • A magnet is used to collect metals from the bone fragments and the remains are then ground into ‘ash’. I had always assumed the body burns away completely and that the ash is like when you burn a wood fire. Boy was I mistaken – the ash is essentially ground-up human bones.
Eco Cremation Tip: I recommended these two videos of many by my death positivity crush, Caitlin Doughty of Youtube channel‘Ask a Mortician’ and founder of death-positivity movement 'The Order of the Good Death'. She is both hilarious and informative!

* All About Cremation!  
* What Happens to a Body During Cremation?  

Can cremation be eco THOUGH?

But back to the environmental considerations around cremation – technological advancements mean mercury and carbon emissions can be more effectively filtered out and by 2020, as part of the Oslo-Paris Commission (OSPAR) agreement on eliminating mercury emissions from crematoria, all crematoria within the UK (roughly 240 facilities) will need to have a zero emissions rate. This means either installing entirely new cremation equipment, and/or integrating mercury abatement systems.

With Environment Agency targets, regular monitoring and reporting and strict rules for crematoria to limit emissions, mercury emissions seem to be contained to an acceptable level.

The crematoriums can even utilise the heat generated by their cremators through a waste heat recovery system. I was inspired by the story of Redditch Crematorium – in 2011 ish, when installing new equipment  to meet the laws to reduce mercury emissions, they also installed a system to divert the waste heat, produced by the cremators that escapes from the cremator chimney, to heat a nearby swimming pool, reducing the leisure centre’s gas bill by aver 40%, equating to a saving of about £15,000 a year.

I was delighted, therefore, to read The Oaks have a heat exchange system but was disappointed to hear that it was not in use. Talks have been ongoing for four years with the nearby hospital to utilise and heat the hospital but I am not confident given The Oaks has been open for five years!

In the UK, the body must be cremated within 72 hours after the service of committal. This enables the crematorium to ‘hold over’ coffins, which basically is a more efficient way of utilising the energy generated through the pre-heating and using of the cremators by putting through as many cremations in one day as possible, rather than cremating the bodies on the same day of the funeral. 

After the cremation, metals are separated from the cremated remains for recycling. This can include hip joints, pins/ nails from the coffins and precious metals. Porchester Crematorium raise £5,000 to £6,000 a year for charity from recycling these metals.

I was interested to learn that the cremated remains are basically everything that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process following the removal of any metal and is essentially barren material. Though scattering of ashes takes up no land space and ashes can be buried in urns made from 100% biodegradable materials, in large amounts and scattered in sensitive ecosystems, there is an ecological impact to consider.  

Green Death Pros:  Disposing of my body by cremation means there is minimal land usage and there is no long-term maintenance of a grave and cemetery. Regulations mean mercury emissions are being more effectively filtered and with innovations in Waste Heat Recovery systems, the heat generated can be utilized somewhat. The Service Hall at The Oaks was simply breathtaking with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the semi-natural woodland beyond. And they have bees!

Green Death Cons: At the end of the day (no pun intended), I can’t get away from the fact that cremation involved high energy consumption with the burning of natural gases and fossil fuels that releases carbon emissions and pollutants into the environment. Added to this, most crematoriums insist that the body is in a coffin when incinerated. The Oaks in Havant was open to a body being cremated in a body pouch/ shroud if it is sealed from any leaks and mounted and secured onto a hard-combustible board.

Eco Cremation Tip:
Best to dress the body in natural fibres. The more synthetic the clothes, the
more emissions.

Bequeath My Whole Body to Science

I am very tempted by the idea of bequeathing my body to science as this practical use of my corpse will enable medical students and researchers to study anatomical sciences. If my body can be of use after I’m gone, well why not! Surgeons gotta learn somehow! And to parrot my dear marmar ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead!’

Conveniently, I could donate my body fairly locally to the Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences (CLAS) at Southampton University. Here my body would be embalmed and then utilised for anatomical examination. When that is complete, the University of Southampton can arrange and pay for my remains to be cremated and have my ashes returned to my next-of-kin, or to be scattered in Southampton Crematorium’s Garden of Remembrance. If I wanted a private funeral, they will return my remains to my next-of-kin/ executor.

Green Death Pros: There are a plethora of pros in choosing to bequeath my body to science:  benefiting research and humanity, being useful even after I’m dead, a no/low cost cremation with my next-of-kin receiving my ashes. If I changed my mind, withdrawing consent is simple and easy.

Green Death Cons: There is no guarantee that my bequeathed body will be accepted post-death, so I’d need to have a back-up plan. I also couldn’t both donate large organs for transplantation and also bequeath my body to science. My hubby, The Dutchman, considers it more valuable to donate his organs for transplantation than to donate his body to science – but his organs are probably healthier than mine, to be fair! My donated body would be embalmed, which I am not keen on, and (most likely) cremated. Donating my body to science means my friends and family may miss having a traditional funeral with the body present. A contender, but I am not completely sold on the option for myself.



THE WILDCARD OPTION: Alkaline Hydrolysis


Photo by Samad Deldar from Pexels

Also known as “Water Cremation”, “Flameless Cremation” or ‘Aquamation’, alkaline hydrolysis is a new body disposal system and a challenger to flame cremation.  

My basic understanding, which comes straight from…surprise, surprise….my death guru, Ask a Mortician’s Caitlin Doughty, is that the body is placed in resomation machine that contains a high-pressure mixture of 95% water and 5% lye (potassium hydroxide/sodium hydroxide) which is heated to 365 degrees Fahrenheit (compared to the 1400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit of flame cremation).

The process, which takes about three hours, mimics the chemical decomposition the body would undergo if buried and leaves behind bone fragments (about 30% more than a flame cremation) and an inert neutralised liquid of amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts, with no human DNA. The bone fragments that remain are ground down to a white ash and returned to the family, while the liquid can be repurposed as fertilizer or flushed down the drain.

The eco credentials (according to Caitlin’s sources of the Funerals Consumer Alliance), alkaline hydrolysis uses an eighth of the energy used in flame cremation.

However, though legal in 16 American states as well as three Canadian provinces, it has yet to reach the UK, though applications have been made.

“A public crematorium operated by Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council at Rowley Regis, central England, was the first to receive planning permission to offer the process but in March 2017 the local water utility, Severn Trent Water, refused the council’s application for a “trade effluent permit” because there was no water industry standard regulating the disposal of liquified human remains into sewers.”

Wikipedia

‘Ask a Mortician’s Caitlin talks about the misconceptions behind water cremation here and here and the BBC has a fascinating essay on ‘Dissolving the Dead‘.

Green Death Pros: Water cremation results in lower emissions than flame cremation and also uses fewer fossil fuels.

Green Death Cons: It’s new technology and regulation hasn’t yet caught up. The eww factor of disposing of the inert liquid is a barrier that will need overcoming.

This raised the question for me about the disposal of the blood and bodily fluids removed from a body in the embalming process. In the USA, according to my guru and LA mortician, Caitlin, it is disposed of down the drain. Try as I might, I couldn’t find out what happens to the blood and fluids in the UK. Methinks it is probably the same!


So, dear Reader, you might be wondering, where am I in my green death process? There are a few more factors I need to consider around the death acrutements – coffins, embalming, flowers, monuments/ remembrance but the actual body disposal is the main decision. Now I have done my due diligence, I’m taking some time to consider my options, chat with my family about what I have discovered and I will report back soon.


In the meantime, as you wait with bated breath for my concluding post, check out these upcoming events.


Green Death Events in Pompey

  • May 18th 2019: Free Screening of Griefwalker film at The Coastguard Studio
  • June 4th 2019: Nights of Grief and Mystery tour at The Groundlings Theatre
  • November 14th 2019: Greener Funerals with Emma Collins at Green Drinks Portsmouth at The Southsea Village

Grief Whisperer Emma Collins, is offering a free screening of the film, Griefwalker about the life of Stephen Jenkinson on May 18th at The Coastguard Studio. Click here to book a free ticket and for more information about the event.

Jenkinson, whose work in palliative care and wonderings about what might be in the way of people dying well in our culture has been very meaningful in Emma’s life. He is the author of Die Wise, the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Ontario, and who for five years headed the counselling team Canada’s largest home-based palliative care facility.

You can see Jenkinson on his tour Nights of Grief and Mystery in Portsmouth on June 4th at Groundlings Theatre. To book, click here.

And finally, Green Drinks Portsmouth 14th Nov @ The Southsea Village (back room).  We’ll be joined by Emma Collins who will be inviting us to dive into a discussion about what we might want to do about our own and our loved ones bodies when we die. We will be exploring the options for greener funerals and the rules about how caring for our loved ones after they die, both in the immediate hours and days after and our options for where and how we bury our dead. We will explore the costs associated with funerals, both environmental as well as financial, and wonder about whether having greater involvement with caring for the bodies of those we love might support us in our grieving and loss.


[1] According to the Cremation Society of Great Britain 77% of deaths (in 2017) resulted in cremation. https://www.havant.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Infrastructure%20Delivery%20Plan.pdf

Enjoy this solo footnote. Never to be seen again.