Ethical Funerals

Taboo or not taboo?


That is the question for Will Hodson, who explores how a new generation and environmental values are challenging the traditions of the funeral industry…

Slowly, tenderly, they loaded their loved one into a cannon. The mourners had gathered in a special place for his send-off. The fifteen-storey tower – shaped like a clenched fist – was actually his own design. For a brief moment there was silence bar the dulcet tinkles of Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man, his favourite song: “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand, Vanished from my hand…”

A wall of fireworks shot up behind the tower, illuminating the night sky with a burning waterfall of red, blue and green sparks. Then, with a loud bang, the cannon ejaculated Hunter S. Thompson’s mortal remains toward the heavens. Thus one of post-war America’s most distinctive journalists bid his idiosyncratic farewell. “I just want to send my pal out the way he wanted” said Johnny Depp, who financed the ceremony in Colorado.

“Baby boomers are clearly revising what they want from a funeral”, says Mike Jarvis, who runs the Natural Death Centre in Islington.



Baby boomers change the rules

Such revision is overdue. For obvious reasons, the funeral market is one of the least consumer-driven in the world. The bereaved bid a quiet farewell to the deceased and ask few questions of their funeral director.  The latter’s work is commonly shrouded in taboo.

Beneath this shroud, some exceptional individuals put in tireless work. But equally there lurk a great many dubious practices.  Only now is a generation of consumers lifting the veil and recognising funerals for what they could be: a true expression of individuality.  The green funeral, as defined by the Natural Death Centre, denotes more than best ecological practice: it implies “a more personal, creative event, with increased participation from mourners.”

Music, readings, location… people are considering any aspect necessary to tailor a funeral to themselves or the deceased.  Commonly people are also beginning to ask questions about environmental impact. The most fundamental decision concerns the disposal of remains.


Cremation’s modern UK history can be traced to the death of Jesus Christ in South Glamorgan, 1883.  Christened after the son of God, Jesus was born to an 83 year old Welsh eccentric, Dr William Price.  He died aged 5 months. When Dr Price commenced the hillside cremation of his son, police interrupted the service: baby Jesus was snatched from the flames and Dr Price was arrested for illegal disposal of a body.  At trial however, the judge found he had committed no offence.  Henceforth, cremation was effectively legal.

125 years later, 75% of the Britons who die annually choose to be cremated. Dr Price believed that  burial damaged the environment and arranged his own cremation accordingly…atop a two-ton pyre of coal.  The rudiments of Victorian science afforded little scrutiny to airborne emissions. Now they are cremation’s most pressing concern.  Modern crematoria – legally required to operate at temperatures of 850˚C – release large quantities of carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere.[1]

Duncan MacCallum, of the Federation of British Cremation Authorities (FCBA), argues that this temperature is excessive and wastes valuable fossil fuel. But lower temperatures may permit higher chemical emissions. The ideal coffin for cremation should therefore be composed of natural materials to minimise emissions, and it should be lightweight to reduce energy consumption. As fuel costs soar, many crematoria are offering lower prices for lighter coffins.

Tremendous heat was once needed to incinerate belts and buckles. It is superfluous now that funeral directors remove problematic accessories prior to cremation.  Few things upset the sombre calm of a funeral service like an exploding pacemaker. 


Even the hardiest funeral directors do not remove dental fillings. Yet these mercury-based restorations are arguably the most noxious element in cremation – the farting cows of the funeral industry.  The Environment Agency has found crematoria responsible for 16% of the UK’s total mercury emissions. DEFRA responded by ordering UK crematoria to halve their pollution by 2012. The industry has moved to install mercury-abatement equipment widely.

Such technology is expensive. An FBCA initiative therefore proposed ‘burden-sharing’: larger crematoria covering half of the market install the equipment; smaller crematoria continue without and pay a contribution towards the costs. This scheme seems likely to deliver, and perhaps surpass, their 2012 targets. Over the medium-term, the emission-conscious might shift toward larger crematoria wherever practically accessible. Longer term, the UK government might ban mercury in fillings.




Fillings also pose an environmental hazard in burial, as mercury can leech into the water supply. The Environment Agency directs that all large cemeteries should be at least 50m from springs or bore-holes. 

The most significant concerns however flow from embalming and coffins. The standard coffin is a compound of man-made materials: plastic painted as brass, chipboard presented as wood, kitsch passed off as quality. Funeral directors and consumers alike are switching toward new, green coffins, whose adverts are mushrooming in the funeral mags’ back pages. Their emphasis is on biodegradability rather than presentation.

Moreover, these lightweight, fit-for-purpose coffins cost a fraction of the more ostentatious traditional models. The more expensive coffins are often the least eco-friendly – sometimes built with exotic woods from diminished sources and fortified with metals that pollute the soil. 

A simple cartonboard coffin costs from £250 and woollen shrouds around £150. Such spartan wares needn’t be impersonal either. Suggestions at London’s Green Funeral Exhibition included covering flat paper surfaces with messages and lacing wicker weaves with flowers. There is also scope to follow one’s principles. A human rights enthusiast for example could rest in peace with a fair trade bamboo coffin. And if local sourcing is your priority, you could choose a coffin made from English willow.


Natural Burial Grounds

A natural burial ground is designed to ensure that interment is part of a natural cycle.  There are over 240 such sites in the UK, though only 38 are certified by the Association of Natural Burial Grounds. Since the association’s first member set up near Carlisle in 1993, the natural burial movement has gathered momentum. Today, natural burial is an attractive business proposition for landowners. Farmers exasperated by falling prices for their crops have started to turn fields over for burial. 

Natural burial grounds can offer a beautiful place for remembrance of the deceased: graves marked only by trees, plants or indigenous stones; lawns free of pesticides; and healthy soil holding biodegradable coffins only.  However, only ANBG-certified sites insist on natural coffins.

The ANBG also requires that burial grounds show sound financial planning for their site’s future maintenance. Without this assurance, there is no guarantee that natural burial grounds will be kept as such should prices for livestock and crops continue to increase. Families might return to visit their loved one’s final resting place, perhaps to mark it quietly with a flower, and instead find a cursing farmhand chasing turkeys with an axe.



The shift towards green burials has seen a departure from embalming, which clashes fundamentally with the principle of a natural ending. Preservation has never been an eco-friendly option either: until 1951, the substance most commonly used was arsenic. Today’s embalming agent of choice is formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic and corrosive.

A more organic choice would be AARDBalm, offered by most green funeral directors. Rosie Grant, of Natural Endings, Manchester, however encourages families to avoid embalming in most cases. “For us, embalming is only necessary where it makes the experience less traumatic for the bereaved”. Dry-ice or refrigeration should suffice for most bodies. Ultimately, she stresses, it is the family’s choice to make.

Stories circulate nonetheless about funeral directors trying to push embalming onto families too grief-stricken to resist. Like chipboard coffins, embalming is an area where high profit margins coincide with poor environmental practice. This leads to a regrettable incentive for all funeral directors and, in a small minority of cases, to some unscrupulous sales tactics. 


There is an alarming amount of malpractice in the funeral industry. The OFT published two critical reports in the 1990s but there is still no single code of practice to which funeral directors must adhere. In 1994, various groupings within the industry set up an independent ombudsman scheme.

The tighter procedures did not stem the flow of complaints however: in 2001 the OFT were moved to review the industry, along with credit salesmen, estate agents and mechanics.  Despite concerns, their final report backed the ‘lighter touch’ of self-regulation. This ‘light-touch’ logic has its flaws: in 2002 the industry axed its independent complaints handler because there were too many complaints.

In truth, the funeral market presents a strong a case for regulation. When grief clouds decision-making and taboo obscures the market’s services, consumers are highly vulnerable to predatory tactics. This partly explains the continued sales of unsustainable and often overpriced products.


It can make sense therefore to plan funerals in advance, to avoid families having to make decisions under pressure later. Only 2% of Britons pay for funerals in advance, compared with more than half of the Germans and Dutch.  Perhaps this indicates we Brits are less open about death than our Nordic cousins.

Although most funeral companies offer ‘pay now, die later’ plans, in a ‘lightly’ regulated industry ailing funeral homes might dip into pre-paid accounts and go bust before their service is required.  The best option might therefore be to put designated money into an interest-bearing fund.

New technology?

The funeral industry’s most notable recent innovation comes from a Swedish biologist, Susan Wiigh-Masak. ‘Promession’ is claimed to “combine the best from cremation and burial - taking up less space and giving off less pollution”. Various British boroughs – Crewe and Nantwich in particular – have shown an interest in this new method and expect it to be approved in the UK soon. 

Under promession, a body is frozen then submerged in liquid nitrogen. The brittle form that emerges can be shattered “with the gentlest of vibrations”.  Apparently “pollutant metals can be removed from the fragments and recycled, and the remaining powder – just 30% of original body weight – biodegrades rapidly”.

The Swedish Health Board approved promession in 2007. Many British crematoria, under pressure to reduce emissions, see it as a good way to diversify their portfolio.  They insist promession will require no more energy than a traditional cremation.  However not everyone feels comfortable with Wiigh-Masak’s marketing pitch: “you’ll make splendid potting soil”.

Final words

A great hero of the baby boomer generation was Kurt Vonnegut, whose funeral was held in 2007.  An American university once invited him to give life advice to their students. According to his apocryphal address, life throws up many personal choices; the only imperative is to make them according to one’s own principles.  Beyond this, just one piece of advice did the arch-liberal feel justified:  “Always wear sunscreen.”

Advice on death is similar.  A truly personal funeral involves many decisions. They are for us to make; they are not for our funeral director. The more enterprising amongst them have grasped this and accommodate almost any request. Such flexibility marks a new era for a traditional industry.

Yet our most important decision is one of the oldest: how to dispose of the remains?  The FBCA argue that burial is intrinsically unsustainable: if we had never introduced cremation, the UK would soon be one big graveyard.  The NDC dispute this: Rosie Bullough claims it would take 2,000 years to fill the land which farmers are paid by government to use for nothing.

The concerns around cremation seem more pressing at this moment in time, and the ethically-minded tend to choose natural burial grounds at present. Instinct and economy will continue to steer many towards cremation however. In this case, it’s worth checking whether the local crematorium abates its mercury output, and choosing a fit-for-purpose coffin. Beneath all those personal decisions, one message seems eminently sensible: Always brush your teeth.

Links and further information

The Natural Death Centre

The London-based Natural Death Centre provides an independent funeral advice service for the UK specialising in family-organised, environmentally-friendly funerals, and Natural Burial Grounds. They have recently hit financial difficulties and are currently run by volunteers until October.  Donations would be greatly appreciated.

The NDC has an advice line at 0871 288 2098 Monday - Friday between 11.00 am and 2.00 pm. They can also be contacted at or 12a Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, London N4 2BT.

The Natural Death Handbook a comprehensive funeral and death reference book: inexpensive, green and DIY funerals, including 200 natural burial grounds, biodegradable mail-order coffins, a Good Funeral Guide to the funeral trade, caring for the dying at home, living wills and more.
It is available for £15.50 (P&P free in the UK) from the Natural Death Centre

The Association of Natural Burial Grounds
...has a webpage on the Natural Death Centre website which contains a list of members and contact details sorted by region.


1, accessed 21/9/08


This article first appeared in Ethical Consumer 115, November/December 2008