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Dying to be green

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Six feet under

Being buried in the ground can also come with a hefty environmental price tag.

Over the course of a typical cemetery burial, carbon dioxide emissions actually exceed those involved in a cremation, according to a study commissioned by Adelaide's Centennial Park Cemetery Authority.

It found that in a typical lawn cemetery, the emissions associated with maintaining the lawns and grounds, as well as other environmental risks, such as fuel leakage into the water table, tipped the environmental impact scales.

"It's a more labour-intensive operation over the life of the burial so it consumes more fuels," says Bryan Elliott, CEO of the Centennial Park Cemetery Authority.

In an attempt to improve the cost-benefit ratio of burials, one Victorian company raised the prospect of upright burials several years ago, proposing that coffins standing on end would save not only space, but money.

However, Elliott argues this might be pushing the envelope a little too far.

"From a pragmatic point of view...we believe the family still want people to be laid to rest," Elliott says, with the emphasis on 'laid'.

"We currently, in our cemetery, allow three interments per grave and if you do three interments in a grave at different depths, the space taken is basically exactly the same as for three upright graves."

Eco-coffins

So is it possible to be laid to rest in an environmentally responsible way? The answer is yes.

For Colin Clarke, co-founder of Eco Funerals in Adelaide, it was simply a matter of taking the environmental principles he had already put into practice in his own green home and applying them to every aspect of a funeral.

With help from the local Landcare Australia group, Clarke calculated how much greenhouse gas was produced during each funeral, and how many trees would need to be planted to offset that. He then added the cost as a levy to each funeral, with the funds going to Landcare Australia.

To further reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each funeral, the company uses a small car - a Toyota Yaris - for the business.

Eco Funerals also don't embalm. "There's quite a lot of toxicity in embalming chemicals," says Clarke.

"Glutaraldehyde and formaldehyde are causing major issues around the world in both atmospheric and groundwater tests."

And instead of the typical MDF (medium-density fibreboard) or solid wood coffins, which use a large amount of non-recyclable materials and contain environmentally harmful chemicals that can leach into the ground, Eco Funerals offer a choice of two environmentally responsible coffins - a recycled cardboard coffin or one made of low-polluting MDF.

The interior is lined with unbleached calico and a small amount of decorative lace, Clarke says, and on the outside, unplated metal handles, which break down without major pollution, adorn the sides.

Eco Funerals is fairly unique in offering a complete 'green' package for funerals, but the market for environmentally responsible coffins continues to grow in leaps and bounds.

Around the world, boutique coffin manufacturers are offering caskets made from materials such as cardboard, paper, woven bamboo, willow and plantation pine.

In Australia, one manufacturer is even making constructive use of a pest plant by offering coffins made of camphor laurel wood.

The idea of a coffin made of cardboard might seem a bit risky when waistlines are getting ever larger. But Ivor Hay, managing director of OnEarth Australia - a leading manufacturer of cardboard coffins - says their coffins are run through a battery of tests to ensure they can stand up to the weighty challenge.

The cardboard is tested to withstand chilling for seven days (a corpse can last three days in cold storage) without losing its rigidity or ability to support a body weighing up to 120 kg , says Hay.

The handling system does not attach to the cardboard but is a hessian handle that wraps over and under the casket - spreading the carrying force more evenly.

The honeycomb cardboard, which itself is a recycled product, requires less fuel to burn during a cremation and contains minimal glue and lacquer, to make it less damaging to the environment as it breaks down.

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