Hidden damage caused by funerals spurs 'green burial' trend

Conventional burials can have a big impact on the environment. Source: Getty
Conventional burials can have a big impact on the environment. (Getty)

We all know our modern lifestyles are having a detrimental effect on the environment, but even when we die our carbon footprint continues to impact the planet.

It's easy to imagine that once buried we become worm-food, but modern processes often result in human remains taking decades to decompose, leaving a footprint of plastics and toxins behind.

Australian sisters Alyssa Wormald and Tamsin Ramone began selling eco-burial products this year after a YouTube deep-dive into the funeral industry left them "stunned".

Until then, Ramone said they were like most other people, and hadn’t realised “how damaging” regular burials can be.

“(Customers I've spoken with) sort of assumed that a conventional burial was green, like they were giving back to the earth by being buried,” she said.

“When you talk to people about it they say I always wanted a green burial, I just didn’t know there were other options available.”

Plastic, lacquer, wood and concrete are used in conventional burials
Packing coffins with plastic to stop bodies moving inside and creating caskets made with unsustainable hardwoods that are lined with synthetics were just two of the surprising practices the women found.

On top of that, flowers are often wrapped in plastic, quarries are mined for rock to make headstones, and heavy machinery is used to dig deep into the earth.

“(The coffins) have also got lacquers on them, which could be toxic, and then if the body is embalmed that's more toxic materials going into the earth,” Wormald told Yahoo News.

“Then graves are often lined with concrete or steel, which is to sure up the sides and that's what gives you the nice flat cemetery lawn.

“And you've got other sorts of mortuary products that are plastic as well, like plastic undergarments, plastic little eye caps to close the eyes, things that a lot of people probably don't really want to think about.”

Watch: Green versus conventional burials explained

When you consider there are almost 8 billion people alive today who will all eventually die, that's a lot for the planet to deal with.

UK and US offer mourners a chance to be buried in nature
The sisters’ company Heaven and Earth Eco Burial Products, based in Victoria in Australia, has stripped interment back to basics, offering simple bamboo and organic cotton shrouds.

People wanting to add a little bling to their funeral can also request custom embroidery sewn by a local artisan or a colourful shroud tie.

In Australia, eco-burials usually involve the body being placed in a shallow grave, where the healthy upper layers of soil promote fast decomposition.

Each state permits this option, and mainstream cemeteries usually have a section dedicated to to the process.

In the United States and United Kingdom there are large forested conservation areas where environmentally conscious people can be laid to rest without a gravestone or marker.

“You go for a walk with the animals and birds and everything, and you find your loved one out in the bush,” Wormald said.

Why cremation isn’t considered a green alternative
The sisters warn against using mushroom body shrouds in countries where they are available, noting that the fungus used in them may not be native to the area, but there's another popular option that they recommend.

That's a service offered in three US states called natural organic reduction which turns bodies into soil that can be used to regenerate the earth.

This process is believed to be greener than cremation which requires large amounts of energy to burn the body and results in ash which has a high pH level and is rich in salt, making it toxic to plants without treatment.

The sisters offer shrouds made of bamboo (pictured) and organic cotton. Source: Supplied
The sisters offer shrouds made of bamboo (pictured) and organic cotton.

Another green option which is available in Australia is Aquamation, a process which uses around 10% of the carbon emissions as cremation.

Bodies are place in a potassium-hydroxide solution inside a large steel vat and heated to around 93 degrees for around four hours.

Once the flesh and organs are dissolved, the soften skeleton is then pulverised into a powder and presented to the next of kin.

Green burials 'way of the future'
Burial regulations in Australia vary from state to state, leading to quirky requirements that must be navigated.

Wormald also believes a national strategy is needed to simplify issues impacting the eco-burial industry.

“In Victoria, we have this odd law which really gets my goat, which is that you can be transported in a shroud, but when you get to the cemetery, you have to be put in a coffin,” she said.

“Then you get transported to the grave site, then they can take you out of the coffin and bury you in the ground in a shroud."

While the law is supposed to show respect to the dead, Wormald argues it disregards the wishes of green-minded people.

Despite this she believes industry regulation will change as people work to find solutions to help save the planet.

“People are realising that we don’t really have a choice, it’s not sustainable to keep using all these resources,” she said.

“It is inevitably going to become the way of the future.”

Watch: Impact of conventional burials largely unknown