Death is not simple — what happens after is even more complicated. How we dispose of our bodies can depend on a number of details including cultural practice, religion and personal choice.
One thing that is certain, though is that our current choice isn’t sustainable: flame cremation — now the preferred way to go for ¾ of British people — releases 400kg of carbon dioxide per corpse.
It’s not only emissions from flame cremation, there’s a problem below ground too. The country is running out of options; space for new graves in the UK is set to run out by 2021, and traditional caskets don’t biodegrade.
The crisis reflects a stale industry; different approaches to death are desperately needed. We explore the alternatives, from degradable burial pods to eco-crematoria.
An alkaline alternative to flame cremation
With death, trends come and go. Before flame cremation took over as the nation’s overwhelming preference, burial was the leading option. Liquid cremation — which also goes by alkaline hydrolysis — is the obvious next choice.
Bodies are submerged in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide and dissolved down into a combination of liquid —1,500 DNA-free litres of it — and white ash, which is calcium phosphate.
It results in just a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions and only uses 1/8th of the energy, according to Resomation, the British company which is attempting to launch the process as a viable and commercial alternative.
It does, however, use around 1,500 litres of water per corpse.
Sandy Sullivan, Resomation’s founder, is keen to point out that the average human uses a lot of water each day too. The average person in the UK, in fact, uses around 150 litres of water every day, which totals 3,400 litres a year.
Another bonus, Sullivan says, is that the liquid can be used as fertiliser. “The difference with liquid cremation is that the nutrients will create life again,” he says.
Sullivan says that liquid cremation’s renewable aspect is a drawing point for many deciding what to do when they die. In the US, he says that 8/10 families choose water cremation when given the option.
“People see it as a gentle process for mourning.”
Liquid cremation’s history has not always been so “gentle”.
It was originally used to dispose of animal remains used in research laboratories. Sullivan saw a use for it during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK.
When cattle needed to be disposed of, they were burnt en masse. But that wasn’t always sterile, as the disease could still be spread though airborne particles.
Sullivan lobbied the EU to allow a controlled process that the company he was working for had patented: alkaline hydrolysis.
It wasn’t adopted and the company went under in 2006. Since then, Sullivan and his previous CEO, Joe Wilson, have both launched companies to champion alkaline hydrolysis; Resomation and Bio-Response Solutions.
It is a no-brainer to Sullivan: “We’re in a climate emergency and still burning bodies.”
Unfortunately for Sullivan, liquid cremation is stuck in a legislative limbo: it is neither illegal in the UK nor regulated. Though it is legal in 17 states in America, it still faces an attitude problem.
People don’t like thinking about death, and while it is easy to think of liquid cremation as an eco-alternative, it’s also easy to see it as dissolving someone you love.
The funeral industry is also “conservative”, Sullivan says, and there has been a lot of investment in flame cremation. “Getting change to happen is a slow process,” he says.
Moying Huang, a Royal College of Art graduate, designed an “eco-crematorium” which only uses alkaline hydrolysis, for her master’s final project.
While she says that her concept doesn’t try to change attitudes towards liquid cremation, it does show how liquid cremation might be implemented on a large scale.
Basing it in the disused coal and power station factory on Lots Road, in London’s Chelsea, the design reimagines the building as a multi-faith space able to carry out three liquid cremations at once.
Huang’s alternative to a “traditional burial space” maximises the location’s capacity — vital in inner London where space is a premium. She moved away from a space that was dictated by the “sensitivity of religion” to one that was more environmentally-focused, in an attempt to make it more accessible.
As well as only using liquid cremation, she kept part of the crematorium outdoors, for example, so that “mourners can feel the air, the breeze, the weather and the seasons.”
Huang says it was also important to provide mourners with more “options”. Citing research from the Crematorium and Markets Authority (CMA) that British mourners are being overcharged around £1,000 per funeral, Huang says: “I believe mourners would like to have more rights and options to choose their unique rituals”.
The resultant ash from the liquid cremation could be used as a jewellery or small sculptures, which could then be put in the building’s iconic chimney.
If mourners do not want either of these options, they can scatter loved one’s ashes on the platform over the Thames.
Six feet under and sustainable
Some religions — Islam and Judaism, for example — mean that cremation isn’t an option, however sustainable it might be. But traditional burial presents its own problems.
Caskets made from materials like wood or metal do not decompose and they take up valuable space in increasingly full cemeteries. In the London borough of Southwark, the council is redeveloping its cemeteries by “reusing” graves, which involves making the original corpse deeper and burying a new body higher up above it.
No matter how much extra space can be made however, there’s no getting around the unsustainability of traditional coffins.
Capsula Mundi offer a compact solution to the burial process. Their egg-shaped burial pods are made of biodegradable material and can be “buried as a seed to the earth”, according to the Italian company.
After they are buried in the ground, a tree can be planted on top of it as a “memorial for the departed and as a legacy for the future of our planet”.
The pods will help “cemeteries acquire a new look,” the company says.
It’s also relatively economical: you can buy an urn for around £370. A Resomation machine, meanwhile, costs a funeral home £300,000 to purchase and install.
Though it is still developing a pod for entire bodies, selecting one of a loved one’s ashes will contribute to a “major cultural shift”, the company says.
Being buried in a pod is indeed a “major cultural shift” — it might seem too alien to some.
Coffin in a Box offers a less drastic re-design on the coffin. Dingco Geijtenbeek, the company’s owner and designer, says the entire design process was “environmentally driven”.
It is a flatpack Dutch-style coffin, made of plywood. (Cardboard coffins, when incinerated, clog up crematoria filter systems, according to Geijtenbeek.)
The wood is untreated — there’s no paint or varnish — with an unbleached interior cotton liner. It doesn’t need glue or nails to be put together — it just slides together.
Conducting tests in his own garden, the designer says that it takes around six months to biodegrade.
“It’s about as sustainable as you can get,” Geijtenbeek says.
It saves spaces at every point; it is flatpack so can be stored easily in a factory, and when delivered, it can be stored, as Geijtenbeek says, under your bed.
According to the designer, there is a trend in people buying coffins and decorating them, as a more “therapeutic” approach to their own death.
Via a direct-to-consumer business model, the company has sold over 1,000 coffins.
Consumers range from people planning their deaths in advance, Amazon-browsers and those in immediate mourning.
“People call and say ‘my dad just died, I love your product’ and we can post it in the next morning, and it arrives six working days.”
The flatpack nature of the model means it’s easy to transport, which is vital in the Netherlands, where funerals have to take place six days after the death.
Simple design was crucial for the product. “A family who has never assembled a coffin before had to be able to assemble it in fifteen minutes,” Geijtenbeek says.
He believes that an effect of this environmentally-minded design is a potentially healthier attitude towards death.
“Normally when someone dies, the coffin is the moment death arrives in the mind,” Geijtenbeek says.
When it takes time to assemble a coffin yourself — watching it “grow in the living room” — Geijtenbeek says it arrives “more easily”, especially with regards to children.
“When we are going to bury granny,” he says, “it’s good to introduce death gently.”