My late wife was an environmentalist and wanted an eco-friendly funeral. I have seen to her wishes, but a woodland burial isn’t possible for all those who would like one, writes Graham Lawton
FOLLOWERS of this column may have noticed that I have been absent for a while. I have been caring for my wife, Clare, who fell seriously ill about a year ago. She declined at frightening speed and died in August aged just 53. We were together for 30 years, married for 24 and had three sons together. My grief is immense.
She developed a rare and not-well-understood condition called nociplastic pain or central sensitisation, which is when the way the brain produces pain goes into overdrive. Even tiny amounts of “normal” pain are experienced as massive, overwhelming agony. Ditto negative emotions, tiredness and illness. Painkillers don’t work, not even intravenous morphine. The condition was only recognised as a separate category of pain about a decade ago and medical science can’t offer very much. Clare got sucked into a vortex of ever-escalating and never-ending pain, which led to anxiety, panic attacks, depression and drug addiction, all of which just served to ratchet up the pain even further. Once nociplastic pain has its claws in there is no easy escape. Clare couldn’t see one, and she ended her own life.
I am planning her funeral as I write this. She was an environmentalist and wanted to be buried in a biodegradable coffin, preferably in woodland. It turns out that this is possible – our local cemetery in north London has a lovely woodland plot. But it is also phenomenally expensive – the coffin alone is £550. Clare had good life cover, so I have seen to her wishes. But I am sure a woodland burial is beyond the means of many people who want to donate their body to the earth.
The default option is cremation. At present, about 80 per cent of the people who die in the UK are cremated, which is much cheaper, but extremely damaging to the environment. An 80-kilogram body contains approximately 14.4 kilograms of carbon, which is all converted to carbon dioxide when combusted. Crematoriums also use natural gas to burn the body and coffin. According to National Geographic, a single cremation produces 240 kilograms of CO2, about the same as burning 100 litres of petrol.
Cremations also produce toxic pollutants, principally mercury from dental fillings. Filtration systems can prevent this from venting to the atmosphere, but not all crematoriums have them.
Traditional burials are less damaging, but don’t get a clean bill of environmental health either. If the body is embalmed, the formaldehyde leaches into the soil as the body decomposes. Coffins usually have metal fittings that also pollute the earth. Making coffins and headstones consumes considerable amounts of energy.
Clare’s funeral won’t be totally eco-friendly. Her coffin is made of water hyacinth leaves produced by a certified fair-trade grower in Bangladesh, so I guess will rack up a fair amount of coffin miles. We will travel to the cemetery in petrol-powered vehicles. But in other respects, it will be impeccably green. Her body hasn’t been embalmed, the coffin is 100 per cent biodegradable and a woodland grave will quickly turn her into compost. She had excellent teeth, so mercury pollution won’t be a problem.
As well as being eye-wateringly expensive (my eyes have been doing a lot of watering lately), woodland burials are also in short supply. We are lucky our cemetery has a woodland plot; not all do.
Indeed, a shortage of burial plots of any kind is becoming a serious problem. In a 2019 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, John Ashton warned that England and Wales’s graveyards and cemeteries are filling up. With 100,000 burials annually, there will probably be no room in a few years.
One solution, according to Ashton, is to take inspiration from the Victorians, who responded to similar pressures on churchyards by creating large urban cemeteries, including London’s so-called magnificent seven. These have served us well, but are almost full. The modern equivalent, says Ashton, is to develop green burial corridors alongside roads, railways and footpaths. I am not sure I would want my loved ones buried by a major road, but if it increases the availability and affordability of eco-burials, I am for it.
I mentioned that we had three sons together. The first of them died at a very young age and is also buried in the same cemetery. I take a little bit of comfort from the fact he is going to be reunited with his mum and that I can visit their graves at the same time.
As for other silver linings, I got a BOGOF deal on the plot and will one day have my own eco-funeral and be buried alongside Clare. Farewell my love, we will be reunited in the woods one day.
What I’m reading
A friend bought me a copy of The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which she says I will find comfort in.
What I’m watching
I am oddly drawn to police procedurals about brooding detectives with unorthodox methods and a dark past. Ridley is good.
What I’m working on
Getting back to work.
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