Creating a more environmentally friendly resting place

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7 February 2022

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Green burials, biodegradable coffins and other innovations can help make a final resting place more environmentally friendly.

It’s the last choice you will make, and your final chance to take action for the environment. While it’s a very personal subject, and money, personal preference and cultural considerations will come into decisions around death, there are a number of options for greening up your funeral plans.

Cremation innovations

Around 70 percent of New Zealanders are cremated, and it is an important practice in some religions. Unfortunately the current process is very carbon-intensive, requiring fuel and emitting pollutants. A more sustainable method is being practised in some countries, including parts of Australia, the USA and Canada, and advocates at Water Cremation Aotearoa are hoping this method will be legal here soon. Also known as alkaline hydrolysis or resomation, water cremation involves dissolving a body inside a stainless steel machine in a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water, leaving only porous bones and waste water. Bones can be crushed and provided to family, and waste water can be put on forests or sent to treatment plants if laws allow. The process is said to use seven to 10 times less energy than conventional burial or cremation respectively, and to release no toxic emissions. With cemeteries running out of space, and draft updated legislation of the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 due later this year, this more eco-friendly option could be available in the near future.

Natural burials

Natural or green burials are becoming increasingly popular, with a growing number of cemeteries in New Zealand offering them. They’re not a new concept, with variations having been practised by a number of cultures throughout history, including Māori, whose traditions included burying tūpāpaku (bodies) in the earth, caves, sand dunes or hollow trees.

For a natural burial, coffins or shrouds, and any clothing or personal belongings buried alongside, must be biodegradable, and embalming fluid is not to be used as it will leach into the soil. Bodies are buried around 800mm below the surface to encourage faster decomposition. There are no concrete vaults or headstones, just a simple wooden marker and a native tree planted on the site. Eventually gravesites will return to native bush.

See naturalburials.co.nz for more information.

Embalming alternatives

Embalming is actually not essential, unless you need to delay a funeral or have other circumstances which would require it. Forgoing embalming can be a way to eliminate the use of chemicals, including formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen. Instead of embalming, some funeral homes use air conditioning and refrigeration, or if the person is at home, it is recommended to use ice packs, dry ice or cooling blankets. The Natural Funeral Company in Auckland says it is able to take care of a body naturally for a week or more, by bathing it with essential oils and restorative creams, and cooling with ice.

Simple shrouds and coffins

Biodegradable coffin options are made from materials such as cardboard, untreated wood, willow, flax and wool, with water-based glues and natural linings and handles used. Outside the Box Caskets makes cardboard coffins locally with jute handles. These can be personalised, with the option for loved ones to draw on the coffin.

Cotton, silk, linen or woolen shrouds, sheets or blankets are another option. Shrouds are used in Judaism and Islam, which have long favoured a more natural way of burial, with embalming and cremation prohibited.

Harakeke (flax) mats have been used by Māori for wrapping tūpāpaku in the past and some funeral companies and individuals have been promoting a return to this practice, as well as reverting to more natural ways of caring for the dead which eliminate the need for embalming.

Donating to science

Rather than be buried or cremated, another option is to donate your body to science, if it fits with your personal or religious beliefs. The University of Auckland and University of Otago accept bodies for research, teaching and scientific studies. Bodies still need to be embalmed and eventually cremated, however. Organ and skin donation is another option, and the body is still able to be buried or cremated after this.

Returning to earth

While not available in New Zealand yet, human composting is legal in a small number of US states. Recompose in Seattle was the first company in the world to begin composting bodies in a special facility last year. Placed in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, straw and other plant material for 30 days, the body breaks down into soil, which can be given to families or donated to a forest. The process uses one eighth of the energy of cremation.

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